Category Archives: Internet

Death of a circumflex – France’s spelling-change panic and why we’re so conservative

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Panic in the cafés! Outrage in the offices! Furore on Facebook! France’s education minister has banned the use of the circumflex (^), decreed that oignon must be spelt ognon and sent out the language police to enforce 2,400 changes to the French language. Except she hasn’t. And the reaction to this non-revolution speaks volumes about our collective conservatism and social media’s power to reinforce it.

Agostino_di_duccio,_san_bernardino_organizza_un_falò_delle_vanità
St Bernadino organises a bonfire of the vanities, Agostino di Duccio

A shocked nation heard of the orthographic auto-da-fé on Wednesday, thanks to an article on the website of TF1 TV.

By Thursday Facebook, Twitter and all other social media accessible to agonised Francophones were abuzz with protests. A hashtag #Jesuiscirconflexe was launched – a hyperbolic comparison to mass murder that would have set the Twittersphere tutt-tutting in other circumstances.

Right-wingers, who are far from the reform’s only opponents, were quick to blame Education Minister Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, a frequent target for vilification who can look forward to even more now Christiane Taubira has left the government.

She “thinks she has the right to turn the rules of French spelling on their heads”, according to a statement rushed out by the hard-right UNI students’ union.

“It is no surprise that what was a speculative discussion a quarter of a century ago among 40 rather civilised, snobbish and reliably silly old men has been made into a sharp edict under the most ideological education minister France has known since the early 80s,” declared Anne-Elisabeth Moutet in the Daily Telegraph.

Don’t let the facts get in the way of a good scare

800px-Cardinal_de_Richelieu
Cardinal de Richelieu, who set up the Académie française, by Philippe de Champaigne

Now who are we to believe here? UNI and Anne-Elisabeth Moutet or the nearest thing France has to the Daily Telegraph,  Le Figaro?

Because Le Figaro explains that Vallaud-Belkacem had nothing to do with it. The changes were discussed at the end of the 80s – by a committee of representatives of French-speaking nations and communities – agreed by the Académie française – whom I take to be Moutet’s “civilised, snobbish and reliably silly old men” – 29 years ago and declared officially acceptable seven years ago. But it has taken France’s schoolbook publishers all that time to catch up. Although some of them incorporated the changes in earlier editions, the beginning of the next academic year will be the first time they all recognise them. Without any edict being signed.

Le Figaro’s article, and all other informed pieces on the subject, also explain that the changes are limited, affecting only 4% of French vocabulary, and optional. The circumflex may be dropped on “I” and “u”, except in certain cases, for example when it makes a difference to the meaning. But they don’t have to be. The effect will be that pupils who spell coût (cost), oignon (onion) and extra-terrestre (extraterrestrial) as they sound – cout, ognon, extraterrestre – will no longer lose marks.

To see more examples of the changes, click here for my article on RFI’s English website. 

The conservative paper also reports that the reform “isn’t working so badly for our Belgian and Swiss neighbours” and links to a report of its adoption Quebec … in 2010.

So the first lesson of all this that it’s always a good idea to read a little further than the headline.

Politics and the French language

IMG_1916
An Ottoman-era pavilion – with the now abolished Arabic script – in Istanbul Photo: Tony Cross

Then we get to the politics.

Florian Philippot, who wants to render the far-right Front National fit for human consumption, texted a rhyming couplet that described the reform as “vile and stupid”, while the only slightly less right-wing Eric Ciotti, of Nicolas Sarkozy’s Republicans, declared it a “race to the bottom”.

Moutet believes Vallaud-Belkacem has a nefarious plan to stamp out elitism in education and help the disadvantaged. In the 15 months since she was appointed, this has apparently reduced the majority of French students to a state of “near illiteracy” (not my experience with the students I teach at Paris 13 university).

