A controversy brewing in France over a decision to eliminate the circumflex highlights fears about ‘English taking over’. Agnes Poirier takes a closer look.

It took France completely by surprise. On 4 February the French learned that a spelling reform  – approved in 1990 but never implemented – would be taught in schools starting in September and will be featured in all new school manuals. The French are notoriously touchy, or sentimental, about their language but on realising that the circumflex accent was at risk of disappearing from 2000 French words (ie 3% of the French lexicon), they reacted with anger.

Social networks were suddenly inundated with the hashtag #Circonflexe and #JeSuisCirconflexe, in a nod to #JeSuisCharlie, which became a rallying cry of defiance after the 2015 terrorist attacks against the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo. What the French quite literally meant was that they took this spelling reform as an attack on their language, which they deem as serious as an attack on their freedom of speech. Used by the state as a unifying tool, the French language was instrumental in the birth of the modern French nation. It is a powerful ingredient of the French identity and one the French people have always felt passionate about.

The circumflex accent adds a certain musicality to a word; some would argue it confers poetry to words

What is the circumflex accent? Indicated by the sign ^, it is placed over a vowel to show that the vowel or syllable containing it must be pronounced in a certain way. In French, the vowel so marked has a certain grave and long sound quality. The circumflex accent adds a certain musicality to a word; some would argue it confers poetry to words. More practically, it can also change the meaning of a word. ‘Mûr’ means ‘mature’, while ‘mur’ means ‘wall’; ‘jeûne’ means fasting while ‘jeune’ means young.

The spelling reform put forward in 1990 by the Conseil supérieur de la langue française (High Council of the French Language), and vetted by the Académie Française, never actually aimed to kill the circumflex or to become compulsory. It originally proposed to “fix some anomalies” and to somehow standardise and simplify certain quirks of the French language. For instance, it suggested to remove the circumflex from above the letters ‘i’ and ‘u’ where the accent does not change the pronunciation nor the meaning of the word, as in ‘paraître’ (to appear) or ‘coût’ (cost). It also recommended to regroup compound nouns and get rid of the hyphen as in ‘porte-monnaie’, thus becoming ‘portemonnaie’ (purse). ‘Compound nouns without a hyphen? Looks ugly and lazy’ was the universal reaction on social networks, as if it was an admission that textspeak is now the norm.

Word war

The French felt a pang in the heart at the thought of the disappearing circumflex and hyphens but the last straw came when they heard the suggestion that the ‘i' in ‘oignon’ (onion) should be dropped. The controversial Education Minister Najat Vallaut-Belkacem, attacked and accused on social networks of wanting to dumb down the French language, fought back by replying that the reform didn’t come from the Ministry but the Académie Française itself.

The Académie, in turn, snapped back that it had only approved certain aspects of the proposal issued by the High Council of the French Language, an independent body. It reminded the French public that it was always on the side of the language, against all spelling simplifications for the sake of it, and that the actual usage of a language couldn’t simply be passed by decrees and laws. In football, they would call this argument a draw.

The change will only confuse teachers and pupils even more – Bernard Pivot

In fact, French dictionaries already carry both old and new spellings, and teachers have been advised to accept both old and new spelling as correct. So many ask, “Why change?” “It will only confuse teachers and pupils even more,” deplored the well-known French literary critic Bernard Pivot. “And further confusion will spring from the fact that pupils will be taught one thing at school and will read another in novels.” Who will they trust more: their manuals or Balzac?

This very French controversy however travelled fast and far, and seemed to strike a chord with France’s neighbours. The German media, for instance, seemed fascinated by the French circumflex. Perhaps because it reminded them of their own botched spelling reform of 1996, the Rechtschreibreform, opposed by a majority of teachers, writers and newspapers such as the prestigious Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. The reform originally aimed to systematise the correspondence between sounds and letters and simplify hyphenated spellings. A battle ensued, international committees of German language experts were formed, campaigners even brought the matter to the courts and in 2004, a purged version of the reform was implemented and old and new spellings were both deemed acceptable.

The battle may also have to do with the creeping presence and use of English terms in European languages

The passion and volatility around languages may also increasingly have to do with the creeping presence and use of English terms in European languages. Italians, for instance, have always been very liberal in their use of English words, and seemingly unconcerned by the slow impoverishment of their language. They now feel however, that they might have gone too far. Their Prime Minister, the 40-year-old Matteo Renzi, has an English word for every reform he proposes, and almost every financial topic he debates in Parliament: ‘Jobs Act’, the ‘Stepchild Adoption’, ‘Bail In’ and ‘Spending Review’ to name but a few. This is beginning to get on many Italians’ nerves.

In February, Italy’s daily centre-left newspaper La Repubblica ran a double page with the headline “In altre parole” (in other words), suggesting that Anglicism should be nipped in the bud, and not be used by politicians and legislators in official texts, especially when Italian equivalents exist. This only encourages the wider public to use them too, and it becomes impossible to counter them. A campaign and petition with the hashtag #DilloInItaliano (Say it in Italian) gathered 70,000 signatures in just a few hours.

There was one time though in the early 17th Century when the Italian language was considered the malevolent influence. If Cardinal Richelieu founded the Académie Française in 1635, it was primarily to fight back the rampant Italianisation of the French language.

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