What Difference Will French Spelling Changes Make?

Sunflowers

Sunflowers

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.

Controversial move

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.

You might also like:

Found(ering) in Translation
My French isn’t that bad, then
Exams French style
French Test or Testing French

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About nessafrance

My husband and I moved to an 18th-century farmhouse in SW France in 1997. I am fascinated by French history, rural traditions and customs and enjoy seeking out the reality behind the myths. I run my own copywriting business and write short stories and the occasional novel in my spare time. My husband appears here as the SF, which stands for Statistics Freak, owing to his penchant for recording numbers about everything.
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11 Responses to What Difference Will French Spelling Changes Make?

  1. Oh, i so agree with that last comment, vanessa. I can get by in written and spoken french (running a gite meant a quick and steep learning curve) but i can still be tripped up in pronunciation, that cursed ‘u’ sound, and leave my friends waiting for the end of my sentence to know if i am talking about my mouth or the log on the fire. I once read that shaping your mouth as if to whistle and trying to say eeee will do the trick but in full french flow with so many things to worry about who has time to remember? Not me, not yet! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • nessafrance says:

      Yes, pronunciation is one of my bugbears. We were not taught at school how French words should be pronounced (and the rules are clearer than they are for English, which has few rules). I have been here for nearly 19 years but, as soon as I open my mouth, my accent and pronunciation give me away. I have given up the dream of sounding like a French person!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Anthony Thorpe says:

    Samuel Johnson took a poke at those who think a language can be preserved from change in his Preface to his 1755 Dictionary: ‘When we see men grow old and die at a certain time one after another…we laugh at the elixir that promises to prolong life to a thousand years; and with equal justice may the lexicographer be derided, who being able to produce no example of a nation that has preserved their words and phrases from mutability, shall imagine that his dictionary can embalm his language, and secure it from corruption and decay.’ Was this referring to Académie Française, maybe? It’s interesting how long it has taken for these changes to happen.

    Liked by 1 person

    • nessafrance says:

      One can always rely upon Dr J for a bon mot. I don’t think languages should be preserved in aspic: they have to change and adapt. Look at the differences between Chaucerian and present-day English, for example. At least the Académie Française approved the changes but it’s tinkering around the edges rather than taking a comprehensive look at the issues.

      Like

  3. Congratulations – six years of blogging is very impressive!! As for the spelling, no doubt the spell checkers on the computers will get thoroughly confused, and in a few years time nobody will really know what the correct spelling is/was/should be. I learnt all my French orally, so I have no idea about accents in the first place, but I manage to get by 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    • nessafrance says:

      I didn’t expect to continue this long when I started the blog – although I’m not sure what I did expect in retrospect! There’s always something to say, though.

      The different ways in which people learn a language are interesting. Unlike you, my training in French was anything but oral, which is why I spoke it so badly when we arrived. I had the grammar, the spelling, etc. and was pretty good on the accents, but found it hard to put two words together. I think the trend is towards simplification in language and, as you say, in a few years’ time this issue will be forgotten.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Osyth says:

    I’m with you overall – it’s a lot of hot air and doesn’t attack the heart of the language. Whether there is any point to it I am not at all certain. As you know I am still at Vache Espagnole stage with my French but you do give me hope that by the time I am ready to push up the daisy’s I might be fluent 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • nessafrance says:

      It sounds to me as if you are well beyond the Vache Espagnole stage. I think tinkering with French spelling is like shifting the deckchairs on the Titanic. The more important thing is to teach both children and non-French speakers the language as it is spoken. And a deep understanding of the grammar and syntax. Then let’s worry about whether you should have a circumflex or not.

      Liked by 2 people

  5. MarinaSofia says:

    It seems I am on the losing side of any language I learn: Romanian, German and now French have all had orthographic reform since I learnt them and I’m so used to spelling things in the old way that I find it hard to focus and change. On the other hand, English (which is a diabolical language to spell) has not had a spelling reform.

    Liked by 1 person

    • nessafrance says:

      English is certainly long overdue for a makeover. The problem there is mainly one of pronunciation: though, through, bough, thought, etc. I don’t know how non-native English speakers manage. En revanche, you can mangle English and people can still get the gist of your meaning. That’s much less likely in French – I know from personal experience. Hence my argument that focusing on spelling and accents in French is missing the point.

      Like

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