nenufars and ognons



nenuphar1I had not planned to write a post about the updating of the French spelling, but as the nice jetgirlcos asked me what I thought and that I felt I could not answer in the too little box of comments, here’s a post on the subject. I have not done any thorough research on the matter, so these are my spontaneous thoughts. But before getting into the thick of it, let me mention how this topic make   my English-speaking friends laugh. It’s not the updating  as such that triggers the hilarity of my colleagues, but the debate surrounding it, the passion we put into it. My fellow English-speaking linguists do not miss  mentioning with  perplexity the emotion aroused by discussions about language among French speakers, whether it is about  spelling or borrowing (from English). It is true that  French speakers are taught, early in life, to love, respect and sometimes fear  their language, mostly for the better and sometimes for worse.

Regarding the so-called spelling reform, it must first be emphasized that this is a simple rectification of anomalies in the spelling of  French. From a linguistic point of view, the need for such change at more or less regular intervals should go without saying, as spoken and written language are at opposite poles. The spoken  language tends to change quickly and spontaneously,  while writing attempts to freeze the language in permanence. It seems normal then, to avoid a widening  gap between these two poles, to try to reconcile the vagaries of phonetic evolution and the  stiffness of the graphics system representing it.

In the case of the latest  spelling changes, there will always be those who believe that the reform does not go far enough, those who say we have done too little, and others who wanted that things be done differently. Unanimity is simply not possible in this area. Why ? Because the language is not, contrary to what some claim, just a communication system. Language  is filled with  social and emotional connotations, that we do not always consciously perceived.

Reasons  that are given to justify the decisions taken concerning the correction of spelling mainly indicate, I think, how aware the  officials are that they are  walking on eggshells and know that whatever decision they make will be criticised.  There is much talk, for example, about circumflex accents: some disappear, others stay, allegedly to avoid confusing words such as mur (wall)  and mûr (mature). Yet there is no circumflex in the speech form  and these two words are rarely confused  as the context allows to disambiguate the meaning in most cases: the grapes are ripe (le raisin est mûr), he jumped the wall (il a sauté le mur), do not create any confusion. If the authorithies taken the decision one step further and ha  got  rid of all the circumflexes,  a storm of possibly more violent protests would have taken place. The fact that it took over twenty years to implement  this change also illustrates how sensitive the subject is.

I have been a keen speller as a child, a lover of the  Latin language, and the detours of grammar, but I accept willingly the changes. I realise very well that for those who have difficulty in learning these arbitrary rules, language becomes an object of misery, shame,  and sometimes hatred too. Is it necessary? Over the years, I have had students who have learned French spelling without difficulty and others who had difficulty. Should we condemn them for that?


Teachers are likely to bear the brunt of the changes and it is understandable that they see this reform as an additional burden added to their already heavy responsibility, I am sure. It is especially toward them that my sympathy goes. The coexistence of two spellings is probably not ideal : some will apply the reform to the letter, some will apply part of it an others  will do nothing at all.

The non-linguist I also am  in my spare time does not like the word “ognon”. I prefer the inconsistency of the oignon. Oignon  is my childhood, the link with the past, the  history of the language, its evolution, it is the  fun (a bit simple, I admit) that I sometimes had to phonetically pronounce the word “wagnon “to make fun of orthographic inconsistencies. I like the “old” spelling as I like my old shoes.   Do I have to impose it to the little boy who learns to read and write? I do not believe so. I will  let the younger generation having  fun with the language differently. I asked in return that they   let me live with my words, those who saw me grow up, and still give me great pleasure today. 


11 thoughts on “nenufars and ognons”

  1. This is such an interesting post, Sylvie. The French have always stood out, in my mind, for their passion about their language since the time of the formation of L’académie Française. Not many countries actually have an official body that legislates what is and is not correct about its language. All that you say here, rings true, especially the fact that spoken and written language differ and change, each at a different pace.
    The elder generation will want to retain its memories and the younger will be impatient with some of the old ways. I laughed about “ognon”; it looks so ugly and unpronounceable to me….nowhere near as pretty as “oignon”! 🙂 There are none so comfortable as our old shoes.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you for this comprehensive and informed reply Cynthia. It is true that French speakers have a love for their language which is difficult to understand. The idea of an academy of course is also difficult to understand, although, if you think about it in context (many hundred years ago) it made some sense (for us only probably; you may know that the French language had an inferiority complex towards Latin, and the Academy might have been a way to get out of it). The English language makes decisions through lexicographers, which is a little bit easier and a little bit less scarier (I feel sorry for those who have to make decisions, as they are sure they will be the targets of all sorts of attacks). Yes, at the end of the day, we like what we know and we like our old shoes. 🙂


  2. When I saw the title of this one, I wondered what language you were going to use. It is an excellent piece. Much of what you say holds good in English, too. As you would expect, I found it fascinating. I suspect, when I come to the French version, I will struggle

    Liked by 1 person

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