[Journal of the Simplified Spelling Society, 1988/1 p30-33 later designated J7]
[Also on this page: German, India.]
[Susan Baddeley: see Journals.]

From around the World.

2. FRANCE. AIROE: an association for Spelling Reform in France

Susan Baddeley is a member of the HESO research team (Histoire de l'Écriture et des Systèmes d'Orthographe) at the CNRS in Paris. AIROE: Association pour l'Information et la Recherche sur les Orthographes et systèmes d'Ecriture.


AIROE was founded in France in 1983. Originally an offshoot from a research team working at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, its main aim, as its name suggests, is to inform all those who may be directly or indirectly concerned about the problems of French orthography. Present members include linguists, university professors, schoolteachers, psychologists, journalists, typographers.and members of the general public.

The Spelling Reform work group, although only one of several groups which make up the association, is by far the largest and most active. It was therefore natural that the Annual General Meeting of AIROE, held in Paris on November 18th 1987, should be largely devoted to their latest spelling reform proposals. These proposals were outlined by the group's president Philippe Cibois (who is also president of AIROE), before an assembly of about 50 people, including the eminent linguist André Martinet.

Modern French spelling is, together with English, one of the most complex spelling systems in Europe today. Ever since the 16th century, writers, grammarians and printers have been trying to find ways of simplifying it, and many reform proposals have come and gone. In recent times, reforms (which were carried out periodically in the past) have come to a halt. With today's economic and cultural competition, and the prospect of a united Europe in 1992, many are worried that French is losing ground, and will be unable to take up the challenge. The difficulties of French spelling are just one more reason for not learning it.

The difficulties of French spelling are a day-to-day trial for the millions of people unable to master it. It is one of the main causes of failure among schoolchildren; many professions are closed to people who "cannot spell", and it is a harsh standard for selection at many levels. A recently-founded "National Spelling Championship" (which has enjoyed great success) has shown that even the best spellers cannot avoid making at least some mistakes, and that there are whole areas in which no firm rules exist, particularly in the spelling of compounds and of loan-words.

Many difficulties in French spelling are anomalies, forms which have no function or justification (even etymological), and "everyone" agrees that something should be done about them. However, "everyone" includes a large body of otherwise well-informed public opinion, which believes, as one of our most eminent linguists recently put it, that a reform is "technically necessary, but socially unthinkable". There is no institution of authority willing to impose reform, and inertia is in fact the hardest force to overcome. A precedent is therefore needed: as Philippe Cibois pointed out, recent reforms of the monetary system and of telephone numbers caused a certain discomfort for a short time, but everyone got used to them in the end.

It is therefore absolutely necessary that a certain number succeed, even if only to prove to our reform) that it can be done. After much discussion, the Reform group have proposed a "minimum" reform, which was unanimously approved by the AGM. A few words should first be said about the reasons and principles which dictated the present proposals.

A study of previous reform proposals reveals that in the past reforms have succeeded only when all those concerned were in complete agreement amongst themselves, and when the reforms affected a limited number of clearly-defined issues. The term "reform" itself is also best avoided, as for many people it is synonymous with phonetic spelling. The AIROE proposals are therefore being presented as a simplification, or regularisation of the existing system, which will not greatly alter the appearance of words as people are used to seeing them. These proposals are also being presented as a long-term project, which will take several years to be fully accomplished, with children being taught the new forms at school, and older people being able to continue to use the old orthography if they wish.


1. Regularisation.
The first set of reforms concerns a limited number of particularly anomalous words, relics of past notation which are now in contradiction with modem rules of transcription. These include words such as oignon, and événement, médecin, etc., which will be spelt ognon, évènement, mèdecin, in accordance with present pronunciation.

2. The Circumflex Accent.
This accent is also in many cases a relic: in words like maître, tête, it was used to show the presence of a long vowel, an opposition which has almost died out. In other cases, the accent is used to show an open or closed vowel, or a back or front vowel. However, its use is very often anarchic, and it often leads to wrong pronunciations due to hyper-correction. The only cases in which it can be said to still be functional are in the distinctions between homographs such as tache 'stain' / tâche 'task'. Leaving out the circumflex accent would simplify things for keyboard operators, and would have the advantage of leaving a margin of freedom for certain regional pronunciations.

