Reforms of French orthography
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The orthography of French was already more or less fixed and, from a phonological point of view, outdated when its lexicography developed in the late 17th century and the Académie française was mandated to establish an "official" prescriptive norm.
César-Pierre Richelet chose the latter option when he published the first monolingual French dictionary in 1680, but the Académie chose to adhere firmly to the tradition, "that distinguishes men of letters from ignoramuses and simple women", in the first edition of its dictionary (1694).
It has since then accepted a few reforms and initiated, not always successfully, numerous others.
Spelling and punctuation before the 16th century was highly erratic, but the introduction of printing in 1470 provoked the need for uniformity.
Several Renaissance humanists (working with publishers) proposed reforms in French orthography, the most famous being Jacques Peletier du Mans who developed a phonemic-based spelling system and introduced new typographic signs (1550). Peletier continued to use his system in all his published works, but his reform was not followed.
- L'Académie s'eſt donc vûe contrainte à faire dans cette nouvelle Edition, à ſon orthographe, pluſieurs changemens qu'elle n'avoit point jugé à propos d'adopter, lorſqu'elle donna l'Edition précédente. — Académie, 1740, using accents for the first time
The third (1740) and fourth (1762) editions of the Académie dictionary were very progressive ones, changing the spelling of about half the words altogether.
- estre → être (to be)
- monachal → monacal (monastic)
Many changes suggested in the fourth edition were later abandoned along with thousands of neologisms added to it.
- uil → vil (vile)
Many changes were introduced in the sixth edition of the Académie dictionary (1835), mainly under the influence of Voltaire. Most importantly, all oi digraphs that represented /ɛ/ were changed to ai, thus changing the whole imperfect conjugation of all verbs. The borrowing of connoisseur into English predates this change; the modern French spelling is connaisseur.
- étois → étais (was)
The spelling of some plural words whose singular form ended in D and T was modified to reinsert this mute consonant, so as to bring the plural in morphological alignment with the singular. Only gent, gens retained the old form, because it was perceived that the singular and the plural had different meanings. The Académie had already tried to introduce a similar reform in 1694, but had given up with their dictionary's second edition.
- parens → parents (parents)
With important dictionaries published at the turn of 20th century, such as Émile Littré's, Pierre Larousse's and Arsène Darmesteter's, and later Paul Robert's, the Académie gradually lost much of its prestige.
- grand'mère → grand-mère (grandmother)
Since the 1970s, though, calls for the modernisation of French orthography have grown stronger. In 1989, French prime minister Michel Rocard appointed the Superior Council of the French language to simplify the orthography by regularising it.
Rectifications of 1990
The Council, with the help of some Académie members and observers from Francophone states, published reforms that it called "rectifications orthographiques" on 6 December 1990.
Those "rectifications", instead of changing individual spellings, published general rules or lists of modified words. In total, around 2000 words have seen their spelling changed, and French morphology was also affected.
Numerals are joined with hyphens:
- sept cent mille trois cent vingt et un → sept-cent-mille-trois-cent-vingt-et-un (700,321).
Elements of compound nouns are fused together:
- if one element is a verb: porte-monnaie → portemonnaie (wallet)
- in bahuvrihi compounds (where the individual sense of the elements has changed): sage-femme → sagefemme (midwife)
- in onomatopoeias: coin coin → coincoin (quack).
Loan compounds are also fused together:
- hot-dog → hotdog (hot dog).
- week-end → weekend, aligning the word with its modern English spelling.
Compound nouns joined with hyphens (or fused) make their plural using normal rules, that is adding a final s or x, unless the modifier is an adjective (in which case both elements must agree), or the head is a determined noun, or a proper noun:
- des pèse-lettre → des pèse-lettres (letter scales)
Loanwords also have a regular plural:
- lieder → lieds (songs)
The tréma (known as a diaeresis in English) indicating exceptionally that the u is not silent in gu+vowel combinations is to be placed on the u instead of on the following vowel. Also, trémas are added to such words where they were not previously used:
- aiguë → aigüe [eɡy] (fem. acute)
- ambiguïté → ambigüité [ɑ̃biɡɥite] (ambiguity)
- arguer → argüer [aʁɡɥe] (to argue)
A tréma is also added to a u following an e muet added to soften a g, to prevent the eu combination being read as [œ]:
- gageure → gageüre [ɡaʒyʁ] (wager)
- je céderai → je cèderai [ʒə sɛd(ə)ʁe] (I shall give up)
- aimé-je ? → aimè-je ? [ɛmɛʒ] (do I like?)
