May 14, 2020

Tracing Covid’s imprint on French language and bookstores


The Académie Française

A few short weeks that feel like a lifetime ago, we discussed the impact of the Covid-19 outbreak on the English language by charting the immediate, unscheduled additions to the Oxford English Dictionary during the pandemic.

Today we turn our attention to the French language, the keepers of which have also been scratching their heads about how to accommodate our newest most-used words.

As Kim Willsher writes for the Guardian of those language keepers and their recent work:

The Académie Française, guardians of the French language, have said a big non to le covid. Not the actual disease, but the use of the masculine definitive article “le”.

While many in France have been referring to “le Covid”, the so-called “Immortals” who make up the academy have ruled otherwise. Covid, they insist is most definitely feminine.

The ruling here is that “Covid” is an acronym built around the core phrase “coronavirus disease,” and it is that core phrase to which the feminine article should apply. It’s something like the logic that dictates how the acronym “GIF” should be pronounced with a hard “G”—because the first word of the core phrase is “Graphic”—not with the soft “G” because you were raised by wolves.

The scholarly debate could not come at a better time, as France’s bookstores were allowed to open to masked and sanitized knowledge seekers on Monday. But the return to normal will be slow.

As Michaela Cabrera writes of the reemergence for Reuters:

France has jealously protected its cultural life and institutions for decades. The French notion of ‘l’exception culturelle’ means more than cultural exceptionalism – it points to the belief that national culture should be shielded from free-market forces.

Subsidies, quotas, income support and tax breaks help prop up French music, cinema and literature. It also has a law which prevents bookstores slashing prices in order to protect writers.

Even so, margins are tight.

Indeed, despite the institutional support for publishing and bookselling enjoyed in France their literary future is as uncertain as our own, with narrow margins made narrower by reduced browsing, resulting in slim profits that likely won’t quite cover loan payments.

So while Parisians can suit up and help keep their local bookstores afloat, they should cool it for a second with all the drinking by the Seine.



Ryan Harrington is a senior editor at Melville House.