French Language Blog

Critics of the 2016 French Language Reforms Posted by on Feb 8, 2016 in Grammar

As Josh detailed last week on the French spelling reform, the recent declaration by l’Académie française to implement spelling spelling changes that affect around 2,500 words was met with some resistance. Francophones (and Francophiles) have taken to twitter not only with the hashtag #JeSuisCirconflexe, but with examples of how the circumflex accent changes the meaning of words and sentences. For example:

Adam n’a plus la cote ; il est moins sûr, Eve.
Adam n’a plus la côte ; il est moins sur Eve.

Get it? Ok, moving on…

What’s especially interesting about this whole situation are the roles French critics of the reform and l’Académie have played. Traditionally, the French Academy has been a vanguard against the modernization and, in some ways, Anglicization (and feminization!) of the French language (that’s a lot of -izations!). The French Academy is composed of forty life-time members (thus, their name: les immortels) who are elected by the council itself. Les immortels are, normally, influential thinkers and writers, although academics and politicians have also been elected. Out of 726 members, only eight have been women (the first woman elected to the French Academy was Marguerite Yourcenar; recently, another famous female member passed away: Assia Djebar). Typically, decisions by the Academy have been criticized for being very conservative in regard to the modernization of the French language. And, so, the recent reforms (and the outcry it provoked) are an interesting turn of events.

According to Marguerite Stern in “Réformer l’orthographe ? Non, l’Académie française n’a pas à décider pour nous,” decisions made by the Academy are not representative of the French people and the real use of the French language because:

Le problème ça n’est pas que la langue française évolue, mais plutôt qu’une assemblée, non élue démocratiquement, se permette d’en décider pour nous.

Les membres de l’Académie française ne représentent en rien le peuple français car en France il y a des femmes, il y a des jeunes, des transsexuelles, des tétraplégiques, des noirs, des jaunes, des rouges.

(“The problem isn’t that the French language evolves, but rather that an assembly, which is not elected democratically, permits itself to decide for us.

The members of the French Academy do not represent the French people at all because in France there are women, youth, transsexuals, quadriplegics, and people with black, yellow, and red skin.”)

This isn’t the first time the French Academy has been called out for not being representative of the people–and, thus, the language–that it represents. And the debate over these language reforms is part of a much larger debate over what it means to be French–and how the French language can and must be inclusive of the varied experiences of French citizens. Ironically, those who have come out against these spelling reforms come from both sides of the spectrum: so-called “purists” who want France, and the French language, to remain somewhat closed to “outside” influence (and immigration), and “progressives” who decry the reforms for not being representative of the varied people who make up France, and what it means to be French.

So, what do you think about these reforms?


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About the Author: Elizabeth Schmermund

Bonjour tout le monde! I'm a freelance writer, doctoral student, mom, and Francophile. I'm excited to share some of my experiences living in France, as well as the cultural nuances that I've learned being married to a Frenchman, with all of you. To find out more about me, feel free to check out my website at A la prochaine!


  1. Ian Tarrant:

    I think in principle, as you say, an unelected body not representative of the population should not decide on issues that affect the national culture, heritage and language. If the only case to argue was that the meaning of words change, then that should be reason enough to prevent them from going ahead.

    • Elizabeth Schmermund:

      @Ian Tarrant Thanks for sharing, Ian! I think many would agree with you.