3. Doubled Consonants.
Many doubled consonants in French, as in English, have a diacritical value, i.e. if they were simplified, accents would have to be introduced to compensate for them. A lot of doubled consonants also appeal in high-frequency monosyllables. For these reasons, AIROE has chosen to avoid for the time being a large-scale simplification of doubled consonants and has restricted its reform proposals to a limited set of words in which the greatest anomalies occur. In words derived from nouns ending in <-on> the consonant is sometimes doubled, sometimes not, and this leads to irregularities within families of words: we write for example, fonction, and fonctionnel, but also fonctionalisme. As for very recent words like distribution(n)alisme, even the best dictionaries do not agree amongst themselves. AIROE therefore proposes to simplify the doubled consonant in these types of derivatives.

4. Past Participle Agreement.
This is one of the most problematic aspects of French written grammar, and also one of the hardest principles for foreign learners to grasp. In most cases, agreement is purely a feature of the written language. However, studies of present tendencies reveal that more and more people fail to make the agreement even when it appears orally, such as in la faute que j'ai commise (or commis). AIROE feels that this increasing latitude in the spoken language should be echoed by a similar tolerance for written forms, and that failure to note the past participle agreement in writing should no longer be considered as a mistake.


It should be stressed that these simplifications are not intended to be imposed: it is important that people should have the choice whether to use the old or the new form, and especially that use of the new form should be accepted in examinations, etc. Given the choice, we have no doubt which forms people will choose to adopt in the long run.

The AIROE proposals have been sent to a number of linguists and public figures, many of whom have already given their support. The next step will be to publish our proposals and arguments (with a list of signatories) in the national press. In the meantime, members of AIROE have agreed to adopt the 'new' forms in their own writings.

We also hope to persuade lexicographers to recommend the 'new' forms as acceptable variants in their dictionaries: an exhaustive list of 'old' and 'new' forms of all words affected by the reforms will be drawn up in the near future.

If the reform is absolutely watertight, already in use and recommended by people whose opinion may carry weight, we are confident that institutions such as the Académie Française (which recently dropped several reforms it had decided to adopt in 1975) and the Conseil International de la Langue Française (CILF) will be forced to take heed of it.

This reform will affect all French speakers, and those who use French in other countries. If you would like to give your support to AIROE's petition, or if you would like further information on the subject, please write to the association: international collaboration on such important issues can only help our mutual projects to succeed.

[See other articles about German spelling reform.]

Institut für deutsche Sprache: Sprachreport 4/87.

This latest issue of the quarterly report from the Institut für deutsche Sprache in Mannheim contains (pp.10-12) an account by Dr Wolfgang Mentrup of the latest developments on the spelling reform front as it affects Austria, the Federal Republic of Germany, the German Democratic Republic, and Switzerland. We here summarise the main points.

The Meeting.

The 5th meeting of the International Working Party for Orthography took place at Zürich University in September. The institutional participants from the four countries were:

1) the Commission for Spelling Questions from the Mannheim Institut für deutsche Sprache (West Germany).

2) the Orthography Research Group of the Zentralinstitut für Sprachwissenschaft of the Academy of Sciences of the GDR and the University of Rostock.

3) the Orthographic Co-ordination Committee of the Austrian Ministry for Education, the Arts and Sport.

4) the Working Group on Spelling Reform of the Swiss Conference of Cantonal Education Directors.


The strict punctuation rules are a very troublesome feature of written German today. Basic principles and a set of rules for reform were agreed in 1986, but were now laboriously reconsidered, revised and refined, and a definitive system proposed. The inner resistance of even the experts present, in breaking with the ingrained linguistic habits of a lifetime, proved considerable. Particularly awkward was the question of how to punctuate parenthetic clauses.

The rules fell into three main groups:
1) marking the ends of sentences,
2) punctuation within sentences,
3) indicating quotations.

Grammatical terminology was avoided as far as possible, rules being illustrated by examples instead.

