For serious students of French, purchasing one’s first Petit Robert is a rite of passage. The hefty dictionary, with its instantly recognizable blue, white and red dust jacket, practically oozes authority. Owning one is like joining a very special club.
This year, the Petit Robert celebrates its 40th birthday, and it’s as relevant and up-to-date as ever. For that we can thank Alain Rey, the renowned linguist and lexicographer who helped conceive the publication and has been its editorial director ever since.
Rey, 79, came to Editions Paul Robert through a classified ad that he saw while completing his military service in Algeria. His degrees in political science and art history got him the job, and he was soon collaborating on the highly acclaimed Dictionnaire alphabétique et analogique de la langue française. His love of words led him to love tout court—in 1953, he married a young woman on his team, Josette Debove. Together they compiled the first Robert, a six-volume dictionary published in 1964, followed three years later by the Petit Robert.
Independent and erudite, Rey became a nationally recognized figure almost in spite of himself. In 2005, the culture minister awarded him the rank of commander in the Order of Arts and Letters. In addition to a new edition of the Petit Robert, Rey recently published L’Amour du français, contre les puristes et autres censeurs de la langue (Denoël, 2007) as well as Lexik des cités (Fleuve noir, 2007), a dictionary that pays tribute to the inventive language of young people from troubled neighborhoods.
France Magazine recently spoke with Alain Rey about his views on the French language and the enduring popularity of the Petit Robert.
The Petit Robert just turned 40. How has it remained modern?
In 1967, there were hardly any one-volume dictionaries on the market. Their content was encyclopedic, without much information on the language itself. So when the Petit Robert came out, it was something very new. It included the conventional meanings of words, complete with examples from great authors, but it also featured everyday, familiar terms.
Indeed, by then it had become impossible to ignore everyday language. Writers had begun using it freely, and conversation was full of slang. We were also determined to be modern in the citations we chose to illustrate words: Molière rubbed shoulders with Raymond Queneau. It wasn’t just by chance that this dictionary came out right before the French revolution of 1968! Readers recognized their era in the Petit Robert. I hope they still do today.
Unlike encyclopedias, our dictionary evolves along with changes in the world. It doesn’t present a language set in stone. I’m always fighting the ideology of a certain elite that attempts to impose a superior, immutable standard on French. The fact is, languages incorporate many changing usages that are more or less legitimate. No one has the right to judge them as “good” or “bad.” In this regard, you could say that the Petit Robert is in a state of perpetual revolution.
More than 400 words were added to the 2007 edition of the Petit Robert. How were they selected?
First, we try to read everything that’s written in French, from online literature to mail-order catalogues, which wonderfully reflect contemporary lifestyles. We choose a few words, and they are then submitted to the editorial committee, whose members I appoint. Our discussions always end in a vote, and the majority rules. Unlike the Dictionnaire de l’Académie Française, the Petit Robert doesn’t try to impose a rigorous standard that will be valid for the next 50 years. We want foreigners living in France to be able to find most of the words they hear every day in our dictionary. It’s one of the criteria we consider before accepting a new term.
Is that why the Petit Robert is so popular among foreign students of French?
Most likely. But there’s another reason: The Petit Robert was the first monolingual dictionary that transcribed the pronunciation of all words phonetically. That extra information—essential to non-French-speaking readers—helped establish our dictionary as an important tool for learning French as a foreign language. And that gave the Petit Robert—which was considered literary—an edge over the Larousse, which was more for daily and home use.
Purists get angry when they see verlan—reverse slang—in your dictionary.
Those same purists are probably unaware of how the French language was formed. This single-minded quest for “purity” dates back to only the 17th century, when Cardinal Richelieu created the Académie Française to control the language. Before that, French was bursting out in all directions, as the linguistic inventiveness of Rabelais demonstrates. We still refuse to acknowledge that French grew out of a tangle of dialects. In the beginning, it was a sort of Latin Creole. By championing the so-called purity of the language, you end up impoverishing it. A number of verlan words have made it into common usage. They couldn’t be kept out of our dictionary much longer. We treated those terms as simple, familiar words. A few examples, to irritate the purists, are meuf (verlan for femme, meaning a young girl) and ripou (verlan for pourri, or rotten, indicting someone who is corrupt).
And you have no problem introducing certain foreign words into the Petit Robert.
There’s nothing new about that—French itself was formed by borrowing from other languages. Many of the 400 new words that were included in the dictionary this year came from abroad: “pop up”; “qi gong” (from Chinese: a discipline based on the freeing-up of vital energy); “riad” (from Arabic: a dwelling constructed around an inner garden)….
Travel and the internationalization of information are making the world a smaller place and making languages more porous. I don’t view that as a threat: People are being drawn closer together through words that have become universal. Most of the words from abroad still come from English, but more and more are now coming from Italian, Arabic, Spanish and even German, Japanese and Russian. The prestige of the United States, its economic power and technological prowess foster the use of English words—especially when you think about the rapid flow of information, which doesn’t always give the French press time to look for equivalents. Government committees regularly attempt to combat anglicisms. There have been a few successes (ordinateur instead of “computer”); some partial successes (courriel instead of “e-mail”); and failures (baladeur instead of “walk-man”). Paradoxically, the Québécois, who are heavily exposed to imported English words, show great creativity in replacing anglicisms. They’re the ones who came up with courriel.
So you don’t see English as a threat to the French language?
The French love to dramatize the challenges facing their language, which they consider almost exclusively from an aesthetic standpoint—a little like the Italians do. The English and Americans, on the other hand, view words more pragmatically—they are tools for conveying reality. It’s nonsense to see English as a threat, because it itself was influenced by French. The two languages are more connected than people realize. In the 13th century, for example, nearly half of all English words had French origins. Likewise, the earliest modern French grammar books appeared in England.
Further evidence of that proximity is that Shakespeare didn’t think twice about writing passages in French, as you can see in Henry V. That influence reversed itself in the 18th century, notably because of English philosophers such as David Hume and physicists such as Isaac Newton, who exerted such a powerful influence on their age. But why should we worry about a “threat” when we see the creativity that results when the two languages come together? French has in fact appropriated English terms: relooker (to give a new look), flashant (making a big impression), débriefer (to question in detail)....
But here’s another example: English engineers used the French word tonnelle—a circular structure supporting climbing plants—to mean a subterranean passage; the French then reintegrated the term “tunnel” into their vocabulary. It’s a ping-pong match of great linguistic richness. French and English have been playing this game for nearly a thousand years.