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

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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.

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