What the Working Party wanted to do above all was to simplify rules that had proved too complicated for average users and therefore led to frequent 'mistakes'. Thus currently the sentence seine Bereitschaft zu helfen war groß has no comma, but the almost identical sentence seine Bereitschaft, ihr zu helfen, war groß requires two; but a comma is optional in er beginnt (,) laut zu sprechen. The new proposals are more permissive, allowing such sentences to be written with no comma. A comma is still obligatory however before many conjunctions, such as daß, an admittedly more elementary rule that will nevertheless continue to trouble many foreign students of German.

Compound and foreign words.

The Working Party attacked the problems of compounding (in Germany they write um so mehr, but in Austria either umso mehr or umsomehr) and of foreign words, but we shall have to wait for further work to be completed before any useful conclusions can be announced.

The political situation.

Of particular interest to non-German spelling reformers is the political background to these discussions. Although the political authorities recently rejected proposals for generally abandoning capital letters for nouns, the climate is more favourable to the new proposals. The Interior Ministry and the Standing Conference of Ministers of Education of the states in West Germany have asked the Mannheim Commission for its ideas on reform - though not on the sensitive issue of capital letters for nouns.

Future steps and past travail.

The next meeting of the Working Party (1988 in Austria or East Germany) aims to finalise the rules for compounding (including hyphenation), propose rules for spelling foreign words, and discuss phoneme-grapheme correspondence. The present series of discussions has already lasted over TO years, but seen in a longer perspective they stretch back in effect to 1901, when today's spelling rules were sanctioned. The motivation and guiding criterion is user-friendliness, but if the signs at the moment look hopeful, the task has often appeared Sysiphean, and few of the participants expect to be crowned in glory as a result.

[Madukar Gogate: see Journals, Newsletters, Web links, and more about Spelling in India.]

From around the World.

Some Views on the English Spelling Reform

Madhukar N Gogate, Executive Director of Roman Lipi Parishad, the movement for romanisation of Indian languages, Bombay, sent the following to the Society's 5th International Conference.

1. English language originated in England, but is no longer England's monopoly. English is an international language. That is its glory. That is its handicap.

2. English is spread in many countries in varying degrees. Its impact on India is profound. To give a striking example, Britain has 5 million investors dealing in shares, etc, whereas India now has 8 million. They apply for new shares, transfer old stocks, read company reports, receive dividend warrants and so on, all in English.

3. India has background of nearly phonetic scripts for its languages. Despite this and big usage of English, India has zero interest in English spelling reforms. Personally I am interested in reforms, but when I discussed the subject with some thinkers in Bombay (such as teachers, businessmen, literature-lovers, etc.), I got no support.

4. There are two main reasons why Bombay thinkers are indifferent to spelling reforms.
a) The language problem is sensitive in multilingual India. Schoolchildren have to learn 2 or 3 languages and if an extra language - English with reformed spellings - is to be studied too, it may prove crippling.
b) Despite irregular spellings, English has status because of its rich technical literature. That is why non-English countries teach their students English. Cost of revising literature and retraining is prohibitively high. As a developing country, India cannot afford such projects. India may oppose spelling reforms at this stage.

5. Differences in British spellings (defence, colour) and American spellings (defense, color) pose difficulties. When two sides are adamant, for reasons of national identities, it creates a bad impression. My sincere request is that the reformers come to some unanimity. Admittedly this is a difficult task, since different persons have different opinions, different fads. But please note that when reformers interfight, the general public would prefer Status-quo.

6. Bombay thinkers refrained from giving opinions on details - whether cat should be respelled kat or kaet, etc. May I offer suggestion? Please consult professionals - like scientists, doctors, engineers, bankers. One may respell cat as kat but respelling C-vitamin as K-vitamin would be disastrous. Please try to make compromises considering both phonetic accuracy and convenience. Nothing is perfect in the world, and spellings need not be highly phonetic. Second suggestion is to come out with package reforms and not dose-by-dose reforms. Developing countries, even affluent United States, would not be able to spend funds on revising encyclopedias again and again. Third and last suggestion would be to present a package solution (unanimous if possible, or a set of alternatives) to various national governments. Every nation has its ego and would like to be consulted. Let us treat English-spelling-problem as a world problem, since English is a link language. Let the topic come for discussion at levels of Commonwealth and United Nations. This may prove time-consuming but that cannot be helped. In the process, the reformers should be prepared to accept some changes proposed by the World Community.

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