An Onion without an I – The French Spelling Reform

Posted on 04. Feb, 2016 by in Culture, Grammar, History, News, Vocabulary

Image courtesy of Estelle Mollaret.

Image courtesy of Estelle Mollaret.

Anyone who has heard French can tell you it’s a beautiful language. Anyone who has written French can tell you it’s freaking difficult at times. Yes, those lovely sounds are accompanied by a complicated spelling system filled with silent endings, stem-changing verbs, hyphenation, elision, and doubled letters – and, of course, there are exceptions to those. Even native speakers have trouble spelling in their own language, so l’Académe française stepped in.

L’Académie française was formally founded on February 22, 1635 by Cardinal Richelieu, the chief minister to King Louis XIII. The group, originally composed of 9 members, was to establish official rules for the French language. According to patent letters registered at the Parlement of Paris, the Academy’s role was created to « travailler avec tout le soin et toute la diligence possibles à donner des règles certaines à notre langue et à la rendre pure, éloquente et capable de traiter les arts et les sciences » (to work with all the care and diligence possible to give exact rules to our language and make it pure and capable of treating the arts and sciences).

The Academy was removed during the French Revolution, but was reestablished in 1803 under Napoléon Bonaparte. They’re still active today and try their best to preserve the language. That being said, they hold no official power and only make suggestions, often based on how the language is being used. This week, they’re back in the news for something they wrote 26 years ago. In 1990, the Academy wrote a list of spelling changes aimed at simplifying the language. Approuvée à l’unanimité (unanimously approved), cette réforme orthographique (this spelling reform) was…pretty much ignored. The report says that the traditional spelling methods are still considered correct, but there has been no real push to establish these new spelling rules until now.

It was announced on Wednesday that for la rentrée 2016 (back to school), the new rules would be taken into effect, and that textbooks and manuals are currently being rewritten. In addition to simplifying ‘complicated’ words such as oignon (onion) and nénuphar (lily pad), désormais ognon et nénufar (from now on ognon and nénufar), what kind of changes can students expect this fall?


First and foremost: no more circumflex accent on the letters I and U! L’accent circonflexe in French can be found over the letters A, E, I, O and U. It has 2 roles: one is to show that an -s used to be in the word in older versions of the French language. For example, forêt was forest and hôpital was hospital (and now you know who we borrowed those words from!). The other role is to distinguish between two homographs – du (contraction of de + le) and (past participle of devoir), for example.

Au revoir, s’entraîner and maîtresse !

The report does say that the accent will still be required on jeûne, , mûr et sûr, as they all have counterparts written without the accent. Another exception is that the accents in 1st and 2nd person plural (nous and vous) in le passé simple will stay: nous vîmes, vous lûtes, etc.


Un trait d’union (a hyphen) is a tiny mark, but it’s changing as well.

Before the 1990 reform, numbers didn’t include hyphens. For example, 21 in French was written as vingt et un. The proposed hyphenated version is vingt-et-un. When I started learning French, I was taught to use the hyphens, so this isn’t necessarily new to everyone.

Hyphens also play a role in both foreign and compound words. Do you know the words for weekend and babysitter in French? It’s very easy: un week-end and un baby-sitter. According to the new rules, you can drop the hyphen: un weekend and un babysitter.

Certains noms composés (some compound nouns) can be composed of a verb conjugated in 3rd person singular plus a hyphen and an object. You can read all about that here. The 1990 reform proposes removing the hyphen. Au revoir, porte-monnaie and tire-bouchon, and bienvenue, portemonnaie and tirebouchon !


Have you ever hesitated before pluralizing a loan word in French? C’est un gentleman, but ce sont des…gentlemen ? Being so used to pluralizing in your own language can cause some transference errors, but the reform makes it easy: just add -s! Ces sandwichs, les matchs, des maximums… Might make you wince reading them if you’re a native English speaker, but this isn’t English 😉

Back to compound nouns: pluralizing them isn’t difficult, but there are a few rules to follow. Certain terms such un ouvre-boîte (can opener) are varied in their usage: some people put an -s on the singular and others don’t. The problem is that it doesn’t distinguish between can opener or can openers. To rectify this situation, l’Academie made it simple: no -s on the singular, and an -s on the plural.


So, is everyone rejoicing at this spelling simplification? The answer is a big fat collective NO! After the announcement was made on Tuesday, defenders of the circumflex took to social media to express their feelings. #JeSuisCirconflexe, a hashtag modeled after the #JeSuisCharlie tag from a few years earlier, began trending.

Here are some of my favorite bits I’ve seen in response to the announcement:

Image courtesy of TwOlverine.

Image courtesy of TwOlverine.

2023: truc qui fait pleurer (the thing that makes you cry)


Image courtesy of Le Chien Maigre.

Image courtesy of Le Chien Maigre.

How do you make a ^ on your iPhone?
You have to hold down on the “e.”
I can’t do it.
Me neither.
Let’s remove it.

