February 10, 2016
Linguistic purists take to Twitter over the circumflex
by Kait Howard
Two decades after the Académie Française released new guidelines on the use of one of the quirkier diacritical marks in the French language—the circumflex—public outrage has erupted.
The Guardian’s Kim Willsher reports that various changes to around 2,400 French words published by the Académie in the French Republic Official Journal in 1990 “went unremarked” when they were released, but provoked widespread indignation following a report by the TV channel TF1 last week.
According to Willshire, “[t]he aim was to standardise and simplify certain quirks in the written language making it easier to learn.” The changes included simplifying spellings of words like oignon (onion) by removing the silent “i,” and removing hyphens from compound nouns like portmonnaie (purse) and extraterrestres (extraterrestrials).
But the change that seems to be the most controversial is the removal of the pointy, hat-shaped circumflex above the letters I and U “where the accent does not change the pronunciation or meaning of the word.” A #JeSuisCirconflexe hashtag, inspired by the much more seriously-conceived #JeSuisCharlie hashtag, was unleashed on Twitter by people apparently concerned that the country’s Socialist government is “dumbing down the language.” This despite the fact that the Académie appears only to be promoting updates approved ages ago.
While the changes are only recommended (school textbooks will be standardized, but both old and new spellings will be accepted in students’ work and dictionaries have been advised to include both spellings), the issue has, according to Willshire, become political, with several politicians expressing consternation over the loss of a convention even the notoriously traditional Académie has been happy give up.
Away from the center of the storm, Jeremy Harding at LRB Blog noted that “diacritical marks are now ironic, as they were for Joyce.” It’s worth remembering that the circumflexes are themselves a kind of shorthand developed during the sixteenth century to “remind us that an ‘s’ has gone missing over centuries of usage.” Isn’t there a sad irony in using a hashtag to wage a battle about linguistic purity, anyway?
Kait Howard was a publicist at Melville House.