“You don’t need to be George Orwell to see that there is something sinister in any regime that sacrifices the memory and structure of the language to convenience and political fiat,” Moutet writes, a bad choice since Orwell was an advocate of plain English and an enemy of archaisms. http://www.plainlanguage.gov/whatisPL/definitions/orwell.cfm

But I see nothing particularly sinister in Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s switch to the Latin alphabet from the non-indigenous Arabic alphabet, whatever criticism one might have of the Young Turks’ identification of Europeanisation with progress. And it’s worked, although it necessitated the use of diacritics for the purposes of pronunciation that cause a certain confusion to foreigners. By the way, the sinister Recep Tayyip Erdogan seems to be trying to bring Ottoman Turkish back, comparing its abolition to cutting Turkey’s jugular.

Nor did the Vietnamese adoption of the Latin alphabet, switching from the non-indigenous Chinese, wipe their history or culture from their memories or impair their ability to fight off French colonialism and the US war machine.

So the argument that France’s historical memory will be erased along with the accents does not really hold water. Yes, the circumflex tells us that there used to be an “s” in the word in old French and in the Latin that it came from. But, interesting as it is, linguistic history is not essential to communication, which is the function of language. If it was, why not have diacritics to indicate the words that came from Greek or Arabic? That would interest me but I wouldn’t want a kid to fail an exam for not dropping a diacritical hint to that effect.

The human brain is a conservative organ

Shakespeare
Shakespeare – the Chandoes portrait, although it may not be he

The argument that the changes are ugly seems misconceived to me, too.

Languages certainly have properties particular to themselves, as Moutet points out. But it is the use to which those properties are put that are beautiful.

Shakespeare was not a great playwright and poet because he worked in English but because of the skill with which he used the language and the ideas and feelings he expressed.

We can be sure that General Christian Piquemal, recently arrested for taking part in a banned Pegida demonstration  manages to make French sufficiently ugly when he wishes to humiliate a subordinate or insult a migrant, although one imagines he will adopt a mellifluous tone in court.

When confronted with change, we tend to confuse aesthetics and habit.

We have had to learn these spellings. We were happy to please teacher when we got them right, devastated by the red ink on our homework when we got them wrong. Me too. I’m fond of the circumflex, proud to know its history and afraid of being thought ignorant if I use it wrongly. But that doesn’t make the damn thing beautiful.

In general, we think that what we’ve been taught is the Right Way of Doing Things and that what we’re used to is just and beautiful. We find change disconcerting and dismiss the new as ugly. Just look at the history of art.

Our brains learn from experience, they conserve information and, when circumstances change, they take their time adapting. This makes us conservative creatures. Some of what we wish to conserve is worth hanging on to. Some needs to be adapted or dumped because it has become redundant.

The worldwide web has been a tool for innovation but, being a reflection of ourselves in all our glory and infamy, it has also been a means of propagating conservative prejudice. It has vastly increased our capacity to get our facts right. But it’s also vastly increased our ability to spread misconceptions and misinformation. With its facility of publishing and the hysterical tone it encourages, a moral panic can travel three times round the world before the truth has got its facts checked.

Mes chers #Jesuiscirconflexes, the experts are laughing at you.

Linguists and lexicographers know that languages evolve, that even two centuries ago the rules were much more fluid, that every language was a dialect, slang, dog Latin or creole when it was young.

“It’s vanity,” lexicographer Marie-Hélène Drivaud comments to L’Obs on the circumflex hooha. “People like the fact that they had to work hard to learn it, so future generations have to learn it too.”

Spelling was “much more flexible and dynamic” before the 19th century, she points out.

Will the language reform work?

Le_bassin_aux_nymphéas_-_Claude_Monet
Beautiful or ugly? Nymphéas or Nenufars? Claude Monet’s Water Lilies

Of course, if she does want to really enforce the reform, Vallaud-Belkacem could emulate the ancient Chinese emperor who is supposed to have burnt all the books, apart from two copies of each one that he kept, and buried 460 scholars alive in an attempt to impose his cultural reforms. But you know how it is these days. The usual politically correct bleeding hearts would kick up and we’d never hear the end of it.

