Here’s Why French People Are Getting Riled Up About the Circumflex

Little accent, big debate

Umberto NURS, via Wikimedia Commons

Like the living creatures who speak them, languages evolve over time. New words are constantly added to dictionaries, old ones fade out of fashion and meanings shift. But linguistic changes aren't always welcomed, which brings us to the current debate in France over how children learn French.

Earlier this month, French publishers announced that new editions of textbooks would change the spellings of some words to remove hyphens and circumflexes (an accent symbolized as ^) in accordance with a 1990 ruling by the Académie Française. The rule affects about 2,400 words and had been devised to standardize some tricky linguistic quirks, but since its creation was never compulsory and had been more or less ignored.

As Agnes Poirier explains for the BBC:

Indicated by the symbol ^, [the circumflex] is placed over a vowel to show that the vowel or syllable containing it must be pronounced in a certain way. In French, the vowel so marked has a certain grave and long sound quality. The circumflex accent adds a certain musicality to a word; some would argue it confers poetry to words. More practically, it can also change the meaning of a word. ‘Mûr’ means ‘mature’, while ‘mur’ means ‘wall’; ‘jeûne’ means fasting while ‘jeune’ means young.

The simpler spellings won’t alter how the words are pronounced, but may help children learn French more easily, according to the French education ministry. Though the ministry has advised schools for years to use the newer spellings, the changes only drew public notice after a recent report by the television station TF1 on the textbook changes, writes Kim Willsher for the Guardian. Since then, critics ranging from student unions to the far-right National Front party have taken to social media, using hashtags like #Circonflexe and #JeSuisCirconflexe, going so far as to evoke #JeSuisCharlie, to air their linguistic grievances, Willsher reports. 

One of the chief complaints is that the ministry is attempting to dumb down the language through this rule. A student union group's statement blasted education minister Najat Vallaud-Belkacem for “believing she was authorised to overturn the spelling rules of the French language.”

The circumflex won’t disappear for words where it changes the meaning, and both old and new spellings will still be considered correct, according to the BBC. In general, the circumflex will stay on top of the letters “a” and “o,” but will be considered optional when used to top off “i” and “u." Some of the words being changed in next fall’s new textbooks include maîtresse/maitresse (mistress), coût/cout (cost), and paraître/paraitre (to appear), Merrit Kennedy reports for NPR.

France school curriculum board president Michel Lussault is perplexed by the kerfuffle around the change. “This has been the official spelling in the Republic for 25 years. What is surprising is that we are surprised,” Lussault tells Willsher. “There were strange spelling anomalies linked to historic shifts so the Académie really made sure these changes were understandable.”

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