[Journal of the Simplified Spelling Society, 1993/2 p3-5 later designated J15]
[See Journal and Newsletter articles by Susan Baddeley and Journal and Newsletter items about French by Chris Upward.]

The 1990 French Spelling Reforms: an Example to be Followed?

Susan Baddeley.

Susan Baddeley is a lecturer in English at the Institut Universitaire de Technologie in Vélizy, near Paris. She has worked for many years with the HESO research group on orthographies and writing systems at the French National Research Centre (CNRS), and was involved in the drawing-up of the spelling reform proposals described in this article.


On December 6th 1990 an unprecedented event took place in French spelling history: the government published, in an official document [1], a series of recommendations aimed at rationalizing certain aspects of the written language and giving guidelines for the spelling of neologisms. That measures such as this should be taken in a country that ranks not far behind Britain in orthographical conservatism (altho the state does not hesitate to interfere in other linguistic spheres) is a matter that should be of interest to all would-be spelling reformers. What did the the French experience consist of, and what can we learn from it? This article sets out to answer these two basic questions.

1. A Short History of the "Rectifications".

In a speech given on October 24th 1989, Michel Rocard, who was then Prime Minister, invited experts in the matter to turn their attention to the problem of the French spelling system and to propose appropriate measures that might be taken to improve it. This was in response to a campaign that had been going on for about a year in the media, following the publication of a survey on spelling by the teachers' journal L'Ecole Libératrice: of the 1150 teachers that replied, 1035 said that they would be in favour of a reform, and these results were widely commented on by the press.

That survey had been devised by a member of the AIROE association, Jacques Leconte, and the association worked closely alongside the teachers' union during the following months to promote the campaign in favour of a reform and to put together a limited but coherent set of proposals. The AIROE manifesto (see SSS Journal J7 1988/1) had comprised 4 main points (regularisation of anomalies, the circumflex accent, doubled consonants and past participle agreement), chosen unanimously after a great deal of (often heated) debate, and it was no coincidence that the Prime Minister should have included them among the points he mentioned in his speech. These were:

1. use of the hyphen.
2. plurals of compound words.
3. the circumflex accent.
4. past participle agreement of pronominal verbs.
5. various "anomalies".
These points had been chosen for several reasons: first of all, it is in these sectors that the most irregularities in what is otherwise a generally coherent system are to be found, and here that people make the most mistakes and that teachers have the most problems. Two sectors in particular are notoriously difficult in French: compound words (with or without use of the hyphen) and their plurals, and the spelling of loan-words. Even the major dictionaries, which are most people's touchstone for spelling problems, are unable to decide amongst themselves how a great many of these words should be spelt and often give two spellings.

Secondly, the points of reform chosen were deliberately limited in their scope : only specific sets of words would be involved, and the most frequent words in the language were not to be affected. Indeed, the intention was not to reform (hence the term of "rectifications" used to describe the proposals), but rather to eliminate anomalies by generalising the main tendencies already present in the system. For example, in most words containing the sequence e plus consonant plus mute e, the first e is pronounced open and takes a grave accent, as in the word avènement. However, there is a small number of words which have an acute accent in this position (which is nothing more than a historical leftover), such as événement. It was therefore proposed that these few exceptions should be made to follow the general rule, and take the grave accent.

2. The Reforms and Linguistic Research.

The Conseil Supérieur de la Langue Française (CSLF) was then asked, by the Prime Minister, to present a report outlining the reforms that they considered the most urgent. The CSLF appointed a group of experts (including linguists and dictionary editors) which met several times to discuss the various points, and the final report was based on their conclusions and proposals.

Among the experts was Nina Catach, who is the leading figure in the field of research into spelling systems in France today, and who was then head of the HESO (Histoire et Structure de l'Orthographe) research team at the French National Scientific Research Centre (CNRS). For over twenty years, the HESO team has been studying the many intricacies of French orthography: its history, its contemporary structure and the pedagogical methods used to teach it, and the team had available both the scientific methods and the materials necessary to formulate exhaustive reform proposals. It was therefore natural that the task of compiling the lists of words (with the help of several spelling databases) and drawing up the preliminary reports for the experts should have been entrusted to HESO.

I myself worked on some of the points, and can say that the work was carried out both efficiently and thoroly. For each sector, a short report outlined the different problems encountered and several proposals of varying scope were made, accompanied by the complete list of words that would be affected by the various reforms, their frequency, the number of derivatives, etc.

After a great deal of deliberation, the experts finally agreed on a series of proposals which were then submitted to and accepted by the Conseil Supérieur de la Langue Française and approved by the Académie Française. The proposals, together with the lists of words to be modified, were published in the "Administrative Documents" section of the Journal Officiel de la République Française on December 6th 1990. It was made clear that the proposals were for alternative spellings and that the "old" spellings remained valid; the document also gave a number of guidelines for the spelling of neologisms intended mainly for dictionary compilers and specialists in terminology.

The scope of the reforms proposed was indeed extremely limited: all in all just over 2000 "new" spellings were recommended, and very few of the most frequent French words have been affected. Having adopted the "new spelling' myself, I have noticed that the most obvious change is the omission of the circumflex accent (particularly in verbs ending in -aître, such as connaître), and that the number of words affected rarely exceeds one per two pages.

