The French are arguing again, 26 years later, over recommended spelling changes to their language. I remember agonizing over them when I was working on French textbooks at a publishing company back then. We ended up not changing our spelling, finding out only later that the French themselves never applied them.
This time seems different, though. As of this coming September, French textbooks will follow the recommendations and spell weekend, nénufar, portefeuille, ognon and 2,400 other words the simpler, more instinctive way, as written here. The circumflex accent will also disappear from ‘i’ and ‘u,’ as in sur, which could then mean either ‘sure’ or ‘on’ – very different meanings. The problem is that those of us who toiled hard over the decades to learn the anomalies seem to be resisting.
Is it because we worked so hard to learn the rules or because we value the subtleties that will disappear with the new spelling?
The Académie française, both mocked and respected, seems to be defending itself against its stiff, nerdy reputation. It insists that it is only recommending the changes that the Education Ministry put into place. The dictionary that it is now working on gives both the traditional and the new spelling of the words concerned. It will see, over time, how the words evolve.
Imagine if English spelling were changed to make sense. George Bernard Shaw is (apparently erroneously) said to have supported that idea, mockingly suggesting the replacement of ‘fish’ by the invented word ‘ghoti.’ A poor non-anglophone could conclude that spelling, based on our ridiculous pronunciation of the sounds ‘gh’ as in ‘tough,’ ‘o’ as in ‘women,’ and ‘ti’ as in ‘nation’ or (/ˈfɪʃ/), according to the phonetic pronunciation.
The French are calling the changes un lifting’ or a ‘face lift.’ They also call it ‘un nivellement par le bas’ or what we call a ‘dumbing down.’