The curious incident of the disappearing French circumflex

The french accent û will no longer be necessary in the hallowed halls of L'Académie Française. -_Guillaume_-/www.flickr.com, CC BY

French speakers have been scratching their heads in recent weeks over the alleged death of the circumflex. The news went viral that the accent, used in words such as goût (taste) or île (island), was no longer necessary in many French spellings. It even sparked a new sister hashtag to last year’s #jesuischarlie on Twitter: #jesuiscirconflexe.

Politicians, particularly those on the right and far-right, voiced their opposition and bemoaned the death of a diacritic – the name given to accents such as the circumflex – that they believe is integral to the French language and France’s identity.

But far from the language being watered down in a conscious effort to dumb down the school system, the changes are not new and probably won’t make much difference anyway. Indeed, the way the words are pronounced won’t even be affected.

What’s certain is that the affair would have amused the French writer Georges Perec, who wrote a parody crime novel called La Disparition (A Void). In it, the mysterious Anton Vowl disappears … and the letter “e” is not used a single time in the course of the 300-page novel. I can’t help thinking that Perec would have written a good book about the curious incident of the disappearing circumflex.

Do away with the hat

In English, the circumflex accent only put in a brief appearance before the arrival of the Penny Post postal system as a means of saving paper and reducing the cost of postage – “ô” was used as shorthand for “ough”, so that “thorough” could be written “thorô”.

While the tragic demise of any written accent seems an unlikely subject to stir up much passion, spelling reforms do raise all kinds of questions about how written languages act as repositories for their own history. They are also invariably bound in discourses on nationalism.

American reformer Noah Webster’s changes to the spelling of words such as “colour” to “color” in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, were tied up with his nationalist pride and wish to be rid of the cultural imperialism of Britain. So it is hardly surprising that the French hard-right party the Front National made such a meal of the supposedly new reforms in France.

Yet the new French spelling reforms are not new at all. They date back to 1990 when the Académie française, not usually known for its progressive views, made a number of recommendations to simplify the French language to the Conseil supérieur de la langue française (Higher Council for the French language).

These included removing the circumflex accent on the letters “i” and “u” except in certain exceptional cases and verb endings, but also changing “ph” to “f” as well as taking away hyphens in such words as “week-end”. The spellings of certain other words were simplified. For instance: eczéma (exma) became exéma; coût (cost) would become cout; nénuphar (water lily), nénufar, and oignon (onion), ognon.

Under the banner of the hashtag #jesuiscirconflexe, great jokes have been made about possible confusions that could arise if “Je vais me faire un jeûne” was mistaken for “Je vais me faire un jeune” (literally: I’m going to fast, or I’m going to bed a youngster).

Still, the jokes fall flat as these words would not have been affected – because the circumflex on the letter “e” is not being reformed, precisely because of the confusion that might otherwise arise.

Predictive text predicted this

When informing my wife of the news of the circumflex change by text message, my smartphone (bought in 2010), was already aware of the new rules. Its predictive text did not seek to correct ognon. This has led me to wonder how much a generation that tends to type using different corrective grammar software will actually notice many of these changes.

It’s also not certain that the reforms will make the language any easier to learn for either French schoolchildren or foreign language learners. Is it really much simpler to spell portefeuille (wallet) than porte-feuille?

Despite their vociferous attacks on the left-wing government of François Hollande dumbing-down schooling in France, the changes had actually been approved in 2008 when the right was in power. This approval has simply been reiterated in 2016 by the current government.

With supreme political brilliance, the government’s website quoted the former permanent secretary of the Académie française, Maurice Druon, when it said there was a need to be both “firm and flexible” in implementing the changes.

This means that both the old and new ways of spelling these words will be acceptable. The publishers of all school textbooks have also decided to implement the changes in their updated editions for 2016, suggesting that they have more sway than the Académie française, an institution set up in the 17th century by Cardinal Richelieu, chief minister to King Louis XIII.

As for those protesting vehemently against the recommended changes as if the fate of the nation were at stake, I wouldn’t mind betting they have left an accent or two off somewhere in the past and not been sentenced for treason.