3. After the "Rectifications".

Altho the initial reactions of the press to the announcement of these measures (made in June 1990) seemed to be generally favourable, there was something of an outcry when the proposals were actually published. For many pro-reformers, the "Rectifications" were negligible and didn't go far enough; others argued (reasonably enough) that a few measures such as these would not be sufficient to eradicate the problems many children have with spelling (and which often, it should be noted, have nothing to do with the spelling system itself). The ultra-conservatives as usual bewailed the "massacre" of the French language (the language, not the spelling), illustrated by a few shock-horror headlines in "reformed" phonetic spelling in Le Figaro. However, what most opponents seemed to object to was the "official" nature of the Recommendations: "You can't reform by decree, and the spelling system should be left to evolve naturally". This attitude was due mainly to ignorance of the actual terms of the Conseil Supérieur's document (the new forms are proposed as alternatives), and also to an ignorance of the history of the language that is unfortunately widespread among the French public, in spite of the interest that the latter has for language matters.

The French spelling system has been "brought up to date", sometimes drastically, at various times in the past, and in particular (paradoxically as it may seem) by the Académie dictionaries (the 1740 edition changed almost 25% of the spellings of the previous edition). Most people are simply not aware of the extent to which spelling has changed over the centuries [2], and this makes them immediately hostile to what they mistakenly consider to be an attack on a part of their "national heritage". In spite of two books, one by Nina Catach and one by André Goosse, [3] an influential member of the Conseil International de la Langue Française, explaining the new measures and giving detailed lists of words affected the hostility remained, and the "Battle of the Circumflex Accent" was finally forgotten when the Gulf War broke out at the beginning of 1992.

However, all was not lost. Despite the reluctance of the Education Ministry to recommend the teaching of the new forms, which would have guaranteed them gradually coming into general use, new editions of major dictionaries (Robert, Larousse) have included many new forms as alternative spellings [4], and the main impulse in favour of the recommendations has come from the Académie, which gave the new spellings in the latest edition of its dictionary: some in the body of the Dictionary itself, and others on a separate leaf at the back of the book. Altho very few people today ever consult the Académie dictionary, it's the symbol that counts. So now it is up to each individual to use the new forms, and the role of associations like AIROE is mainly to inform people of the new uses and of the precedents for these measures thruout history.

4. The Implications of the French Experience.

What future is there for this reform, and what can other spelling reformers learn from this experience? First of all, to be modest in their expectations: it is extremely difficult to satisfy everyone, but not so difficult to reach agreement on a limited and well-defined set of proposals, even if many people may think that it is not worth "reforming" for so little.

Secondly, the points to be chosen should be those which create the most spelling problems, but wide-reaching reforms (such as that of doubled consonants) should be avoided. This can be shown by the example of one of the reform proposals that was not accepted, that of simplifying the double n that appears in some derivatives of words ending in -an and -on (compare japonais and dijonnais, from Japon and Dijon, or traditionnel and traditionalisme, both from tradition). The subject turned out to be fraught with all sorts of unforeseen difficulties: for example, can dictionnaire be said to be a "derivative" of diction? - not to mention the fact that the simplifying of any set of doubled consonants would be likely to set off a sort of "chain reaction" leading to the simplification of all doubled consonants, some of which are still functional in the spelling system, and a reform of such scope is hardly likely to be on the agenda at least for many years to come.

A third point that should be considered is the individual situation of each country with regard to spelling-reform policy. Who should decide what reforms are to be made, and who can implement them? In the absence of a body like the Académie, which is widely (albeit falsely) believed to be invested with the supreme power to bring about spelling reforms, the cooperation of the teachers and of dictionary compilers is essential: they are the main creators of usage, and the first to have to deal with spelling difficulties, and we should be looking at the problems from their point of view.

But first and foremost, any credible reform proposals must be backed up by serious research, based on an exhaustive description of the spelling system: its relation to pronunciation, of course, but also an in-depth examination of the many other functions that the graphic elements of the language can have (morphological markers, spellings that distinguish homonyms, etymological notations, etc.). A description of this kind has been made for French; for English, it is still to come.


[1] In the Journal Officiel de la République Française, in the section entitled "Documents Administratifs". This was a particularly astute measure: as the Recommendations were not published in the JO itself, they cannot be said to have been imposed officially; however, the fact that they appeared in a government document gives them a certain stamp of approval by the State.

[2] The myth of an orthography impervious to change has been fostered partly, since the 19th century, by a popular and widely-used series of editions of French classics, "Les Grands Ecrivains de la France", published by Hachette. These classroom editions present the works of Molière, Corneille, Racine and others in an entirely modernised spelling, thus creating the illusion that the great writers of the past used the same spelling as we do nowadays.

[3] Nina Catach, L'orthographe en débat, Paris, Nathan, 1991; André Goosse, La "nouvelle" orthographe. Exposé et commentaires, Paris and Louvain, Duculot, 1991. The January 1992 issue of the journal Liaisons-HESO also contains a number of articles on the Rectifications.

[4] We were surprised, while drawing up the lists of proposals, to find that many of the "new spellings" had in fact already been adopted by some dictionaries, or had at least been included as possible variants.

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