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!