Judging by the reactions of citoyens of all political persuasions and personal outlooks to the circumflex scare, I doubt if many people’s spelling habits will change – in the short term, at least – if no such drastic action is taken.

But the language will evolve, with or without permission from the Académie, the pedants or you or me, and what serves no purpose will eventually die out.

Nor do I believe  the chanves will encourage more foreigners to learn French, which was apparently the chief reason for initiating it. English is the global language principally for geopolitical reasons, not because of its properties, many of which are not at all user-friendly. (Anthony Burgess tells a hilarious joke in Language Made Plain about a Frenchman trying to learn English who committed suicide after reading the headline “Agatha Christie’s Mousetrap pronounced a success”. Think about it.)

The reform can be criticised for being a pretty complicated form of simplification, circumflexually speaking at least. Indeed, one could complain that it doesn’t follow its own logic to a conclusion, both with the circumflex and with some words that it neglects to change. “Nénuphar” (water-lily) can be spelt “nénufar” – why not? – but “nymphéa” must stay the same. Why? Because “nénufar” – let’s be modern here – comes from Arabic, while “nymphéa” comes from Greek. Since Greek has only one letter for the sound (Φφ) the logic escapes me.

What about English? Bring back thorn!

Witan_hexateuch
Anglo-Saxon king with his witan. Biblical scene in the Illustrated Old English Hexateuch

Finally, an appeal for a modest reform of my own mother-tongue. I believe with all my heart that we should revive the letter thorn (þ). It was the Anglo-Saxon letter for “th” but was killed off (I suspect the Normans). It’s why you see signs saying “Ye Olde Tea-Shoppe” – that “Ye” is really “þe”. There’s obviously no reason why “th” should be used for this sound and using it this way means we can’t aspirate after a “t”. OK, we don’t do that in English but some Asian languages do, so it might come in handy.

We also can’t aspirate after a “p”, so, while we’re at it, we might want to emulate the French reformers and replace “ph” with “f”. It’s logical. And it could avoid some confusion when going to Phuket.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail
Facebooktwittergoogle_pluslinkedinrssyoutube

Corbyn’s election sends British right wing back to the 1980s, can his supporters resist?

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Jeremy Corbyn’s victory has annoyed all the right people (pun intended). It’s back to the 1980s so far as abuse and distortion are concerned. So, how loony is the left? And can Corbyn’s supporters defend him against dirty tricks and hate campaigns?

