Circumflex: Uproar over France's decision to implement 26-year-old reform of spelling rules

The accent is on caution in Education Ministry’s new guide for text books

John Lichfield
Thursday 04 February 2016 23:22
The proposed change would affect more than 2,000 french words
The proposed change would affect more than 2,000 french words

In future the French can go for a picnic, not a pique-nique. While doing so, they can choose to eat an ognon, not an oignon.

And if they write a postcard – or more likely send a text message – they don’t need to place quite as many little hats on their “i’s” and “u’s” as they once did.

A decision to implement a 26-year-old, very modest and non-compulsory reform of the spelling rules of the French language has caused an uproar in France.

The circumflex – the accent which looks like an old Chinese hat – was being abolished! By edict of the education ministry, the spelling of hundreds of words was being changed overnight!

Little of this, it turned out, was true. The circumflex will remain on its most common habitat, the “e” and the “a”. It can however, in some words, be left off an “i” or a “u”.

A few words such as picnic and ognon will have these simpler alternative spellings, but the old ones will also remain acceptable. A total of 2,400 words are affected.

All of this was agreed by the Académie Française, the 350-year-old watch-dog of the French language, in 1990. For reasons no one can quite explain, publishers have now included them in school text books for the first time.

Why the outrage? It began with a perfectly accurate story on the website of the French television station, TF1. By the time that it had been spun and woven by social media, the circumflex was to be “abolished” overnight. Slogans appeared on Twitter and Facebook which proclaimed “Je suis circumflex” instead of “Je suis Charlie”.

The right-wing student union UNI put out a statement attacking its favourite target, the Socialist education minister Najat Vallaud-Belkacem. “She,” the union fulminated “thinks she has the right to overturn the spelling rules of the French language.”

The UNI managed, however, to make a spelling mistake in its declaration – thus unintentionally supporting its assertion that French educational standards have gone to the chiens.

The Education Ministry was perplexed. We have said or done nothing, they said. It is simply a question of publishers catching up with very old, recommended changes, which are already applied in Belgium and Switzerland.

The variant spellings were approved by the Académie in 1990 in an attempt to make the French language easier for foreigners.

Thus in brief:

The circumflex can indicate where a word once contained a silent “s” but can also alter the pronunciation of a vowel. Now it is no longer obligatory in some words which contain a “u” or an “i”. Coût (cost) may henceforth be spelled cout. Paraître (to appear) can be spelled paraitre.

On the other hand, the word dû, the past participle of the verb devoir (to have to do something) will remain “dû” to distinguish it from the preposition du. The adjective mûr (ripe) must always wear its hat to distinguish it from the noun mur (wall).

All perfectly clear?

Flexible language: Possible changes

Before Oignon, Nénuphar, Extra-terrestre, Pique-nique, Evénement, Chariot, Coût, Paraître, Porte-monnaie

After Ognon, Nénufar, Extraterrestre, Picnic, Evènement, Charriot, Cout, Paraitre, Portemonnaie

English Onion, Lily-pad, Extra-terrestrial, Picnic, Event, Chariot, Cost, To Appear, Wallet

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