Sacrebleu! French are having difficulty with new spelling rules

By Sarah DiLorenzo  /  AP, PARIS

Mon, Dec 26, 2011 - Page 9

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.

The changes have been easier to implement in Canada, Switzerland and Belgium, according to Romain Muller, who belongs to the Groupe de modernisation de la langue, an organization that groups representatives from French-speaking countries to talk about the language.

Muller said it could be that since those countries are multilingual, there is less of an attachment to French.

“It’s like we’re calling into question a part of their identity,” said Muller about the reaction in France.

In its nearly four centuries, the Academie has occasionally modified the spellings of words, including in its very first dictionary, which appeared in 1694, but many take the Academie’s mission to “defend” French to mean that it should ensure the language never changes.

In the recent television reports on the new rules, the word pharmacie kept cropping up as one of the ones that had been converted, to farmacie. In fact, pharmacie has not changed.

But the inclusion of the fallacious farmacie seemed to underline the fear the changes have whipped up: They’re erasing our culture, some French complain, our heritage, our place in Western civilization.

Patrick Vannier, who works for the Academie’s dictionary service, said that resistance to change is perfectly understandable among those who love the language. He himself admits that while in his professional life he follows the rules adopted by his employer, his personal correspondence is littered with circumflexes that are supposed to have been dropped.

However, he also insists that the changes are hardly intrusive: In a typical novel, there would be about one change per page — and many of them as small as a change of accent.

Despite the accusations occasionally leveled at her, Guichard isn’t trying to force everyone to use the rules. She just wants textbooks to use them, so she can teach them to her class. As she notes on her blog, teachers are the only French adults who are required to use the new spelling.

She said that her appeal — which asks teachers to print out a form letter and send it to publishers — is beginning to change things. Muller agreed that editors seemed to be coming around, now that they see that teachers themselves are asking for the new spelling.

However, the resistance could continue: In an informal survey of teachers who visit Guichard’s blog, a significant number said they would ignore the rules no matter what the textbooks said.