[Journal of the Simplified Spelling Society, 1989/1 pp.10-12 later designated J10]
[See Susan Baddeley: Journals.]

Spelling Reform in France: Past, Present and ... Future?

Susan Baddeley.

Susan Baddeley studied French and Russian and is now working for the HESO (Histoire et Structure de l'Orthographe Française) research team at the CNRS in Paris. The team's major research project, nearing completion, is a Historical Spelling Dictionary of the French language, which analyses the development of written French through 11 dictionaries since the 16th century. Details of current trends in the spelling reform movement in France can be found in her article in Journal 1988/1, J7 pp30-31, and further developments in France will be reported in future issues. The following article arises from the talk she gave to the Society on 24 September 1988.


The current debate on spelling reform in France is not new. Ever since the 16th century, French grammarians, writers and printers have tried to find ways of improving the national writing system. What is new, however, is the fact that, in the past, many reforms actually succeeded, whereas nowadays spelling reform schemes are most often looked upon as unrealistic and doomed to failure. How much does modern French owe to the efforts of spelling reformers, and how were successful reforms brought about? The answers to these questions, outlined in the following short historical perspective, should prove instructive to all those concerned with future reforms, in France and elsewhere.


The question of spelling reform is probably as old as spelling itself. At all events, it is certainly not a new issue, and in France just as in England all sorts of reform schemes have come and gone in the past. These have ranged from out-and-out phonetic schemes (sometimes with completely new alphabets), through simplifications or regularisations of the existing system, to just the cutting-out of a few anomalies. Most of them did not come to much, but a few managed to 'catch on' and leave their mark on modern French usage, and indeed they have become such an essential part of it that today hardly anyone would think that at one time they had been new, and that people could have written differently.

1. The lessons of the past.

The history of spelling reform in France is an extremely rich and eventful one, and can be very instructive for all those who are involved with its present structure and with the possibility of reforming it. Of course, some people may say, "Why bother with the history of spelling? What we want to know is how it works today. All the problems we have with today's spelling come from people being too attached to the past". The answer to this is that the past history of spelling gives us important insights into the ways in which written languages develop. It shows us that spelling has changed, and therefore that it can change and that there is no reason why it should not continue to do so. Secondly it shows us how these different changes came about, how the written language has reacted at different times to technical changes (such as printing), to changes in the language and to social changes in reading and writing habits, and how writers, printers, lexicographers and official institutions have set about the task of implementing reforms. Finally, it shows us what sorts of reforms have been successful in the past, and why they have succeeded. This knowledge can be extremely useful when planning future reforms.

2. Spelling change.

First of all, historical studies show that the spelling of French (like that of all well-established written languages) has changed considerably over the years. This is not something that is immediately obvious to everybody: many people seem to think that spelling is something sacrosanct and untouchable, that it cannot be changed because it has "always been like that", and has a kind of antique value to it: it should be respected because of its age. Of course this idea is completely false, and if you can prove that today's spelling is the result of changes, many of them brought about as deliberate reforms (at least in French), and that change and reform are necessary processes in any written language, you have already won half the battle. In our Historical Spelling Dictionary, for example, over 55% of the words which make up our corpus (based on the Académie Française's dictionary of 1694) have changed graphically in some way (and many of them have changed in several ways) since the 16th century. The following short text, taken from Jean Molinet's Le Romant de la Rose (1500), is first given in its original form, and then in modern spelling, with words which differ from 16th century forms (not including abbreviations) in italics; it thus gives a rough idea of the extent and nature of these changes.

1550 Nagueres que vng florētin fut tāt abuse de la beaulte dune damoyselle q pour paruenir a fin de son emprise il luy offrit tout ce q demāder luy plairoit se possible estoit den recouurer. La damoyselle voulant esprouuer se la bouche & le cueur estoiēt dung accord luy demanda les deux yeulx de son chief. Le florētin sās auoir regard a la difformite de son vyaire arracha les yeulx de sa face & et les luy enuoya en vne boiste. ['q' should hav a macron ¯.]

1989 Naguère qu'un Florentin fut tant abusé de la beauté d'une demoiselle que, pour parvenir à fin de son emprise, il lui offrit tout ce que demander lui plairait, si possible était d'en recouvrer. La demoiselle, voulant éprouver si la bouche et le coeur étaient d'un accord, lui demanda les deux yeux de son chef. Le Florentin, sans avoir regard à la difformité de son viaire, arracha les yeux de sa face & les lui envoya en une boîte.
Many of these changes are similar to those that are to be found in English: abbreviations written out in full, different use of <u> and <v> (and <i> and <j>), use of the apostrophe, <y> replaced by <i>, mute letters cut out, different use of punctuation and capitals. Others are characteristic of French in particular: spellings that reflect changes in pronunciation (damoyselle: demoiselle, chief: chef), introduction of accents, etc., and of course there are many more changes which are not illustrated in this short text. In our Dictionary we have identified 149 different types of modification in spelling since the 16th century (and we have tried to keep our criteria for classification to a minimum).

