The War of the Circumflex Accent

"La langue français est une femme. Et cette femme est si belle, si fière, si modeste, si hardi, se touchante, si voluptueuse, si chaste, si noble, si familière, si folle, si sage, qu'on l'amie de toute son âme, et qu'on n'est jamais tenté de lui être infidèle." * Anatole France

When I was in the Gulf War, I was unaware that a greater war was brewing in France with pretty much the same outcome for the victors, and the anguish for the defeated.

On 6 December 1990 an event occurred of such earth shaking proportions that could have had a profound impact on the French speaking world. As I write this, I reflect on the next ship berthed to ours a French Frigate and how they were being faced by two enemies, the Iraqis who were lobbing bombs at us and those at home who would change the French language by changing certain aspects. These aspects, irregularities actually, if changed would simplify the language and make it easier to teach. They were, 1. use of the hyphen. 2. plurals of compound words. 3. the circumflex accent. 4. past participle agreement of pronominal verbs. 5. various "anomalies". This was all published in the Le Journal Officiel. It was originally proposed by the Conseil Supérieur de la Langue Français but when it was published the Académie Français, (the keepers of everything holy in the French language)who agreed, the country went into an uproar!

And what! Remove the 'g' from oignon, the curcumflex 'î' from maître! That would be like spelling Boys as Boyz. This linguistic war was carried on for weeks making headlines in le Figaro and le Monde, alongside of the war news.

Two groups laid siege to the Académie Français, justifying the reason to keep the language just the same as it was. They spoke of the aesthetic effect that these changes would make, as well as the sensual effect of the language. An opera singer chimed in the that the French Language was music, (one does not change a note in a symphony or a word in an opera) and the circumflex was an integral part of the music of French.

In the end the Académie Français did not make any changes. As I have written change does not come the the French language easily. If a word can be said in French it will be said in French, very few foreign words enter the spoken language in France.

The last change to the French language came in 1835, that is not a typo, eighteen thirty five, and what was that change? It was the change of the oi diphthong to the ai, as in français. Can it be any wonder that the Catechism of the Catholic Church was written into French first and then Latin, and then translated into the other languages? It is a living language that rarely changes (as opposed to Latin which is a dead language that never changes.)

In this day of fast food and sound bites, the French still take time to chew their food and speak properly. And a Big Mac is a Royale.

Dieu le Roy!

*"The French language is a woman. And this woman is so beautiful, so proud, so modest, so bold, touching itself, so voluptuous, so chaste, so noble, so familiar, so crazy, so wise, that one loves her with all one's soul, and that one never is tempted to be unfaithful."

The same could be said of my wife Suzanne.

Notes: L'Académie française, or the French Academy, is the pre-eminent French learned body on matters pertaining to the French language. The Académie was officially established in 1635 by Cardinal Richelieu, the chief minister to King Louis XIII. Suppressed in 1793 during the French Revolution, it was restored in 1803 by Napoleon Bonaparte (the Académie considers itself to have been suspended, not suppressed, during the revolution).

I used many sources for this blurb, (find that in your Le Petit Larousse!) but especially a book I bought my daughter about 6 months before her studies in France, French or Foe, by Polly Platt, Culture Crossings, London 1994, Le Journal officiel, Paris


Anonymous said...

Removing the "g" from oignon sounds strange to me, wouldn't it change the pronunciation?

Brantigny said...

Hmm I don't think so.