First, I have to note that it’s six years today since I pressed the ‘go live’ button on this blog. Since then, I’ve published 496 posts, made a lot of virtual friends and had a ball researching into French life, history and culture. A big thank you to my readers for following, commenting and sharing your experiences and words of wisdom. What better way to mark the anniversary than with a look at changes to the spelling of some French words that have caused such controversy recently?
I’ll preface this by recalling how bad my French was when we first moved here in 1997, although I had learned it at school for years. I owe a lot to Dominique Renault, to whom I went for group French lessons for several years. The fact that I am now pretty fluent in the language is in large measure thanks to her – to the point where I reached the regional finals of a French national grammar competition in 2011.
Not so recent changes
A lot of column inches have recently been expended on changes to French spelling that were intended to simplify things for schoolchildren. In fact, these changes – to which I’ll come in a moment – are not a recent innovation. They were actually approved in 1990 and came into force in 2008. It’s only from September 2016 that publishers will all include them in French language textbooks.
So, what are these alterations and what difference will they make? Around 2,400 words are affected. For example:
- The ‘i’ in ‘oignon’ (onion) will disappear, since it’s not pronounced anyway.
- It will no longer be necessary to use the circumflex above the letters ‘u’ or ‘i’. There are exceptions, for example to distinguish between tenses or where two words with different meanings could be confused (du/dû, mur/mûr, sur/sûr). The circumflex above ‘a’, ‘e’ and ‘o’ will remain, as in château, tête and hôtel.
- The hyphen will be removed from certain words, such as porte-monnaie (purse) and week-end.
It’s worth pointing out that no one will be penalised for continuing to use the old spellings.
Naturally, this has caused considerable controversy in some quarters, despite the fact that l’Académie française, the custodian of the French language, approved the changes 25 years ago following the work of a special commission.
I actually think that the energy expended on this debate is misdirected. Languages change and evolve and the French language should be no exception. In fact, playing Devil’s advocate, if the aim was simplification, why didn’t they go the whole hog and remove all the accents? Or remove other letters that are not pronounced, such as ‘-ent’ in the third-person plural of many regular verbs?
Naturally, care needs to be taken to ensure that the changes don’t introduce confusion into the meanings of words or their pronunciation. And equal care needs to be taken not to debase the language that encompasses some of the world’s great literature: but I don’t think that has a lot to do with whether a word has an accent on it or not.
So I can’t help feeling that arguing about tinkering with a few words here and there is missing the point. It’s not going to alter the fundamental complexity and difficulty of the French language. In the end, that is less about how words are spelt and more about grammar, syntax and linguistic precision. Mastering those is the key in my opinion – and that is far more significant to those of us who are not French in terms of learning the language.
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