No, the French aren't bidding a final adieu to the circumflex

Oliver Gee
Oliver Gee - [email protected]
No, the French aren't bidding a final adieu to the circumflex
"I am the circumflex". Photo: Twitter

There was an almighty uproar on Thursday when the French learned the circumflex was on its way out and hundreds of words were to be spelled differently. But it appears to be a huge storm in an old tea cup.


Social media channels were flooded on Thursday when it was revealed that there would be changes to the French language, at least when it came to spelling. 
"Je suis circonflexe" (I am circumflex) in order of the "Je Suis Charlie" solidarity slogan became a trending hashtag after fears spread that the accent was going to disappear.
Newspaper headlines screamed "Goodbye to the circumflex" and "The death of the circumflex" (below).
One student union even called out the education minister for "authorizing the upturning of spelling rules and of the French language", reported Le Monde.
Others lambasted the fact that the French word for onion, which is oignon, will lose the i to become ognon, which looks and sounds a bit like "Oh Non!" - which incidentally summed up the reaction across France.
But in fact there's no need to fear. When it comes to the circumflex - that funny little hat-like accent - it's far from dying out. 
While the headlines suggested it would be soon gone forever, it's actually only going to disappear from above the letter i and u - and only in some cases. 
So on a word like sûr, the accent will stay - because otherwise it would lose its meaning of "sure" and would become the word sur - which means "on".
And it will remain comfortably in on top of the word hôtel, too. 
And as for the changes to the other 2,400 French words, well, they are genuine but they are only optional so traditionalists can still use their circumflexes if they so wish and even keep their "i" in oignon if dropping it makes their eyes water too much.
So what caused Thursday's hullaballoo, which had language purists waving their dictionaries in anger?
Things kicked off with a report from TV channel TF1, which listed words that were set to change (see more here). 
The channel's story mentioned that the changes were initially outlined by Académie Française back in 1990 and that the new words would be added to school textbooks by September. 
Then the story took off in France, especially on social media where the public and numerous politicians were outraged that the sacred French language was apparently being "dumbed down". 
"I started the day with a bit of vomit in my mouth," wrote one Tweeter. Others reacted with indignation that their onions wouldn't have an i in the middle anymore, and their computer's hyphen key would go practically unused. 
What's perhaps bizarre is that the story blew up on Thursday given that the changes were agreed back in 1990 when they were adopted by the High Council of the French Language after recommendations from the Acaémie Francaise.
The most recent mention of the changes was in a similar bulletin published late last year, which included a small reminder to schools and education chiefs of the 1990 changes.
Strangely a similar bulletin had been sent out back in 2008 by the ministry. And much like the 2015 bulletin, the 2008 version was largely ignored by the French public. Until Thursday. 
French onions to lose the 'i' as spelling changes spark uproar
Michel Lussault, the president of France's Higher Council of School Programmes, said the reason the changes were added to the 2015 bulletin was simply "because it is the law and has been the official standard since 1990".
Speaking with French newspaper L'Express, Lussault suggested that the entire story reeked of being nothing but a political smear. 
He said he had "absolutely no idea" where the reporters at TF1 got their idea from, not least because it was based on information available to the public since last year. 
The information presented by the channel "made people jump to the wrong conclusions about education reforms", he said, adding that it made the spelling changes seem like "a novelty imposed by the current government", which is already highly unpopular among teachers for its set of middle school reforms.
Lussault also made it clear that the changes were not "spelling reforms", but rather a "revision" or a "rectification". 
Education Minister Najat Vallaud-Belkacem felt obliged to take to social media to explain that "it's not up to the Ministry of Education to determine the rules".
And there is a great degree of tolerance over the use of these "revisions", so don't be surprised if you see official documents spelled either way. 
September will see revised spellings in text books at many schools, just as there have been every rentrée since 1990.
So long live the circumflex and long live the oignon!


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