French spelling buried by the Académie Française

Spelling is the most visual part of a language, because it is used to create visual representations of words. When at school, children learn to spell correctly, according to the language of a country or region. In Britain, children are taught British English (theoretically, anyway). In the United States, kids learn US English. In Belgium, they are taught either Dutch or Belgian French. And so on, and so forth.

However, this transmission of spelling knowledge from generation to generation does not prevent a language from evolving. As such, new words are added, and with time, certain spellings change as well. The difference between American and British English is a very good example, where history led to the creation of two different standardised (standardized in US English) spellings.
It is only when codified that spelling becomes nigh immutable. After that happens, change is met with virulent reactions.

The Académie Française has since its inception been the guardian of the French language, stating what rules were to be followed with respect to spelling and grammar. It is held in high regard, because it is prestigious and a source of pride (especially for the French). The Dictionnaire de l’Académie Française is the ultimate reference for such rules.

The main problem is that it has proceeded with little care over the past twenty years, and its behaviour has frustrated (dare I say “annoyed”?) many a person.

In 1990, it published amended spelling rules, rules that were met with great discontent by the people who cared about the French language. The general idea was to incorporate spelling mistakes often made to bring French spelling closer to the pronunciation of words (événement [event] became évènement, sûreté [security, especially in the financial sense] became sureté, and so on). Forms that the Académie considered to be “archaic” were replaced by more “modern” ones.

The reaction could have easily been foreseen: a general uproar. Well, perhaps it wasn’t as vocal as that, but it was that way in the mind of many. After all, when you have toiled hard to learn to get something right, having someone say “from now on, your mistakes will be made right!” is a bit frustrating. Think of all the effort you put into getting it right!

Thus it was that the reform of 1990 was set aside, something that was made even easier by the fact that the Académie said that the old spellings were still correct.

Life went on in the world of the French language, and the 1990 reform was soon forgotten.

However, it was not for (all that) long. In September 2008, teachers were reminded of the reform’s existence, and it seems that people are talking about it once more, even using it. Case in point: I discovered to my great horror that a poster had “évènement” written on it a few months back.
The reform has come back to haunt us!

Possibly the worst part (in Belgium anyway) is that today, Le Soir, one of the major Belgian newspapers has published a story on the 1990 reform to remind us that it exists and to tell us what we should ideally be doing.

It looks like my French spelling, of which I am very proud, will soon be put to test by people saying “ha, that’s not how you write this word!”. Fortunately, I’ll be able to say that I grew up when the reform wasn’t mentioned in classrooms, and that the old spelling is still correct.

Nevertheless, I find it preposterous to see it come back after nearly twenty years. While I thoroughly dislike seeing people’s spelling mistakes, seeing them become correct is even worse.

French spelling is dead. Long live French spelling!

5 thoughts on “French spelling buried by the Académie Française”

  1. Guess what, anno 2016, this 1990 spelling reform discussion has got a rerun. The new education programs for september 2017 are written in this spelling and impose it as the reference.

    The education press has now embraced this reform making it the standard in new teaching manuals for primary schools.

    BTW, the Académie française did only vote on the diffusion of this reform, the reform was a work by the Conseil Supérieur de la langue française, specially created by the French Prime Minister Michel Rocard for modernizing the French spelling. [The council no longer exists.]

  2. NJH, I agree to a great extent. However, I believe that here, the Académie Française tried to help the evolution of French. The intent was not so much conservatism as it was some kind of “we’re ready to make concessions” message.
    The main problem is that it did so “officially” (and in a misguided direction – many have said that there are far more important problems in French spelling to fix than those), sending the message that French was “officially” changing.

    Languages evolve, but this evolution is best left unnoticed (or so is my impression). The recognition of “e-mail/email”, “weekend”, “software” and other such words borrowed from English need not be official. Rather, it is best to let usage evolve, almost “of its own free will”.
    New words enter every language all the time, but it’s best not to draw attention to them, otherwise it shocks people. If you were to say “from now on, the word ‘intersight’ shall mean the act of putting insightful thoughts on the internet”, the idea would be refuted. However, if you started using it, and others copied you, the word would enter usage.
    In the same way, one should not draw too much attention to changes in language (otherwise, thy wouldst be speaking in old tongues). Style evolves based on the corpus of literature, press articles, publications, …

    The point of these few ideas that I wrote down is this: language changes in our lifetimes, and it’s normal. However, when someone decides that language will change, that causes problems, because we’re drawing attention to the changes.
    Basically, while the idea behind the Académie is laudable in my opinion, allowing it to establish rules is preposterous, especially today, where the world is a village in which many can communicate easily (and where language evolves much faster than it did).

  3. An academie will often tend to conservatism and reaction. It will favour the antique nature of a language as it reflects the interests of a “scribal class” and of the literate. This is not always necessary so [as in Scandinavia]: language policies can be orientated towards the needs of the users and learners of a language rather than to the vested interests of our self-proclaimed guardians.

    It is a case of adapt or cultural death as the richness and ingenuity of usage forces change. We love the fact that “our” language has developed over centuries BUT if it changes in our life times: its a crime and an offence to our pride.

    The numbers of students wanting to learn French as a 2nd language are plummeting. I look forward to a greater admixture of more English, American and Arabic into French – and the academicians having their heart attacks.

    1. I agree.
      Spelling is not really a part of any languages, just a means of representing them on paper or screen. Languages were spoken long before being written down.

      The way they are written is hugely important, because it determines how easy it is to learn to read and write them. When done very simply and consistently, as with Finnish or Korean, literacy acquisition is very easy. Learning to read French is also relatively easy, but writing is more difficult. English has the least learner-friendly alphabetic writing system. It makes both learning to read and write excruciatingly slow and difficult. (My blog ImprovingEnglishSpelling explains why.)

      Countries that want as many of their people as possible to be literate and well educated can assist this by regularly updating their spelling systems. Sweden, Germany and Holland have repeatedly done so, usually against objections from people proficient in the old system. The last German reform (in 2005)raised lots of heckles from traditionalists beforehand, but because teachers found that it greatly reduced spelling mistakes, despite making relatively few changes, it went ahead. Now it is getting quietly accepted by all.

      Good spelling reforms are ones which make learning to read and write substantially easier but are also easy understand and implement for older people. Are the proposed French changes of much help to learners? How do French teachers of young children rate them?

      The big obstacle in the way of all spelling reforms is the complacency of adults. Once they have spent many years learning to cope with a particular system, no matter how absurd (e.g. speak, speech, seize, siege), they tend to become attached to it and opposed to changing it. The impact of cultural conditioning is enormous.

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