Category Archives: opinion

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. 


And during this time, in the South…

20151129_152722A colleague who had been  living  in NZ for about thirty years, told me shortly after my arrival in New Zealand, he loved the country but that he was always homesick at Christmas time. He could not help thinking about  his native Scotland, with short and cold days, as well as anything that evokes the holidays in this part of the world.

As I myself was suffering from homesickness, I gave up the  fight against this feeling that came over me without fail, as soon as I saw a Christmas tree and I heard a song linked directly or indirectly to holidays. I made great efforts to forget that it was Christmas. I was trying to go to  the beach and tried to avoid any reference  to Christmas.

In 2011, I was in Nelson. On December 24th, everyone met in the evening at the foot of the cathedral that overlooks the city. People  had lit candles and were singing  Christmas carols in  the dark. Then, everyone celebrated with a drink around midnight, in the heat of the night. The next day we went to the beach, with a  glass of white wine. From that moment, the magic started to operate for me. 


I  guess what now  makes me love the holidays here is that it seems easier  to forget the whole consumerist aspects tied to this time of year and that is probably why I increasingly  like  my summery Christmas, when one  does not eat, drink or consume  too much, and focuses instead on  the nice  weather, the holidays, the  sea, friends and   family. It is all the more the case here that Christmas and the summer holidays coincide. It may be the reason why the focus is less on Christmas itself (the downside being that we miss a second opportunity to have a break during the year)

The Maitai River mates


Several pedestrian bridges cross the Maitai River. The one I take every day look on trees whose branches extend above the river. This is where the mates from the Maitai River meet to soak up the sun or perhaps to tell the latest gossip about  tourists who insist on taking photos (but in truth, I am the main tourist). On the right, I think it is a white heron (but I am far from being certain), a rare species, it seems, that can be seen from time to time  on the banks of the river. I find excuses every day to cross the bridge and I have great pleasure in wondering which of the  buddies will be there.


The Christmas jumper

2014-23-12--04-47-33The BBC recently presented a documentary about the magazine Tatler‘s, a monthly aimed at 150,000 subscribers considered as part of the British elite (or aspiring to be). The documentary tells us, among other things, that in these circles, one should not mourn the death of a loved one, but it is fashionable to shed tears when one’s dog dies. Tatler’s readers   will also accept the most outrageous behaviors, provided that one  does not wear the wrong shade of blue on Tuesdays.

More recently, the magazine informed its subscribers that they could wear the “Christmas jumper” provided they wear it  ironically”. I have noted how trendy the Christmas jumper is this year,  but must admit that I can not distinguish between those who just wear it, from those who wear it ironically. As for me, when I have found the perfect Christmas jumper,  I intend to wear it poetically. Have a good and poetic year !