Hats off in the classroomlinguistically, not literally

03 September 2021

IN A HALF-HEARTED attempt to simplify the French language, certain French vowels are to go hatless, per the nation’s linguistic regulatory body1. The little hat that sat atop countless u’s and i’s for centuries are being expelled from the very pages that brought it to life. At long last, French will be easily acquired and phonetically accessible to incoming students – but at a cost outweighing benefits.

Centuries of classics bookmarked with circumflexes, all the sweat put into triumphing the spellings, the lasting legacy of a longstanding linguistic tradition – all on the line – as the “simplified” set of spellings are to take centre stage. But critically: simplification becomes complication when reforms are partially- and haphazardly-applied.
























Around 2,400 words – 4% of the French lexicon2 – will be rejuggled, all discriminated on the basis of comprising the inflammatory accent circonflexe (^), heinous hyphens, and superfluous characters. Although the Académie Française already approved the new spellings in 19903, no material changes were effected and no reaction graced news headlines until a 2016 report by the prominent TF1 channel4 propelled the reform to the national forefront.

A rather impossible reform to apply, as Le Parisien5 asserts – and given that it took the public 26 years to blink twice – for once – at Les rectifications de l’orthographe6 in the Journal officiel – a rather fitting conclusion.

As student unions and national groups waded into the alphabetical outrage, the education ministry found itself facing the fury of all corners of the French public, with accompaniment by the Academy’s authoritative voice.

Reform supporters counter that the language acquisition process can be simplified through eliminating functionless phonetical fluff like circumflexes on certain i’s/u’s and hyphens in words like porte-monnaie (wallet)7. Why bother wasting space on an accent that adds no pronunciational value? After all, la maîtresse – your schoolteacher – doesn’t magically metamorphosise into a toad if her i’s hat is dropped for a blandly dotted substitute. Onions can do with one vowel instead of the traditional opening pair in “oignon”8. The new “ognon” bears more resemblance to “oh, non” – essentially the French public’s reaction towards this linguistic reform in two syllables – than the original vegetable.

Schoolteachers, media outlets, linguists, and practically every nook and cranny of France’s population lambasted the new spellings with a barrage of critiques as diverse as their backgrounds. From outrage over changing the language of Molière to the practical inapplicability of the reforms to accusations of the government dumbing down French9, the people have collectively taken the stance of linguistic watchdogs – which, ironically, has been the Academy’s foremost function.

To touch the spelling is to touch one’s childhood – it is precisely all the tears, sweat, and pain that go into conquering the rules to walk away with the trophy which the circumflex denotes – that fuels the conflict with an unflagging passion and #jesuiscirconflexe crusaders10. These nostalgic sentiments find sound and strength in statements from school director and SNE11 president Pierre Favre, who prays for wisdom to prevail12.

Professor Julien Soulié likewise echoes educators in posing the question of whether we should remove dates from France’s history under the pretext that they’re too hard to remember13. Talk about easy cures for difficulties (like learning spelling) – why not just “break the thermometer”14 (i.e., toss out orthographical anomalies)? No one’s spelling improves, but we all feel better.

And how do we treat beloved masterpieces awash with circumflexes, hyphens, and now-unnecessary letters? Is it acceptable to replace le maître in Jacques Prévert’s renowned poem le Cancre15 with…some other kind of schoolmaster (who, preferably, doesn’t wear a hat)?

Perhaps oui; reform supporters counter that language is alive – as 1990 Académie Perpetual Secretary Maurice Druon forecasted changes to come in another 30 years16, if not earlier. An etymological analysis tracking French’s trajectory from its Latin roots additionally attests to the language’s adaptable nature. The deliberate deletion, reintegration, and addition of certain sounds (e.g., eau, ou) and scripts (ç)17 evince that French is a product of choice, not chance (i.e., nature’s choice).

If we’ve established that ousting orthographical members doesn’t constitute linguistic heresy, surely reform dissenters are the true heretics. We can afford to sacrifice some letters to make French “accessible to all”18.

But how accessible19 is a somewhat-circumflex-less, arbitrarily-cleaned-up French?

Not all circumflexes are uniformly disappearing. We still rely on hats to discern verb tenses (e.g., dut (indicative)/dût (subjunctive))20 and noun/adjective homophones (e.g., mur (nm)/mûr (adj))21. Recalling where to drop circumflexes versus not likely necessitates more effort than learning the original spellings.

If anything should be eradicated, the first should be one-fifth of the numerical system. How is juggling arithmetic conducive to learning words? Ninety-nine can be our scapegoat: quatre-vingt-dix-neuf = four-(××)-twenty-(+)-ten-(+)-nine22.

As for reprinting manuals, rewriting schoolbooks, republishing text – have you not enough on your plate, education ministry?

Indeed, the pro-circumflex passion has led some to wonder if the ministry’s agenda might be upside-down. Académie Perpetual Secretary Hélène Carrère d’Encausse adds a dash of perspective: does the circumflex deserve first place when 1 in 5 French schoolchildren leave the classroom still unable to read23?

Perhaps a more warranted concern lies within the confusion from a partially-applied reform24. Un cout – a cost – in a second-grade textbook might not cost you a grade when you discover un coût to be the standard in sixth25 – but may reasonably have you second-guess the quality of your prior education. The rationale? – It’s usage-based. Even Sébastien Sihr, secretary-general of SNUipp26 regrets leaving teachers to fend for themselves27 amidst the poorly publicised “phantom” rules.

