[Journal of the Simplified Spelling Society, 1989-2 pp.14,15 later designated J11]
[See journal items about French spelling.]
Also on this page: Romanian-English Orthographic Anecdote.

Progress of the spelling reform debate in France.

Susan Baddeley.


Susan Baddeley belongs to the HESO research team and AIROE association, Paris (for details see JSSS J10 1989/1 p10) and keeps the Simplified Spelling Society up date on spelling developments in French.

The first seven months of 1989 have been a very eventful time for all those concerned with spelling reform in France, and the question has received substantial press and media coverage.

1. In the press and media.

A debate was set off in the press last November, when the primary school teachers' union (SNI) journal published the results of a questionnaire they had carried out on spelling reform. To the question "Should spelling be simplified?" 1035 of their readers replied "yes" (as against 107 "no"), and gave their opinion on a certain number of reform proposals. Among these, the AIROE proposals (simplification of past participle agreement, of certain doubled consonants, regularising use of accents) received widespread approval.

These results were commented on by the AFP (French press agency), who interpreted them in a news dispatch as "90% of primary school teachers in favour of simplifying spelling", which wasn't strictly true, but was sensational enough to be taken up by a large number of newspapers, as well as by radio and television. Four of the biggest French daily papers ran articles on the subject, in particular Le Figaro and France-Soir, both of right-wing tendency, who adopted an extremely hostile point of view towards the question. "Fotil réformé l'ortograf?" was the title in France-Soir, making use of an extreme phonetic transcription, such as an illiterate might use, to ridicule and discredit the proposed reforms. "Qui peut réformer l'orthographe?" asked Le Quotidien, putting its finger on the weakest point in the spelling reformers' case, and concluding, as indeed many linguists do, that spelling reform is "technically necessary, but socially unthinkable".

Le Figaro and France Soir in particular presented the idea of spelling reform as a symptom of social and educational decay, a 'levelling-down' to encourage the ignorant and the lazy. This press campaign is in many ways reminiscent of the one which, at the beginning of this century, put a stop to reform proposals which had even been accepted by the Académie itself.

2. Public opinion.

A more serious survey was carried out by the literary magazine Lire in March. An opinion poll commissioned by the magazine revealed that 44% of those questioned were in favour of spelling being reformed, 50% against, and 6% uncertain. However, in answer to questions concerning specific points of reform, 76% declared themselves to be in favour of a certain amount of 'cleaning up' by eliminating anomalies. These results are not as contradictory as they may seem: the word 'reform' obviously conjures up for many people the idea of phonetic spelling or other radical reform projects, whereas putting a bit of order in the use of hyphens or doubled consonants apparently isn't thought of as a reform. The AIROE spelling reform working group, as a result of this, is drawing up a list of points which could be presented as simplifications, or regularisations, which are likely to meet with less opposition.

It was interesting to note that, among the people interviewed for the survey, a number of public figures (politicians, including the current Prime Minister), journalists and intellectuals were among those in favour of reforms.

A commission has recently been set up by the Prime Minister, Michel Rocard, to look into the problems of French teaching and the use of French in the world, and we hope that, as a result of the interest shown by the press, the spelling question will receive the attention it needs.

3. Campaigns.

The AIROE association has continued, all this year, its campaigns in favour of a moderate and limited reform of French spelling (for the four main points of these reform proposals, see Journal J7 1988/1, p31). A leaflet sent to all university teachers received an encouraging number of positive replies and an increase in AIROE's membership. Several members of AIROE appeared on radio and television programmes following the press reports earlier this year, to talk about the Association's aims and its proposals.

An important event in February was an appeal, in Le Monde, on behalf of TO of France's most eminent linguists (including Nina Catach, president of AIROE) in favour of modernisation of French spelling. Referring to the past history of French spelling, they pointed out that periodic reforms, which had been regularly carried out until quite recently, are necessary if French is to keep its place as a world language and if literacy is to be increased, and gave the example of several countries which have rational spelling reform policies, where linguists and politicians meet to discuss these questions, which is not the case in France.

Another important body of professional opinion, the primary school teachers, has also recently declared itself in favour of simplification of spelling. The teachers' union, whose news magazine originally commissioned the report on spelling reform which set off the nationwide debate at the beginning of the year, will shortly be bringing out a publication on the teaching of spelling and its reform, with the collaboration of AIROE.

4. Future prospects.

With the support of many linguists, schoolteachers and public figures, and with the impending publication of a number of books on the subject, [1] the campaign in favour of simplification of spelling is likely to gather speed over the next few months. It will not be the first time the 'spelling question has received so much attention: the satirical weekly Le Canard enchaîné recently compared it to the Loch Ness monster, which 'pops up' occasionally and causes a commotion, but is soon forgotten about.

