French language reform becomes a cause célèbre

Paris Letter: Attempt to change the spelling of some words stirs a social media storm

Children write on the blackboard in a Marseille school. File photograph: Boris Horvat/AFP/Getty Images

Children write on the blackboard in a Marseille school. File photograph: Boris Horvat/AFP/Getty Images

 

I doubt the bloggers and tweeters who are railing over the latest assault on French know what February 14th is. 

Valentine’s Day? Good try. It’s the anniversary of the Oaths of Strasbourg, the birth date of the French language. 

On February 14th, 842, Charlemagne’s grandsons, Charles the Bald and Louis the German, ganged up on their brother Lothair.

Charles spoke a romance language derived from medieval Latin; Louis a Germanic dialect.

Their highly political oaths are considered the birth certificate of the French language. 

Contemporary French bears little resemblance to those 1,174-year-old parchments.

In 1694, the temple of the French language, the Académie francaise, published its first dictionary. Scarcely a line is spelled as it would be today.

So why has a modest attempt at updating the spelling of French turned into a cause célèbre?

Then socialist prime minister Michel Rocard created the “High Council of the French Language” in 1989, with a mandate to modernise the spelling of French words.

The council’s recommendations were published in the journal officiel in December 1990 and approved by the Académie francaise in 1991.

As often happens with reform in France, the text went into mothballs.

The ministry of education reissued the report in 2008, to general indifference.

It went unnoticed again last autumn. But the news this month that school manuals will incorporate changes to the spelling of 2,400 words next autumn ignited passions.

It’s ironic that the spelling flap is propagated by social media, which daily perpetrate countless outrages against the French and English languages. 

I’m not upset about the transformation of oignon (onion) to ognon, or that nénuphar is returning to nénufar.

(The Persian word was changed in 1935 to make it closer to nymphéa, which also means water lily.)

But I admit a certain sympathy for protesters who tweet under the hashtag #JeSuisCirconflexe, an expression of solidarity with the accent, and an echo of the “Je Suis Charlie” slogan that followed the January 2015 jihadist attacks.

The circumflex will be removed from the letters “i” and “u”. 

The endearing tent or hat-shaped mark denotes the “s” that followed vowels in old French.

It’s a reminder that the 1066 Norman conquest made cousins of the English and French languages.

Without her circumflex, maîtresse will distance herself from “mistress” and coût will less resemble “cost”.

Like an ageing woman who Botoxes her wrinkles, French will lose something of her character.

But as the satirical Canard enchaîné weekly noted, the letter “o” will retain its circumflex. “Hard luck”, the Canard tweeted. 

“The accent will remain on chômage [unemployment].”

Like everything else in France, the spelling row became a political football. Right-wing politicians conflated it with cutting Greek and Latin from school curriculums.

Florian Philippot, the vice-president of the extreme right-wing National Front, proclaimed, “the French language is our soul”. 

The spelling reform “plays to the lowest common denominator”, said Bruno Le Maire of Les Républicains party.

“The idea is: they can’t spell, so we’ll lower our standards to make it easier for them.”

One of the most virulent charges came from François Bayrou, a centre-right politician and former minister of education.

“The government apparently doesn’t have enough to do, with unemployment, deficits, the bottomless pit of social spending and our country’s malaise,” he wrote in Le Journal du Dimanche.

“They found it urgent and useful to sneakily revive a dispute we thought extinguished for the last quarter century.”

Reform

The ministry of education and the Académie francaise issued statements absolving themselves of responsibility.

The reform involves only three to four per cent of the 59,000 entries in the ninth edition of its dictionary, now in the course of publication, the Academy noted.

The “immortals” offered the most valid criticism of the reform: that spelling adjustments should be made ex post facto, in recognition of a language’s evolution, not imposed in an authoritarian manner.

The episode highlights elements of French national character: the desire to regulate every facet of life and language, combined with fierce resistance to change; the fact that it has taken 26 years to carry out a reform that was ordered by a prime minister; the capriciousness of Academicians who approved the changes and now oppose them.

But at the end of the day, it has been a salutary reminder that the language founded by Charles the Bald and Louis the German is a thing of great beauty, a national monument, a mental country in which the French and Francophones the world over have found refuge for nearly 1,200 years. 

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