3. 'Natural' change versus reform.

A distinction should be made between changes which can almost be said to be 'natural' (although any change in spelling is the result of a decision made by someone or other), and those which have been brought about as the result of a conscious plan and will to reform. 'Natural' changes tend to be slower, and their effect less regular than those brought about by controlled reforms.

A good illustration of the first type of change is abbreviations. As far as I know, there was never any particular campaign to get rid of abbreviations, and most of them seem to have 'died a natural death' in French printed texts by the end of the 16th century. Their disappearance from prints (they continued to be used in manuscripts) is due partly to technological changes involved in the shift from script to print: abbreviations were useful to scribes who wanted to write quickly and save on parchment, whereas the printers used paper (which was cheaper), they had other ways of justifying their lines, and they were not prepared to use spelling forms which could only be understood by a happy few (otherwise their books would not sell). Another reason is a social change in reading habits: the ability to read abbreviations (and the old orthography in general) depended very strongly on knowledge of Latin, which was becoming more and more scarce in the new types of reading public the printers were catering for.

However the 'natural' change was very slow, as becomes obvious when we compare it to other changes which were brought about consciously as reforms, and a good example of this second type of spelling change is the introduction of accents. The system of accents in French today was introduced in stages, but the first set of accents and auxiliary signs, which had a mainly distinctive function, appeared around 1530, and by 1550 (only 20 years later) they were in use practically everywhere.

The need for these particular reforms was outlined for the first time in several theoretical works [1] around 1530, and they were implemented by a small group of Parisian humanists, scholar-printers and typefounders. The accents were first used in works by the popular poet Clément Marot (who also had a hand in devising the system of accents, which were particularly useful for improving the reading of verse) and in a poetic work by the king's sister, Marguerite of Navarre, which gave a stamp of approval to the whole scheme. It should also be pointed out that most of the people involved in these first reforms were also linked with the Protestant Reformation, and the Protestant Bibles of the time were quick to adopt the new forms, which made written French accessible to a wider reading public. Although the printers had difficulty with the new signs at first, their use in the later part of the 16th century was remarkably regular.

That century also saw the first truly phonetic orthographies, devised by humanists such as Meigret, Peletier du Mans and Ramus. However, these reformers had considerable difficulty in getting their works printed, and only a very small proportion of the reformed spellings they recommended were adopted, [2] although some of Meigret's ideas were popularised by Ronsard and other poets.

4. Institutionalised reforms.

The interest in reform lasted until the 17th century, during which there was a very strong movement in favour of modernised spelling (in competition with other movements which favoured the more traditional, etymologically-based spelling on the one hand, and phonetic spelling on the other). The famous quarrel between the 'ancients' and the 'moderns' also had its repercussions in the spelling debate. Modernised spelling was recommended (and used) by a large number of influential grammarians, writers and lexicographers, and it is likely that this tendency would have won the day if the Académie Française had not decided (after a great deal of discussion and pressures from the powers-that-be) to adopt the traditional type of spelling "which distinguishes men of learning from the ignorant and from simple women". However, in its first edition (1694) it did cut out a lot of superfluous elements, and for several words gave both the 'traditional' and the 'new' spellings.

The Académie dictionaries in the 18th century carried on the reforms, continued to cut out superfluous letters, regularised the written grammatical and lexical morphology of the language, and introduced a new set of phonological (rather than distinctive) accents, the grave and the circumflex accents in particular: the 1740 Académie dictionary modernised the spellings of about 36% of the words from the previous edition, and the bulk of these reforms consisted of replacing the old mute <s> by an accent (eslever: élever, goust: goût, etc).

French had become a prestige language, and its remaining so depended upon its being regular and relatively easy to learn. However, success in carrying out reforms still depended on the same factors as in the 16th century: limited but well-defined aims, exhaustive theoretical groundwork, and close collaboration between printers, writers and grammarians to bring them into use.

5. Spelling in the modern state.

Paradoxically, although the French state after the Revolution had more power, in principle, to impose reforms, spelling was changed less in the 19th century than it had been before: the 1835 Académie dictionary changed the spellings of only 2% of the entries from the previous edition, and the 1878 edition just over 1%. As the use of the written language became more widespread, it also became harder to change. In pre-revolutionary times spelling had been freer, and the existence of different tendencies had been generally accepted (people could change their spelling as they changed their handwriting, a means of expression we have lost today), but with the Republic, then the Napoleonic Empire, as the need arose for a unified system to be used in schools and in public administration it also became more institutionalised and rigid. In 1832 Louis-Philippe issued a decree stating that all public servants were to observe the 'correct' orthography.

It is no doubt significant that the French word for spelling, orthographe, immediately conjures up visions of a strict norm, the right way to spell, whereas the English word spelling is much more neutral.