However, historians and spelling reformers know only too well that spelling is much more than a convenient way of writing down the spoken language, that it is widely held to be "part of the national heritage" (according to the opinion poll mentioned earlier, 86%), and that public opinion on the question is not always amenable to logical and reasonable discussion. Would-be spelling reformers must tread carefully, for a sensational headline in "ortograf fonetik", or a vigorous statement from a public figure (such as that made recently by a politician close to Giscard d'Estaing, who described the president of the teachers' union, which is now recommending a certain number of reforms, as "the Pol Pot of the French language") can make more of an impression than any well-reasoned argument, and can instantly destroy the results of years of work and campaigning.

[1] - Que vive l'orthographe Paris: Seuil (forthcoming). Book published by the SNI, primary school teachers' union; articles by Philippe Cibois and Michel Masson of AIROE.
-Nina Catach Les délires de l'orthographe. Humorous account, in dictionary form, of what French spelling is about, and what the French think it is about. (Paris: Plon, publication due at the end of August).

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[Journal of the Simplified Spelling Society, 1989-2 p.21 later designated J11]

Romanian-English Orthographic Anecdote.

George C Biscoff, in his privately printed 1975 Improved Spelling and the Metric System (St Catherine Press, 1954) introduces his book with the following anecdote (pp. 9-12), in which we preserve the French-style spelling Roumania.

The arguments advanced by (opponents of spelling reform in English) were much the same as those used in my native country (Roumania) against the adoption of phonetic spelling there. It was easy for me to counter this opposition by putting forward the same arguments for a change in spelling as were used during more than ten years of struggle by the pioneers of phonetic spelling in Roumania.

One of my most convincing arguments was the following story of a personal experience. When I started going to school, most Roumanian words were spelt as originally written in Latin, in spite of the great change that their pronunciation had undergone through the centuries.

When I entered a secondary school there were still some doubts among the pupils as to the spelling of many words. These doubts were increased by the different ways in which certain words were spelt in some books and newspapers, just as in England the word gaol is sometimes spelt jail...

Eventually phonetic spelling was adopted by the Roumanian Academy in 1904, and by the time my son went to school and had learnt the alphabet he was able to read and write correctly and without any hesitation. The time previously taken up in learning to read and to spell was devoted to the study of other subjects.

I pointed out that Roumanian spelling - even before it was made phonetic - was less difficult than English spelling, as the former had only nine vowel-sounds whilst the latter has eighteen. This illustration was a potent argument against those who maintained that a change of spelling was neither possible nor necessary.

Another point that stood me in good stead in advocating a change of the English spelling was an incident connected with the visit of a British Military Mission during the first World War to the Roumanian Army. As is customary, the reception was to include the playing of the British National Anthem, but the Commander of my Division thought that in addition to this a song sung in English would be a very nice gesture to our British friends.

This, however, was not easy to arrange, as although most educated Roumanians spoke French and some German, very few knew English, and as I was the only one in my Division, the task fell to me. 'It's a long way to Tipperary' was very popular in 1917. 1 was, therefore, instructed to teach the men this song, and in order to make the words readable to them, I used the Roumanian alphabet to convey as far as possible the English pronunciation.

This is how the song appeared on the blackboard which I used for the purpose is:
Iţ e long ŭeĭ tu Tipěrari,
Iţ e long ŭeĭ tu goŭ
Iţ e long ŭeĭ tu litl Mari
Tu dze sŭitěst gherl aĭ noŭ, as
Gud baĭ pichedili,
Feĭr ŭel Lestăr Scŭer,
Iţ e long, long ŭeĭ tu Tipěrari
Băt maĭ hart's raĭt dzer

I had to sing it to them in order to let them hear the melody. After the first rehearsal, the Captain who was conducting said to me: "Tell me, Lieutenant, why do some people say that English spelling is so complicated? I see that you pronounce each word on the blackboard as it is written".

I replied: "No, Captain, this is not English spelling. I used the Roumanian alphabet to enable each word to be read, as far as possible, as pronounced in English. In fact, the usual English spelling is like this: <It's a long way ... >" Here I was interrupted by the Captain: "Come, come, Lieutenant, you are surely not going to tell me that they write /vai/ and pronounce it <ŭeĭ>." I replied: "I'm sorry, Captain, but I can assure you that that is how they write the word<ŭeĭ>. And that is far from being the most difficult word to read; look at these". And I wrote on the blackboard:
mature nature plough
giving him the separate pronunciation of each word.

Before I was able to give him further examples, the Captain showed signs of impatience, and changing the tone of his voice, which had up to then been quite friendly, said "I would remind you, Lieutenant, that you are speaking to your senior officer and that you are not permitted to make fun of his lack of knowledge". "But Captain, I..." He interrupted and dismissed me, and of course I had to obey.

Fortunately for me, however, we had with us a French Captain who was teaching us how to use the French guns, and who knew a little English. I appealed to him and together we went to see the Captain. I asked the French Captain to read the words still remaining on the blackboard and when he read them (as pronounced in English) in the same way as I had done, the Roumanian Captain was absolutely stupefied; he was unable to say a word, but simply made the sign of the Cross - an action which denotes something which is most unusual and extraordinary.

Later he became friendly again and said to me: "I could learn three languages in the time it takes to learn to read and write English".

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