One of my favorite cartoons of all time (which I discovered several years ago in Jonathan Fenby’s excellent France on the Brink) depicts a harried teacher before a French grammar class composed of teenage hoodlums. In an apparent effort to help her students relate to the rather dry lesson, she writes the following conjugation on the blackboard:
nous brûlons une voiture
vous brûlez une voiture
ils brûlent une voiture
ells brûlent une voiture
“We burn a car, you burn a car, they burn a car . . .”
Best of all is the wry caption: “And don’t forget the circumflex!”
I remembered this today when I read about the new rules and words developed by the Académie Française, the nearly 400 year old body that protects the integrity of the French language and determines how words are spelled in the French dictionary. Among those changes, to take effect in schoolbooks next academic year, is the removal of the circumflex (the little hat- or roof-shaped accent) from words in which it has heretofore appeared over a U or I. So brûler in the teacher’s lesson above will become bruler and entraîner (“to practice”) will become entrainer.
Quite a ruckus has been raised on social media by French speakers who are appalled at the mangling of their language and their perceived betrayal by the organization that exists to protect it. The hashtag #JeSuisCirconflexe (“I am circumflex”) has been trending on Twitter among those expressing their indignation. This, of course, is a play on “Je Suis Charlie,” the defiant phrase carried on signs and worn on clothing following the murders at the Paris satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo last year.
As you can see, the French get rather touchy about their language. Granted, the circumflex doesn’t totally change the pronunciation of a word the way the acute accent or cedilla does (changing a short E to a long E and changing a C from the K sound to the S sound, respectively). Some believe the accent is pretty much useless, a relic of Old French adopted to indicate locations where the letter S had been omitted (for example, bête, the word for “beast” gained its circumflex when it lost its S in the transition to modern French). And the circumflex will not be completely disappearing; it will still appear where it always has on the vowels A, E and O, as well as on words in which its absence would change the meaning (such as sur, “on top of,” versus sûr, meaning “sure”). But it is still a matter of pride for the French.
As if the disappearing circumflex weren’t bad enough, the Académie Française also saw fit to change the correct spelling of a few words — oh, about 2,400 in all. For example, oignon, the word for “onion,” becomes ognon. And it’s not only the circumflex that will be seen less often. Fewer hyphens will be around, too. Compound words like porte-monnaie (change purse) and week-end will lose their hyphens.
I had to laugh when I heard about week-end. That, of course, is a prime example of “franglais,” the slang Frenchification of English words and phrases that so many of the French detest. And although there is a perfectly good phrase for “weekend” in French (fin de semaine), the Académie Française has apparently capitulated to the unstoppable waves of popular culture that have been beating against the shores of French linguistics for decades. Now, the French can not only use the English word “weekend” knowing it is officially sanctioned, but French kids can even spell it just the way it’s spelled in English without getting points marked off their papers.
I have to wonder about grand-mère, the French word for “grandmother.” Back in the Stone Age, when I was in school, it was spelled grand’mère, with, of all things, an apostrophe. By the time I arrived in college, the apostrophe had been replaced by a hyphen. Could it be that the French will now be able to address their grannies without the need of punctuation?
Something tells me the grandmothers of French aren’t going to like this one bit. But they can look on the bright side. At least they won’t be losing a circumflex.