I 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.