With a melting pot of public sentiments muddled with the Academy’s authority, both spellings are considered correct at present. The dual-script system inevitably begs the question: what purpose does the newcomer serve, after grandly failing to replace the original?

A linguistic regulatory body ought to establish uniform orthographical standards; the recommendation of one badly-advertised set alongside the preservation of another of longstanding tradition effectively eliminates the efficacy of either.

For a game to function, all players must adhere to the same rules. The public, as apparent, has collectively chosen its side.

So can we just stick with the old ones, s’il vous plaît?


Abrams, Joel. 2019. “Orthographe : qui connait les rectifications de 1990 ?” The Conversationhttps://theconversation.com/orthographe-qui-connait-les-rectifications-de-1990-109517.

Académie française. 1990. “Le français aujourd’hui.” Académie française, December. https://www.academie-francaise.fr/la-langue-francaise/le-francais-aujourdhui.

Legras, Sophie. 2016. “Orthographe : la mort de l’accent circonflexe.” Le Point, February. https://www.lepoint.fr/societe/orthographe-la-mort-de-l-accent-circonflexe-04-02-2016-2015341_23.php.

Le Parisien. 2016. “Réforme de l’orthographe : inapplicable !” Le Parisien, February. https://www.leparisien.fr/societe/reforme-de-l-orthographe-inapplicable-05-02-2016-5517533.php.

Le service METRONEWS. 2016. “Réforme de l’orthographe : l’Académie française aussi "est circonflexe".” La Chaîne Info (LCI), February. https://www.lci.fr/societe/reforme-de-lorthographe-lacademie-francaise-aussi-est-circonflexe-1503749.html.

Macrotrends. 2021. “France Literacy Rate 1990-2021.” https://www.macrotrends.net/countries/FRA/france/literacy-rate.

Magaziner, Jessica. 2015. “Education in France.” World Education News and Reviews, September. https://wenr.wes.org/2015/09/education-france.

Mongaillard, Vincent. 2016. “Réforme de l’orthographe : l’accent circonflexe ne disparaît pas !” Le Parisien Etudiant, February. http://etudiant.aujourdhui.fr/etudiant/info/une-reforme-de-l-orthographe-inapplicable.html.

Willsher, Kim. 2016. “Not the oignon: fury as France changes 2,000 spellings and drops some accents.” The Guardian, February. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/feb/05/not-the-oignon-fury-france-changes-2000-spellings-ditches-circumflex.

  1. Refer to Académie française (1990).↩︎

  2. See Mongaillard (2016); cf. Willsher (2016).↩︎

  3. See Académie française (1990).↩︎

  4. See Willsher (2016).↩︎

  5. See Le Parisien (2016).↩︎

  6. The rectifications in orthography; the official document detailing all amendments to the language, published 6 December 1990. See Académie française (1990).↩︎

  7. See Mongaillard (2016); cf. Abrams (2019) and Willsher (2016).↩︎

  8. See Mongaillard (2016); cf. Willsher (2016).↩︎

  9. See Willsher (2016).↩︎

  10. See Mongaillard (2016); cf. Le Parisien (2016).↩︎

  11. Syndicat national des écoles (SNE): National Union of Schools (trans.).↩︎

  12. “La sagesse l’emportera”; my translation and paraphrasing. Refer to Mongaillard (2016); cf. Le Parisien (2016) and Willsher (2016).↩︎

  13. « Est-ce qu’on supprime les dates de l’Histoire de France sous prétexte que ce n’est pas facile à retenir ? Non. Il est plus simple, plutôt que de soigner le malade, de casser le thermomètre. Et là, en l’occurrence, on casse le thermomètre plutôt que de soigner les difficultés en orthographe que connaissent les élèves d’aujourd’hui » ; paraphased from my translation. Refer to Legras (2016).↩︎

  14. “Casser le thermomètre”; refer to Legras (2016).↩︎

  15. See Mongaillard (2016); cf. Le Parisien (2016).↩︎

  16. See Willsher (2016).↩︎

  17. See Abrams (2019).↩︎

  18. See Abrams (2019); cf. Willsher (2016).↩︎

  19. Literacy rates have remained stagnant at 99% since 2015, before the changes were to be widely circulated throughout educational texts. The population has not become more literate post-reform; the country had already achieved an exceptional literacy rate pre-reform, comparable to that of the United States. Refer to Magaziner (2015) and Macrotrends (2021).↩︎

  20. From the verb devoir; my own example. The former is the third-person indicative simple past tense (indicatif passé simple) conjugation; the latter is the third-person subjunctive imperfect (subjonctif imparfait). Some other irregular verb conjugations must also be differentiated by the circumflex.↩︎

  21. Cf. Abrams (2019) and Mongaillard (2016).↩︎

  22. One of my personal least favourite parts of learning the language. A simpler (singular) word exists in Belgian French: nonante (literally, ninety), which does not exist in French in France.↩︎

  23. "Le problème n’est plus d’offrir des facilités aux élèves, de conserver ou non l’accent circonflexe, mais de revoir totalement notre système éducatif, alors qu’un élève sur cinq quitte l’école sans savoir lire" (my translation and paraphrasing); refer to Le service METRONEWS (2016).↩︎

  24. See Mongaillard (2016).↩︎

  25. See Mongaillard (2016); cf. Le Parisien (2016).↩︎

  26. Syndicat National Unitaire des Instituteurs, Professeurs des Écoles et PEGC, affilié à la FSU: Joint National Union of primary school teachers, professors, and PEGC (my translation).↩︎

  27. See Mongaillard (2016); cf. Le Parisien (2016).↩︎


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