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Is French grammar ready to hang up the ‘hat’?

Frederick Florin, AFP | Archival pictures shows students taking the baccalaureate (high school graduation exam) on June 17, 2015

France’s education ministry on Thursday came under fire over teaching reforms that will allegedly see the circumflex accent, better known as “the hat”, disappear from French language textbooks.


Education officials fended off the criticism, denying they had ordered the eradication of the circumflex – the mark often found above letters in French and other languages, as in “â” – or even that it was destined to bite the dust.

But before the education ministry could defend itself or the future of the circumflex, it became a cause célèbre on Twitter and other social media websites.

The hashtag #JeSuisCirconflexe – a reference to the popular slogan #JeSuisCharlie that appeared after the deadly attacks on the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo last year – was shared thousands of times on Thursday.

Many students expressed concern that changes in grammar rules would negatively affect their grades. Others pointed out that the circumflex is essential to tell certain words apart, like the adjective sûr, or sure, and the preposition sur, or on.

Numerous Twitter users gleefully pointed out that it is not the same to say, “I am sure your sister is fine” and to say “I am on top of your sister [she] is fine”.

But many chimed in simply to poke fun at the affair. “Not a good time for all the Jérômes out there”, mused Twitter user @Deazzer.

Helping children learn

It all started with an article published on the website of the French television channel TF1. Published on Wednesday, it said that at the start of the next school term in September, teachers would be “obliged” to apply changes that affect some 2,400 words in the French language.

The word oignon, French for “onion”, will thus be spelled ognon; while the word week-end will lose its hyphen to become weekend, with the same spelling as English. “Among other changes, circumflex accents will progressively disappear,” TF1 wrote, explaining the rule change “should help children learn to spell”.

Other media outlets quickly picked up the story on Thursday morning as French politicians and other prominent figures waded into the fray. The National Inter-university Union, a student group close to France’s conservative opposition, even launched a petition against the measure “imposed” by Education Minister Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, a Socialist.

“With the stroke of a pen, the minister thinks she has the authority to overturn the rules of spelling and of French,” the petition raged, accusing Vallaud-Belkacem of “impoverishing” the language.

French newspaper Le Monde pointed out that the petition had misspelled the word “authority”.

A row 25 years in the making

Education officials rejected claims the ministry was introducing changes to the rules in interviews with Le Monde and several other news outlets. The reforms were, in fact, approved by the prestigious Académie française, the country’s ultimate authority in all matters of language, in 1990.

However, they were approved as recommendations – not an obligation – and hastily ignored by school textbook editors and most educators.

It was in 2008, during the tenure of conservative president Nicolas Sarkozy, that the education ministry finally told teachers to apply the spelling changes approved by the Académie française in 1990.

This year officials have repeated that same message, but, amid this week’s barrage of criticism over the alleged plot to assassinate the circumflex, also reminded that both spellings – with and without the circumflex – remain acceptable in terms of grading.

The passé point of syntax may nevertheless become extinct for a reason beyond the ministry’s control. After years of false starts and hesitation, all of France’s school textbook publishing houses have finally agreed to adhere to the recommendations made by the Académie 25 years ago.

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