What do you think of the reform?

Do You Feel Like A Million Bucks? – Money and Slang

Posted on 03. Feb, 2016 by in Vocabulary

Photo by Mario Antonio Pena Zapatería on Flickr. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

Photo by Mario Antonio Pena Zapatería on Flickr. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

There are countless words and expressions that people use every day without realizing how they do not make much sense.  L’argot (slang) is an important part of every language, but one that is unfortunately hard to find in many textbooks.

Figuring out how exactly to say one million can be hard enough before trying to find a good equivalent to the expression, “to feel like a million bucks“:

Péter la forme
Péter le feu
Avoir une pêche d’enfer

Litteral Translation:
To fart the form

To fart fire
To have a hell peach

It can be surprising how different expressions are from one language to another and how useless knowing the litteral translation is. Of course, while péter can mean to fart, it also means to burst or to pop, and the above could also mean “to burst with energy” and “to burst with fire” (merci Claire !).

Like in the example expression, “To feel like a million bucks“, there is a lot of argot for l’argent (money). Sometimes it’s easy to understand, as in ten grand, but it can be bit harder to understand, par exemple, 50 bucks.

In French, everything became more confusing with l’introduction de l’euro. Some terms were more used when le franc was the currency, and while a few have held over into modern times, especially in older generations, many of them are less used now.

Mais d’abord, une petite histoire (but first a short story):

I was talking about le loyer (the rent) and how expensive it is à Paris when mon ami (my friend) used a word I had never heard before:

Ouais, ça peut coûter plus de 700 (sept-cents) balles par mois.
700 balles ?
Ouais…. Euh… 700 euros.

Yeah, it can cost more than 700 bucks a month.
700 bucks?
Yeah… Uh… 700 Euros.

I figured out that une balle meant a euro when referring to money, and soon had a similar conversation that led to me learning that le sou also refers to money in a general sense, but more often to les centimes (cents, money less than one dollar).

Similar to how in the US bucks are used for dollars, and quid is used as l’argot for pounds in the UK, au Québec they have un mot différent (a different word) for their money.


I first learned about this argot from a Bernard Adamus song, one of my favorite francophone musicians. He sings in a very thick accent québécois and uses a ton of argot that people in France would not understand, but it’s still a fun song that uses the unique Canadian word:

La question à cent piasses

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Gad Elmaleh…à New York!

Posted on 01. Feb, 2016 by in Uncategorized

Gad Elmaleh at Théatre Marigny, Courtesy of Sebastien Camelot

Gad Elmaleh at Théatre Marigny, Courtesy of Sebastien Camelot

Mon mari a très hâte de voir son comédien préféré à New York, où il est en tournée jusqu’à juin.

My husband is very excited to see his favorite comedian  in New York, where he is performing until June.

Gad Elmaleh is a star in French, where he is known not only as one of Europe’s most famous stand-up comics, but also as one of its film stars. But, this year, Elmaleh has decided to take a leap and spend the year performing at Joe’s Pub in New York for the better part of the year…in English! The best part: He’s doing a couple of shows a week and tickets only cost $25 (although, seats have been going fast, so you better reserve a month in advance).

Gad Elmaleh has been getting a lot of attention in New York for these shows and has even been doing the late night circuit, trying to drum up attention for his comedic work in the United States. Of course, to most in Europe, North Africa, and even around the world, Elmaleh needs no introduction. But he hasn’t yet broken into American show business…although he seems to be achieving this goal now.

At the beginning of December, The New York Times published a profile about Elmaleh and his show, which you can read here. The article explains Elmaleh’s love of English and the difficulty of doing stand-up in another language (even one in which you are basically fluent!):

“The comedian (whose name is pronounced Gahd EL-mah-lay) learned the language as a child, along with his native French; he also speaks Arabic and Hebrew. He’s performed in a mix of French and Arabic in Morocco and sprinkled some Hebrew in shows in Israel. His English is fluent, but it’s a significant jump from speaking a language to understanding its nuances well enough to write jokes. (He continues to work with an English teacher.)

Why even try to perform in English? It’s a question he gets so often that it’s now part of his act. “As a joke and as an exaggerated impression of Americans, I say” — here he adopted an American accent — “‘I need to challenge myself,’” he said. “But to be honest with you, it’s true.”

He’s also interested in sharing his unique perspective, that of a “Moroccan, Jewish, French, Francophone, Anglophile, American observer,” as he put it.”

In France, Elmaleh is perhaps best known for his iconic skit: “Where is Brian?” This skit riffs off popular scenes in English textbooks for francophone students (which John goes over in “French Jokes: ‘Where is Brian?'” here). Elmaleh often pokes fun of linguistic differences and misunderstandings, and his strength is in his ability to recognize and observe these cultural phenomena–and then, of course, to make them funny.

Check out Gad Elmaleh’s explanation of French expressions with Marco Werman on Public Radio International below, and, if you’re in the New York region, get ready to book those tickets!

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