Tuesday, February 9, 2016

#Je suis...circumflexe?



"I started the day with a bit of vomit in my mouth," tweeted one Frenchman. Oh no, not another terrorist attack?! Worse - the French Education Ministry is eliminating the circumflex - that little "hat" in words like tête, forêt, and sûr

"#Je suis Charlie" quickly became "#Je suis circumflexe" on Twitter. Really? Well, the French do take their language seriously. To me, the most interesting part of the story is, as I've written in Flirting with French, that the French government dictates such matters as word usage and spelling. In America (and, I imagine most of the world), language just kinds of evolves organically. Put another way, our dictionaries reflect language usage, rather than dictate it.

The circumflex has an interesting history, by the way. It was introduced by early printers as a way to indicate that a word once had an "s" that is no longer used.  Put the "s" back in, and many French words become easily recognizable as their English counterparts: forêt, hôpital, côte.

 The Education Ministry also changed the spelling of a number of words:
   Oignon becomes ognon 
   Week-end becomes weekend (perhaps acknowledging once and for all its English roots)

2400 spelling changes in all! And you thought our kids had it rough in school... 

If you like this kind of wonkish stuff, by the way, you'll love Flirting with French -- bien sûr!