An Onion without an I – The French Spelling Reform Posted by Josh Dougherty on Feb 4, 2016 in Culture, Grammar, Vocabulary
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 dû (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, dû, 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.
What do you think of the reform?
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