Rant #1: On language evolution

A few days ago, a polemic set the French internet ablaze. It wasn’t about the refugee crisis, nor was it about the drastic security measures that the government has implemented since the terrorist attacks of the 13th of November 2015.

The argument focused on a reform on French language that would see to the introduction of new options of spellings for 2400 French words. The unrest was embodied by the hashtag #JeSuisCirconflexe, an ironic wink to the worldwide famous #JeSuisCharlie.


This reform actually dates back from 1990 and stems from the Superior Council of the French Language. It was approved back then by the Académie française, a higher instance that has initiated and/or officialized the diverse evolutions of French language since its creation in 1635. The reform has been the center of the gossip these days because a textbook publishing house (Editions Belin) has decided to implement it.

Yes. 26 years later.

Broadly speaking, this text allows school textbooks to use two different spellings for 2400 words: the current spelling and a new one that is the result of an orthographic simplification coherent with the present times and uses of written French language.

Among those simplifications, the suppression of the use of the circumflex accent (^) when it does not affect semantics or pronunciation of words has been permitted. It is the case for most of the circumflex accents on the letters “u” and “i”.

Therefore, words like “entraîner” (= to train) can be written “entrainer” from now on. On the contrary, the circumflex accent on the word “mûr” (= ripe) won’t drop dead because it differentiates its meaning from the word “mur” (= wall).

However, it seems that a substantial part of the French Twitter community mistakenly understood that the reform was the death arrest of the circumflex accent and that it was bound to disappear forever. This misunderstanding gave birth to the aforementioned hashtag and to some salty statements from the social media users, whether they were civilians or politicians.

One of the most reoccuring arguments was that this was the beginning of the decline of holy French language; that by allowing such rectifications, we were giving in our precious language to the lack of culture of the plebeians. A lot of Twitter users blamed the government (who has no part in this whatsoever) for blowing a last stroke to our formerly glorious, radiant and garlicky country.

I can relate to the nostalgia that some people feel towards written language; there is something about conquering the absurdly illogical spelling rules of French. When the reform offers to write the word “oignon” (=onion) as “ognon“, there is a feeling close to  having made the learning effort in vain, not to mention that it is aesthetically jarring to see a very common word suddenly change its spelling.

But as a language learner, I have the strong conviction that languages are living entities meant to constantly evolve. History has proven it; from the mere origins of French language, which comes from a lower form of Latin spoken by the people, as opposed to classic Latin, used by the authority.

Even though the term “vulgarization” is often used in a derogatory fashion, I believe its core meaning to be profoundly positive: making knowledge – in this case, the command of the idiom – accessible to all.

Clinging to an eternally fixed version of French language is at most classist, if not absolutely absurd from a historical stance.





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