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Phrench phury at spelling rephorms

Feb 04 in Grammar and usage, Language, News

The Académie Française: you can blame this lot.

How many hours of my life have I spent – first as a language student and then as a professional linguist – tediously flipping through dictionaries and grammar books looking up arcane accents and idiosyncratic spellings in French? It’s a rhetorical question, obviously. However, if I were able to put a precise figure on my time investment, I might be even more irritated than I currently am that so many of those hours were apparently wasted.

I refer, of course, to the news that France is finally taking the plunge and officially adopting the spelling reforms its Académie Française announced back in 1990, but didn’t have the guts to go ahead and enforce on the spot because of the inevitable poo-storm of protest that followed. Well, this time it’s really happening… or is it?

Not if the Gallic general public have anything to do with it, it seems. The 2,400 changes will be mandatory in all new public-sector publications (including school books), but are unpopular because they’re widely perceived as a “dumbing down” of the language which expunges much of its archaeic beauty. One reform is the removal of many circumflex accents (the ones that look like ^), which don’t actually affect pronunciation and have been confusing French people for years. Not all of them, though: that would be too easy. Words like disparaître and coût will lose theirs, but words like hôtel and sûr won’t. Got that? Good.

There are a few other prominent themes among the changes, including the replacement of many “ph” spellings with “f” (e.g. nénuphar->nénufar, but ironically not in orthographe, which means “spelling”), and the axing of hyphens in words like week-end and porte-monnaie, each of which will become one single word. Oh, and the pockmarked poster child of the entire reform seems to be the humble onion, which changes from oignon to the unlovable ognon. It’s enough to bring tears to your eyes.

So will the changes stick? Predictably, a #JeSuisCirconflexe campaign has started – and one teacher has already summed up a nation’s dismay with the perfectly reasonable statement, “It seems complicated for teachers to teach the new spellings, given that they aren’t generally accepted in the world of business, or in everyday life.” That’s probably a no, then – at least in the short term.

I’m sure I’ll have more to say about this when my own initial outrage has abated, but for now I’m firmly with the teacher. I had to learn those silly accents the hard way – so why should French people get off lightly now?


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