1919-affiche-comment-voter-contre-le-bolchevisme-c054d
How can you vote against Bolshevism?” A French anti-communist poster from 1919, probably not featuring a vegetarian
  • Better the 1980s than the 1890s: George Osborne – and the Little-Sir-Echos in the media and the Labour Party – are worried – or happy, the Tories can’t decide on the line on this one – that Jeremy Corbyn will drag Labour back to the 1980s. This is a bit rich, coming from someone who is dragging Britain back to the levels of inequality of the 19th century, George. And, as I remember it, the worst thing about the 1980s was that your lot were in charge.
  • Corbyn’s candidature dragged the media back to the 1980s. The people who don’t want Labour to go back to the 1980s are busy dusting off the terms of abuse that graced the headlines of that very decade, “loony left” for example. But what was so loony about the left? As I remember it, the tabloids’ main targets were feminism, gay rights, anti-racism and talking to Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland, most of which look pretty mainstream now. Another fine journalistic practise that is getting a lot of mileage at the moment – although, to be fair, it never exactly went out of fashion – is distorting what your subject says and stands for.
  • The people who said Corbyn could not be elected Labour leader now say he can’t win a general election. Have you no shame? You got it wrong. Time for a rethink, not another piece of pro-big business propaganda disguised as analysis. Hey, look! A Sky (!) poll shows he was the most popular of the candidates among the general public and “his left wing policies are also not necessarily as unpopular as many might believe” (they left out the “want to” there, for some reason).
  • Corbyn’s programme is not all that radical. Corbyn may be the most left-wing Labour leader ever, as Tariq Ali argues, but that’s mainly because of his foreign policy. On domestic policy it’s not exactly storming heaven. I was distracted from my work the other day by a lady from the Bloombergs agency explaining on one of those irritating BBC panel shows that advocating renationalisation of the railways would consign Labour to some circle or other of economists’ hell. But we did it before, Madam, and it wasn’t accompanied by red terror nor did it lead to economic collapse. How will it be paid for, she asked. Well, perhaps by savings on scrapping Trident – Oh sorry, it’s unrealistic not to spend billions on that – or by making Bloomberg subscribers and other top earners pay their fair whack in tax.  People’s quantitative easing seems consistent with what Thomas Piketty argues and everyone thinks he’s wonderful, except for the Financial Times on alternate days. Raising the minimum wage? The president of the United States wants that to happen in his country – but then he’s a Muslim socialist born in Kenya, so what does he know?
  • Corbyn owes much of his victory to social media but can social media defend him? Hoist by their own primaries petard, Labour’s right wing are already plotting to reverse the party’s left turn by any means necessary.  A key factor in mobilising for Corbyn was social media, whose echo-chamber effect allows us to consort with the like-minded, reinforcing our views/prejudices and giving us a feeling of power in the numbers, one of the functions of the revolutionary party, if I recall my Lenin. But the social media is also physically isolated, indulging his or her pleasure from home, the workplace or on public transport with headphones clamped to ears. Will the three-pounders or even many of the new party members be prepared to trudge along to monthly party branch meetings, be delegates to constituency parties, conferences etc so as to stop right-wing dirty tricks and ensure that the party’s policies align with those of its leader? Of course, I’m biased. I was expelled from Labour in the 80s. It was quite a relief, to be honest.
  • Corbynmania was in part a revolt against how democracy works but is there a viable alternative? Some 251,000 people, many of them never involved in politics before, rejected their betters’ advice and voted for Corbyn. Why? Many were young people feeling the effects of austerity and disillusioned with post-2008 capitalism. Many responded to a glimmer of integrity in the sewer of modern politics. And many were reacting against the cynical consumerist strategies that were the Blairites’ only principles but are to some extent inherent to parliamentary democracy, which is not government by the people, for the people but the people choosing who will govern them as a globalised capitalism decides the most important aspects of their lives.  Syriza had a mandate to change this but failed.  Admittedly, there are only 11 million Greeks but do 64 million Brits – or that proportion who want a change – have the power or the structures to impose it?
Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail
Facebooktwittergoogle_pluslinkedinrssyoutube

Corbynmania and the Sanders surge are a rejection of consumer politics

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Everyone’s surprised by the support garnered by Jeremy Corbin and Bernie Sanders, not least their most ardent supporters. The British Labour Party may soon have a leader who can be described as left-wing without inverted commas. Americans may be invited to vote for someone who says he’s a socialist and could even win. Can this possible be true? And, as importantly, what does it mean?

68votez_jeferai-78wqu
“Keep voting, I’ll do the rest” De Gaulle tells France in this poster from May 68

The unpredictable is the only safe prediction in today’s political world, as parties that were solid melt into air and others that scarcely registered on the pollsters’ radar no so long ago win control of towns, cities, a country even.

Clearly, the aftermath of the 2008 economic crisis and the mainstream parties’ responses – generosity to the banks and billionaires, austerity for those without their clout – have discredited capitalism, or at least its most brutal manifestations, in the eyes of many.

As Bernard Porter points out, to the generation that has grown up since the Cold War and is experiencing the Thatcher/Reagan legacy, Corbyn is not a dinosaur but a revelation.