- mû → mu (driven), but qu'il mût unchanged (he must have driven), and
- dû (the past participle of the very common irregular verb devoir, or the noun created from this participle) is kept to make the distinction with du (the required contraction of de le, which means some when used as an undetermined masculine article, or means of the when used as a preposition).
Wherever accents are missing or wrong because of past errors or omissions or a change of pronunciation, they are added or changed:
- receler → recéler [ʁəsele] (to receive – stolen goods)
- événement → évènement [evɛn(ə)mɑ̃] (event)
Accents are also added to loanwords where dictated by French pronunciation:
- diesel → diésel [djezɛl] (diesel)
Schwa changing into open e
In verbs with an infinitive in -eler or -eter, the opening of the schwa can currently be noted either by changing the e to è or by doubling the following l or t, depending on verbs. Only the first rule shall now be used except in appeler, jeter, and their derivatives (which continue to use ll and tt).
- j'étiquette → j'étiquète (I label)
This applies also when those verbs are nominalized using the suffix -ement:
- amoncellement → amoncèlement (pile)
Past participle agreement
- je les ai laissés partir → je les ai laissé partir (I let them go)
This is an alleged simplification of the rules governing the agreement as applied to a past participle followed by an infinitive. The participle fait already followed an identical rule.
Many phenomena were considered as "anomalies" and thus "corrected". Some "families" of words from the same root showing inconsistent spellings were uniformized on the model of the most usual word in the "family".
- imbécillité → imbécilité (idiocy)
This rule was also extended to suffixes in two cases, actually changing them into totally different morphemes altogether:
- cuissot → cuisseau (haunch)
- levraut → levreau (leveret)
Isolated words were adjusted to follow older reform where they had been omitted:
- douceâtre → douçâtre (sickly sweet)
- oignon → ognon (onion)
Lastly, some words have simply seen their spelling simplified, or fixed when it was uncertain:
- pagaïe/pagaille/pagaye → pagaille (mess)
- punch → ponch (punch)
These "rectifications" were supposed to be applied beginning in 1991 but, following a period of agitation and the publication of many books such as the Union of copy editors' attacking new rules one by one, André Goosse's defending them, or Josette Rey-Debove's accepting a few (that have been added, as alternative spellings, to Le Robert), they appeared to have become, for a while, dead proposals.
As of 2004, an international institutional effort to revive the 1990 spelling reforms arose. Notably, a French-Belgian-Swiss association was set up to promote reform. In July of the same year, Microsoft announced that the French version of their applications would soon comply with the new spelling rules. On 23 March 2005, a version of Encarta was published using the new spelling, and, on 14 April 2005, an update of Microsoft Office was offered.
Officially, French people, including public workers, are free for an undetermined length of time to continue using the old spelling. The new spelling is "recommended", but both old and new are considered correct.
In Quebec, the French Language Commission, which was reluctant at first to apply what it prefers to call the "modernisation", because of the opposition it received in France, announced that it was now applying its rules to new borrowings and neologisms.
More and more publications are modernizing spelling. Le Forum, from the Université de Montréal, and Les Éditions Perce-Neige have adopted the new spelling.
The 2009 edition of the Dictionnaire Le Robert incorporates most of the changes. There are 6000 words that have both the traditional and alternative spellings. The 2011 edition of the Dictionnaire Larousse incorporates all of the changes.
- Marty-Laveaux, Charles Joseph (1863). Cahiers de remarques sur l'orthographe françoise. Paris: Jules Gay. p. ix. Retrieved 2012-01-03.
- RAPPORT DU CONSEIL SUPÉRIEUR DE LA LANGUE FRANÇAISE publié dans les documents administratifs du Journal officiel du 6 décembre 1990
- w:fr:Rapport de 1990 sur les rectifications orthographiques
- "Le 16 mars, la presse belge passe à la " nouvelle orthographe "" (in French). Communauté française de Belgique. 2009-03-13. Retrieved 2009-03-14.
- (in French) Réforme de l'orthographe : 10 mots qui vont changer à la rentrée
- Not the oignon: fury as France changes 2,000 spellings and drops some accents
- French furore over spelling continues
- French language reform becomes a cause célèbre
- http://www.orthographe-recommandee.info/ (in French)
- RENOUVO (Réseau pour la nouvelle orthographe du français, in French)
- À la découverte de la nouvelle orthographe (Communauté française de Belgique, in French)