Mots de tête
In a country always quick to get hot under the collar for any number of reasons, few topics are more polarising than the spelling of words, whether it should be reformed or not and whether or not the reforms are too timid or too radical. But as is often the case in France, what seems to initially cause a huge uproar amounts in the end to very little.
Earlier this year, the Ministry of Education announced the implementation in school manuals of a reform of spelling devised by a panel of experts and validated (reluctantly) by the Académie Française….26 years ago. The initial motivation for this reform was that spelling needed to be simplified so that the French language became easier to learn in particular for foreigners at a time when the popularity of French was waning around the world.
What is this reform about? Roughly the spelling of 2400 words is going to be modified. For example, the circumflex (^) is no longer compulsory on the letters “i” or “u” except when it enables to distinguish between two identical words with different meaning like mur (wall) and mûr (ripe) or jeune (youth) and jeûne (fasting). Some composite words will no longer be made up of words separated by an hypen but joined together, in particular words starting with “contre” or “entre”, so, for instance, contre-appel becomes contreappel ou entre-temps becomes entretremps (porte-monnaie also becomes portemonnaie). The spelling of certain words is also modified to be more aligned with their phonetics, for instance “oignon” becomes “ognon” or “nénuphar” becomes “nénufar”. A more detailed description of the changes can be found on:
When the initial reform was introduced in the early 90s, l'Académie Française objected to it saying that the language should not be modified arbitrarily but rather through a natural process; only when a word has been widely used differently for a certain period of time, should you recognise that different usage and officialise it. Apart from the Académie’s reluctance, there was the usual outcry from traditionalists, claiming that any change to the spelling of words was a dumbing down of the language with some of the most strident critics aimed at the suppression of the circumflex which had to be kept for “aesthetic” reasons (amongst others) according to a leading opponent to the reform.
Such was the controversy at the time that it was decided to introduce the new spelling but to allow the old spelling to remain as well. It was then left up to the individual to decide whether to adopt the new spelling or not. In such circumstances, most people decided to stick to what they already knew and the new spelling quietly faded into oblivion until this year.
The reactivation of the reform earlier this year has sparked another debate with the same arguments. The same outcomes are also expected since there will be no compulsion to apply the new rules. The debate is still on as to whether the publishing houses will introduce the changes in the next edition of school manuals. Even prestigious dictionaries like Le Larousse or Le Petit Robert are still undecided. In the end all it means for language professionals involved with French is the need to be aware that some words can be spelt two different ways and not assume that just because a word is spelt differently from what it used to be, it is wrong. Far from simplifying anything, it seems that this reform has just complicated things further. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.