Austerity has discredited its enforcers, including the careerist leaders of Europe’s formerly social-democratic parties, leading to an unexpected revival of the left in Greece, Scotland and Spain.

Of course, it’s also given a boost to the Trumps, Le Pens and Farages but that, too, is a symptom of the collapse in the authority of established parties and ideologies.

Je participe
“I participate, you participate, he participates, we participate, they profit” Atelier populaire, May 68

But I think there is another, connected reason for the explosion of support for these two men and other political outsiders.

Isn’t it also a symptom of the rejection of the market approach to politics? Of spin doctors telling parties not to present policies they believe in to voters but pitch offers to that part of the electorate that is not inclined to vote for them – the “Them’s me principles but, if you don’t like ‘em, I’ll change ‘em” approach to democracy.

The efforts of Corbyn’s opponents to explain how unelectable he is, as he packs in huge crowds, races ahead of them in the leadership election stakes and then proves to be the most popular candidate among many non-Labour voters, have been an invaluable contribution to the great British comic tradition, as have their efforts to get rid of thousands of the wrong kind of voter.  If we don’t like the voters, we can change them, as well.

Corbyn’s and Sanders’s support is evidence of a widespread desire for personal integrity in politics, a quality that is notable by its absence in most parliaments these days.

But, judging by reports of party meetings and public rallies, there’s also a demand for political honesty.

The strategic masterminds told party activists and bedrock supporters that they must keep their political libidos under control for fear of frightening the floating voter. In Britain that got them the Iraq War, economic crisis and two electoral defeats, not to mention the personal enrichment of prime ministers and their Svengalis.

So, many people want to vote for what they’d really like to see happen this time round. And it looks as if that could be a more realistic strategy in attracting many voters – including some of those tempted by Ukip or even Trump – than trying to sell a party as if it were something that gets rid of unpleasant stains.

Hannah Arendt apparently argued that electoral politics transforms the political relationship into that of seller to buyer, a point taken up by the PKK and the PYD in their turn to alternative forms of participation and organisation.  Voters become consumers, passive individuals in an increasingly atomised society, delegating decision-making to a political caste that can claim their consent because they have participated in the electoral process.

We are thus coopted into our own political and economic exploitation, all the more so today when the politicians then declare themselves powerless in the face of the market on the most important questions that affect our lives. Russell Brand may not be as superficial as Jeremy Paxman would have us believe.

This goes some way to explain the enthusiasm for direct election of presidents, mayors etc that has spread outwards from the US, the Afghans having it imposed on them as an indispensable element of democracy by a coalition of countries many of whom didn’t practise it themselves (the UK’s Jack Straw congratulated them on at last electing their head of state – was he being subtly subversive or just not thinking what he was saying?).

The more representatives are elected, and the more personalised those elections are, the more consumer choice has been exercised and the more passive the electors should be once their ballots have been cast.

Hence the primaries – invented in the US, of course, and now exported to Europe (the mainstream French parties now have primaries, too, but, so far, they’ve delivered the required results, so no hooha about who’s voted in them).

Hilariously, in Britain a procedure that was designed to dilute the power of party activists in a mass of passive voters has become mobilised thousands to express disgust with austerity, careerism and top-down politics.

With added irony, the rise of social media, which in a sense add to the atomisation of society – the individual sits isolated in front of the screen and is bombarded with what algorithms decide is good for him or her – have fuelled the process, creating networks that establish a new form of the collective.

If Corbyn or Sanders wins, what happens next?

In Britain the establishment in its various manifestations has already shown its intention to override the democratic process by any means necessary.

I suspect that is when the weakness of social media-driven enthusiasm will become apparent. Will the thousands who have voted have the stamina or power to resist a long-term campaign of sabotage and vilification by professionals whose careers are intimately linked to the status quo?

In this respect, the Greek experience is not encouraging, so far at least.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail
Facebooktwittergoogle_pluslinkedinrssyoutube