Excuse my French!

As a second year French sole student who will have to take both translation and grammar papers in fourth year, you can imagine my feelings of surprise, outrage and frustration when I learnt of the recent changes to the French language, affecting roughly 2400 words, being implemented from the start of the 2016/17 academic year.

First things first, what is actually going to change?

  • The deletion in some words of the hyphens.
  • Circumflexes to be removed above the letter i and u in certain words.
  • The bizarre removal of letters creating jarring new words. For example, the French for Onion: ‘Oignon‘ now becomes ‘Ognon‘, which looks like the name of a villain from Lord of the Rings.

The Académie Française, watchdogs of the French language, initially approved this set of reforms a staggering 26 years ago in 1990, but it is only now that they are being acted upon. It must be noted they are only ‘optional’- a laughable proposition on its own. How can a set of official spellings be optional? I mean it’s optional for me to spell anything wrong, but that doesn’t make it right does it?

Also why create this unnecessary confusion? If the aim is to improve learning, then we should be simplifying the process, not complicating it. Good spelling is about precision, a word is either spelt completely correctly, or it’s wrong. There’s not meant to be any middle ground, so having an optional ‘i’ in ‘oignon‘ is counter-intuitive and frankly bonkers.

The announcements provoked an enormous backlash amongst the French public, who were outraged by what they considered to be an attack on their language, culture and national heritage. On Twitter, the hash tag of #JeSuisCirconflexe was taken up in protest.

The only potentially valid argument in favour of these changes (brace yourselves for its subsequent dismantling), relates to France’s immigration problem, which has arguably never been so pressing. The lack of integration of new settlers into French society results in the creation of ethnic ghettos in the suburbs of major cities such as Paris and the infamous ‘banlieues‘ de Marseille. Since many of these people are coming to France with little or no knowledge of French, then surely making the language as easy as possible to learn will help them settle into mainstream French society and form a link with the culture, as opposed to what happens far too often; individual ethnic groups living together in small, insular communities and having very little interaction with the rest of French society, with many making no effort to learn the language. This is the perfect breeding ground for racial/ethical tension and more worryingly, extremist radicalisation, which is an ever-growing and very real problem being faced in the West.

However, changing a handful of words in an arbitrary manner won’t suddenly encourage people to engage with the rest of society and learn the national language. The problem lies in the social segregation and the atmosphere of tension, which is what the French government should be focusing on, rather than taking away the circumflex.

In response to criticism, the AF claimed the changes reflected an evolving language. This is a fair enough point, us British too aren’t shy of adding new words to our language. It was only last August that ‘ awesomesauce (adjective): extremely good; excellent’ (truly embarrassing) was added to the OED. Of course this is an intentionally bizarre example and I wouldn’t disagree that new words should be officially added to languages to keep them up to date, but changing words that have proudly stood for hundreds of years and have made up the backbone of countless works of literary greatness and cultural significance is an out-right attack, and doing so in the name of simplification is an insult to the French peoples’ intelligence.

All languages have idiosyncrasies, especially English; funny little rules that you only learn by getting wrong, and they’re something to cherish. I savour that little jolt of smug pleasure you feel when you hear someone getting something wrong that you had previously gotten wrong but learnt from it. Take ‘hanged’ for example – you say ‘the nasty villain was hanged’, not ‘he was hung’, it’s ‘hanged.’

Finally, poor spelling abilities could be blamed on the reduced importance placed on reading in our society, where everything is condensed to a 140-character tweet, with little attention paid to the spelling or grammar.

If I were in charge of the Oxford Modern Languages faculty, I would have released a formal statement, announcing that the faculty isn’t acknowledging these changes and is sticking to good old fashioned, traditional French. If it was good enough for Voltaire, it’s damn well good enough for me.

So, if the word ‘onion’ comes up in my finals translation paper, rest assured, I’ll be spelling it ‘oignon.’