Here’s the good news for those who remember struggling through dictation in French class: French spelling has been simplified. Here’s the bad news: Few have noticed, and those who have don’t like it.
An official body that includes government ministers and a representative of the Academie Francaise, the eminent French language institution, issued a new set of rules to simplify the spellings of many words, either to bring them in line with pronunciation or to eliminate exceptions.
The changes were made in 1990 — but French media are just getting wind of them.
For example, aout (August) drops the pointy circumflex accent over the “u.” “Baby-sitter” gets Frenchified into babysitteur. Bonhomie, which has come into English with that spelling, becomes bonhommie — to reflect its root homme (man).
Both the new and old spellings remain acceptable, but the new ones are supposed to be taught in schools, so they will eventually — in theory — replace the old.
The problem? Few people seem to know about them, many are opposed, and most school texts don’t use the new spellings. Even the Academie Francaise itself has chosen to include only some of the new spellings at the end of its dictionary — explaining that it would like to wait it out and see which spellings are adopted in general usage before giving its official blessing.
When television stations became aware of the “new” rules last month, they sent reporters out into the streets to test the French. Very few identified the new spellings as the correct ones — they all looked so strange! — though frequent, significant hesitations underscored how difficult even the French find it to spell their own words.
A few weeks later, more evidence emerged of the difficulty of French spelling and grammar: a press release from the president’s office was littered with mistakes, including a spelling error.
Confusion over the new rules has often been a breeding ground for resistance: On a chat board with a heading “against the new spelling!” the discussion is initially about the rules, but it quickly turns to lamenting the language of text messages and the loss of all accents in typed writing because of the use of “English” keyboards — both of which are far from being sanctioned by any linguistic body.
An elementary school teacher, Delphine Guichard, who launched an appeal on her blog that asks publishers to update textbooks with the changes, has run into that disgust. She had to close off the comments section on her post about spelling because of the vitriol directed at her.
That such changes have struck a chord in France is not entirely surprising.
“It’s always like this. Even in the 19th century, even in the 17th century,” Guichard said. “Every time there has been a reform, there’s been a very strong resistance.”
Spelling has a vaunted place in French culture: It is a shibboleth for good grooming and even for Frenchness itself. The drilling begins at about six years old and an inability to spell is a stigma that stays with many for life in a country where the elite is expected to be literary.
The French depend on the Academie Francaise to “defend” their language, and some seem to have taken its participation in and endorsement of the changes as an abrogation of duty. The body that proposed the rules — the Conseil superieur de la langue francaise — is presided over by the prime minister and takes direction from the president, an indication of how seriously the French take their language.