6. 20th century reforms.

As we have seen, in France up to the 19th century there was a thriving tradition in favour of periodic, limited and rational reforms, with the backing of official institutions. However, with these occasional reforms having almost come to a halt, and with 'correct' spelling (even though the 'correct' forms were often far from perfect) having become such an obligation and an obsession, it is hardly surprising that reform movements in the late 19th-early 20th centuries tended to become more radical. These came to a head when a massive movement in favour of largely phonetic spelling was launched around 1890, mostly by linguists, spurred on by new research in phonetics and comparative linguistics, and backed up by many writers, intellectuals and teachers. Whole periodicals were printed in reformed orthography, and petitions with thousands of signatures were presented to the Académie and to the Ministry of Education. The Ministry replied by introducing in 1901, as a temporary measure, a decree that certain 'new' spellings would not be counted as mistakes in examinations. Even the Académie went so far as to accept some of the reforms. However the movement was finally crushed by the weight of adverse public opinion, by violent anti-reform campaigns in the press, and by the firm opposition of printers and publishers. The 'spelling question' almost turned into a nationwide battle, but finally the whole episode was forgotten with the outbreak of a real battle: the First World War.

7. What future for spelling reform?

Past experience shows that the only reforms which have ever succeeded (in French, at least) were limited, involved only a small number of clearly defined issues, didn't create too much of a break with the previous tradition (by introducing new characters, for example), and were brought about by close collaboration among all those (printers, writers, grammarians, teachers) that had the power to bring them into general use. Thanks to these frequent, small-scale reforms, modern French spelling is relatively regular, although the development of the spoken language in recent years, which has not been followed by corresponding changes in spelling, and the failure to 'clean up' leftovers of old notations mean that learning the written language is an increasingly difficult task.

Today, in the light of new theoretical approaches to the study of spelling and writing systems, linguists are tending to turn away from the purely phonetic ideal which many had previously upheld, and which ruled out the possibility of small-scale moderate reforms. As the task of making up for lost time becomes more and more urgent, reformers realise that over-ambitious reform schemes which have no hope of succeeding will only be a waste of time and effort. This is why each successive reform scheme in recent years has reduced the number of points for suggested reforms: the present AIROE [3] proposals have only four main points, but some people feel that even that is too much.

It is also important to create a favourable climate for spelling reform, and this can only be done by making people more aware of how their spelling system works, and informing them about its history. The study of the history of a written language in all its richness and complexity does not necessarily lead to excessive conservatism. On the contrary, those who refuse spelling reform entirely are often the most ignorant of the efforts made in the past to renew and revitalise the spelling system.

Let us therefore accept that in written language there can be a tradition of change and reform, just as there is a tradition of continuity with the past: the important thing it to maintain a balance between the two, and the study of past reforms shows how to achieve exactly that.


[1] E.g.: Geofroy Tory Champ Fleury (1529)
Jacques Silvius In linguam gallicam Isagoge (1531)
Anon. Briefve Doctrine (1533)

[2] Ramus played an important part in popularising modern use of <i, j> and <u, v> (often referred to by contemporaries as "lettres ramistes"; Meigret and Peletier systematically cut out mute letters and simplified doubled consonants and Greek letters.

[3] The AIROE association (Association pour l'Information et la Recherche sur les Orthographes et Systèmes d'écriture) is proposing a limited number of reforms (see JSSS 1988/1 J7).

Short bibliography for French spelling reform and history.

1 Historical studies.

Charles Beaulieux Histoire de l'Orthographe, Paris: Champion, 1927 (reprinted 1970), 2 vols.

Ferdinand Brunot Histoire de la langue française, Paris. A Colin, 1905-1953 (reprinted 1968), 13 vols.

Nina Catach L'Orthographe française a l'époque de la Renaissance, Geneva: Droz, 1968.

2 Spelling reform

Jean Guion L'Institution Orthographe, Paris: ed. Centurion, 1974.

Ministère de l'Éducation Nationale Rapport Général sur les Modalités d'une simplification éventuelle de l'orthographe française, Paris: Didier, 1965

René Thimonnier Le système graphique du français, Paris: Plon, 1967 (reform project).

3 General works

Claire Blanche-Benveniste, André Chervel L'Orthographe, Paris: Maspero, 1969 (reprinted 1974).

ed. Nina Catach La structure de l'orthographe française (proceedings of international conference on spelling held in 1974), Paris: Klincksiack, 1974.

Nina Catach, Claude Gruaz, Daniel Duprez L'Orthographe française, traité théorique et pratique, Paris: Nathan, 1980.

Nina Catach L'Orthographe ('Que sais-je?' series), Paris: PUF, 1988 (3rd edition).

V G Gak L'Orthographe française, Moscow, 1959 (French edition Paris: Selaf, 1976).

Back to the top.