Officially, "The primary function of the Académie will be to work, with all possible care and diligence, to give our language definite rules and to make it pure, eloquent, and capable of dealing with art and science." - Article 24
(La principale fonction de l'Académie sera de travailler, avec tout le soin et toute la diligence possibles, à donner des règles certaines à notre langue et à la rendre pure, éloquente et capable de traiter les arts et les sciences.)
The Académie fulfills this mission by publishing an official dictionary and by working with French terminological committees and other specialized organizations. Strangely, the dictionary is not sold to the general public, so the Académie's work must be incorporated into society by the creation of laws and regulations by the above-mentioned organizations. Perhaps the most notorious example of this occurred when the Académie chose the official translation of "email." Obviously, this is all done with the expectation that French speakers will take these new regulations into consideration, and in this way, a common linguistic heritage can theoretically be maintained among French speakers around the world. In reality, this is not always the case.
History, Evolution, and MembershipThe Académie française was created by Cardinal Richelieu under Louis XIII in 1635, and the first Dictionnaire de l'Académie française was published in 1694 with 18,000 terms. The most recent complete edition - the 8th - was finished in 1935 and contains 35,000 words. The next edition is currently underway - volumes I and II were published in 1992 and 2000, respectively, and between them cover A to Mappemonde. When complete, the 9th edition of the Académie's dictionary will include approximately 60,000 words. It's important to note that this is not a definitive dictionary, as it generally excludes archaic, offensive, slang, specialized, and regional vocabulary.
The secondary mission of the Académie française is that of linguistic and literary patronage. This was not part of the original purpose of l'Académie, but thanks to grants and bequests, the Académie now offers about 70 literary prizes per year. It also awards scholarships and subsidies to literary and scientific societies, charities, large families, widows, underprivileged persons, and those who have distinguished themselves by courageous acts.
Essentially a linguistic jury, the Académie française is a group of 40 peer-elected members, commonly known as « les Immortels » or « les Quarante ». Being chosen as an Immortel is considered a supreme honor and, except in extreme cases, is a life-long commitment.
Since the creation of l'Académie française, there have been more than 700 Immortels, chosen for their creativity, talent, intelligence, and of course particular linguistic adeptness. This range of authors, poets, theater people, philosophers, doctors, scientists, ethnologists, art critics, soldiers, statesmen, and churchmen assembles at l'Académie into a unique group of people who make decisions on how French words should be used by analyzing how they actually are, creating new terms, and determining the beneficiaries of the various awards, scholarships and subsidies.
In October 2011, the Académie launched an interactive feature called Dire, Ne pas dire on their website in the hopes of bringing pure French to the cybermasses.