Tuesday, February 23, 2016

A question of language: Je suis circumflex

In Paris during simpler times /
At the Place de la Concorde, 2012.

One recent Saturday morning while enjoying breakfast, I read with interest the news from France that tempers have been flaring over questions of language.

Imagine ça!

According to The New York Times, French broadcaster TF1 reported that "changes were afoot" at the Académie française, the pre-eminent French council for matters pertaining to the French language, "to cut back the circumflex accent, known as 'the hat' from French-language textbooks."


You know the circumflex accent, 
right? It looks like this: ˆ


In addition, according to the story, French teachers are also being asked to make changes affecting about 2,400 French words, including spelling oignon – or onion – as agnon.

Ciel aider ceux qui ne peuvent pas épeler.

"Among the words appropriated from English, news reports noted, the hyphen in week-end would be eliminated, along with the hyphen in tictac (now tic-tac, or ticking, like a clock), while leader would be given a French makeover and spelled leadeur. Nénuphar, or water lily, would be spelled nénufar."

As you might imagine, the reaction on social media – Facebook, Twitter and such – has been harsh and unkind. It should come as no surprise that intellectuals, teachers, and traditionalistes  have come forth to vent their anger. After all, many French see what's happening as an attack on centuries of their culture and history. Some see the "pruning" of the circumflex as a personal affront.

"Others were quick to warn of the linguistic perils of losing the circumflex to distinguish between sûr, or sure, ad adjective and sur, or on, a preposition," according to The New York Times story.

For instance, The New York Times wrote: "'I am sure your sister is well' and 'I am on top of your sister she is well' are not the same thing," somebody noted on Twitter, using a colloquial form of French.

Oh, la confusion!

In fact, the circumflex is becoming optional on i's and u's, and only on those words that do not need it. It will remain mandatory in several French verb tenses and when there is a clear distinction in meaning."

La langue est encore sacré?

Attitudes in language shift and, perhaps, it's a sign of the times that language evolves – even the immortal, sacred French language. And yet, in an ever-changing age of technology and smartphones, there's something charming about a culture that is still wedded to its vaunted dictionaries.

Je vous remercie.

Photo: By Michael Dickens © 2012.

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