It is never a surprise when a change in the French language causes outcry and controversy. After all, control of the French tongue is heavily proscribed by the Académie Française, an organisation which has defended the purity of the language for many years, fighting in particular against the inclusion of English words in the vocabulary.
So it is hardly surprising that this week’s news that new spellings have been unveiled for more than 2,000 words, with the removal of a superfluous circumflex in many of them perhaps suggesting the demise of the hat-shaped accent, has understandably caused outcry and linguistic breast-beating on an epic scale.
Of course, the story is not as simple as the headlines would suggest. The Académie’s advice actually dates back to 1990, and it is only the decision of educators to include the new spellings in textbooks which has caused the current furore. #JeSuisCirconflexe the opponents cry,unwittingly undermining their own argument by choosing a linguistic form which didn’t exist two years ago to express their disgust over the fact that language constantly changes.
Rather than pick through the list of changed words in detail, I have pondered more the English reaction to language change, and how the country might feel if an official language arbiter made changes such as this. Of course, we are probably quite lucky that there isn’t a body which regulates the English language in this way. Given the reaction that new words and trends often seem to get, you would imagine that the vitriol that might be directed to such a body operating in the UK would dwarf anything we are seeing in France at the moment.
The Oxford Dictionary is of course regarded as the ultimate watchword on English, but its lexicographers are observers and recorders of the language, and don’t have the responsibility of having to make the final rules. Nevertheless, if something is acknowledged by it as correct, than that confers a degree of authority on the usage. And plenty of people are happy to weigh in and protest whenever new words are added to Oxford Dictionaries online, or variant spellings or meanings are included, so I suspect that Oxford types are quite happy not to have that responsibility.
What the French experience tells us is that people remain passionately connected to their language, and are resentful when the basic parts of it appear to be arbitrarily changed. But of course language does change, and the Académie’s ruling is not an imposition of rules but is instead a reaction to change which was already present, codifying the usage as it has evolved.
So while people howl in protest, as they do in England, they are merely objecting to changes which they are using already. They just don’t like having it pointed out to them.