Sunday, July 31, 2016

A Tempête in a Teapot? Frenchmen Bitterly Cling to Their Accents—to All of Their Accents

For Keith Houston (writing in the New York Times),
learning French a quarter-century ago at high school in Scotland, the circumflex that perched atop certain vowels (ê) was an enigma. It lacked the flamboyance of the accent aigu (é) or accent grave (è), modifying pronunciation so subtly I could barely discern it. Nor did it possess the utility of the tréma, which divided vowel sounds in two (aï). When I finally found out that the circumflex stood in for a discarded letter S, everything clicked into place: Opaque words like bête, coût and huître now morphed into their English equivalents before my eyes, resolving themselves into “beast,” “cost” and “oyster.”

“Aha,” I thought. “That’s handy.”

As I stumbled onward through my French textbook, on the other side of the English Channel the venerable Académie Française was in the throes of a rather more significant exercise. Guardian of the French language since 1635, the academy in recent times has gained a reputation as being out of touch — and so, when it approved recommendations in 1990 for the “rectification” of about 2,400 words, they did not stick. Week-end should become weekend, said the academy to anyone who would listen. Oignon (onion) would be better off as ognon. Paraître (to appear) had no need for its silent circumflex. But no one was listening, and all of this was quickly forgotten.

Now, though, the reform has surged back to life. In November, the French government belatedly decided to revive the 1990 proposals, prompting educational publishers to announce new editions of their standard works; from there, the story snowballed into the biggest French language controversy since the advent of “freedom fries.” And though the tone-deaf spelling changes and hyphen cull have raised hackles, what has become most apparent is that the French really, really love the circumflex.

 … It was the Académie Française that popularized the use of the mark in 1740 when it removed the so-called pre-consonantal S from a host of Old Latin words and added the circumflex to create hôpital, hôtel, château and more. The circumflex is also used in a handful of cases to distinguish homophones: du (of) is pronounced the same as dû (due), but the circumflex delivers readers from confusion. Either way, for many French writers the circumflex is as much a badge of honor as it is a diacritical mark.

All of which brings us back to the recent uproar over the circumflex’s rough treatment. Arrêtez! went the cry when the news broke, and a protest hashtag was coined immediately: #JeSuisCirconflexe.