France was struck by what can only be described as outrage this week, as it was announced that the spelling of 2400 words is to change in order to make learning them easier for children.
The changes originally appeared in a reform back in 1990 (a reform that was approved by the Académie Française), but have never been applied. However, come the rentrée this September, textbooks will finally be updated.
Examples of words that will change include ‘oignon’ (onion), which will lose the ‘i’, and a selection of unlucky words that will lose their hats (otherwise known as the circumflex). ‘Maîtresse’ (mistress) will become ‘maitresse’, ‘coût’ (cost) ‘cout’ and ‘paraître’ (to seem / appear) ‘paraitre’. As Le Monde points out, this change concerns the letters ‘u’ and ‘i’ only – circumflexes on ‘a’ and ‘o’ are not going anywhere.
Of course, many questions have been raised. How, for example, are teachers to manage the transition from one spelling to the other? “Listen up everyone, you know I always mark you down for missing circumflexes…as it turns out it’s ok after all”. Well, for the words in question both variations will be accepted; children (and adults, for that matter) who opt for the ‘old school’ spelling will not be penalised.
Nevertheless, you might still wonder – isn’t learning to spell difficult words part and parcel of…well, learning?! Aren’t silent, seemingly redundant letters one of the things that make a language unique? As someone who speaks both English and French, two languages that are known for irregular spelling, I would argue that yes, they are.
I also think it’s a shame to say goodbye to the circumflex (albeit only in certain cases), and sympathise with those who have come out in defence of the little hat. It reminds me of the fervour with which many native English speakers (myself included) defend the apostrophe and tear their hair out when it is used incorrectly. For me, the circumflex is one of the many intriguing nuances of the French language.
Perhaps, years down the line, I and others who feel the same will fall under the umbrella of ‘traditionalists who were resistant to change’. After all, changes to spelling and pronunciation are part of the natural evolution of any language…
Even so, I think it’s a shame.