Founded in 1634 to act as official guardian of the national language, the French Academy in modern times has waged a relentless battle against socalled franglais: English words that creep into French usage (le fast food, le jogging). Now, the highly conservative, Paris-based academy is facing a new and unexpected enemy. In a revolt against the complexity of French, the nation’s primaryand junior-highschool teachers have called for a radical change in spelling that would rid French of the more petty rules that confuse French schoolchildren almost as much as they do foreign students. The demand for simplification, coming as France prepares to mark the 200th anniversary in July of the French Revolution, has set off a furious national debate. The teachers insist that a spelling revolution is needed if French is to hold its own as a major world language. But traditionalists argue that simplified French could make for a simpleminded France, destroying its culture. Thundered academy member Félicien Marceau: “Reforms would be perilous, pointless and puerile.”
The furore over spelling erupted after L’Ecole, the monthly publication of France’s main teachers’ union, published the results of a survey showing that 90 per cent of the teachers polled said that they wanted to make French easier to write, and that the existing rules form an artificial barrier to understanding and expression. One of the basic changes suggested by the teachers is that the circumflex accent, which appears in words like trône (throne) and être, the verb “to be,” be dropped. The circumflex accent, which was introduced during the 18th century, is placed over vowels to indicate that they should be lengthened in speech.
The teachers also want to scrap the “x” ending in plurals like bureaux (offices) and chevaux (horses), using a simple “s” instead, as in most other French plurals. Even more adventurously, the teachers want to use a straightforward “f” in words that contain the letters “ph,” meaning that French philosophers would become filosofes. And they see no reason to continue plaguing schoolchildren with unexpected double consonants. Why, the teachers argue, should the noun tradition have one “n,” and the adjective traditionnel have two?
In their campaign to simplify the rules, French teachers point out that the formal written language has remained largely unchanged since 1832, when King Louis-Philippe ordered all public servants—including teachers—to conform strictly to the French Academy’s dictionary, which was already a dusty classic at the time, little changed since it was first published in 1694. The academy’s grip on the language that flowed from LouisPhilippe’s decree has long annoyed many French writers. French spelling, poet Paul Valéry (who died in 1945) declared, was “unhappily fixed in all its absurdity and ignorance by the pedants of the 17th century.”
While many other languages, including English, have their own unpredictable quirks, teachers in France contend that French is the quirkiest of all. Elizabeth Gillot, a junior-highschool teacher in Paris, says that unlike English, German and Spanish—all of which she studied to university level—the French language has exceptions to almost every rule of grammar and spelling. Said Gillot: “When we teach the exception alongside the rule, as we must do, we inevitably sow confusion in a child’s mind, impeding the learning process.” She added that the intricacies of French make it difficult for children to master ordinary spelling. Some never achieve literacy at all. A recent government survey indicated that six million French adults—about 20 per cent of the adult population—may be functionally illiterate, twice as high as the illiteracy level in Britain. The French teachers are using that statistic to bolster their argument in favor of change.
Although schoolchildren have not been consulted in the debate, one young student welcomed the prospect of having an easier time with la dictée (dictation) in the classroom. Said Simon Damelon, a nine-year-old Paris schoolboy: “Anything that brings written French closer to how the language sounds looks great to me.”
But linguistic purists have launched a blazing counteroffensive in the letters columns of Paris newspapers against simplified French. One writer, himself a teacher, warned his colleagues to “keep your filthy hands off our language.” Another letter-writer suggested that teachers had come up with the idea of reform to make life easier for themselves, not for children, and added scornfully, “If they wish to reform spelling, it is because they themselves don’t know how to spell.” Writing in Le Figaro, the right-wing Paris daily, academy member Jacqueline de Romilly declared that the teachers were out to “massacre” French. Added fellow academician Andre Frossard: “Words have a sound, a certain mystery, a design that must be respected.”
Despite the furious reaction to the teachers’ campaign, there were indications that their demands could lead to changes. There were unconfirmed reports last week that Prime Minister Michel Rocard had instructed aides to examine ways of implementing the reforms. But the suggestion that Rocard himself has acted in the matter indicated how deeply the spelling issue has split French society. Education Minister Lionel Jospin, who would normally handle reforms, is deeply opposed to the proposed changes. In the end, the split within the government could bolster the French Academy’s efforts to stave off any reform of the language at all.
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