The French Can’t Spell

by Translation Guy on December 28, 2011

Since my French spelling has always been exécrable, I was delighted to discover this week that the French can’t spell French either. Why not? Because the Académie française, defender of the French language, simplified the spelling. Which is big news in France these days, even though the spelling changes were mandated back in 1990. Dropping the circumflex on i and u were among many changes that affected the spelling of about one French word out of 500.

It seems surprising that these changes were ignored, since proper spelling in French is a big deal. Good spelling is an important marker of social status in France, where people read books and stuff.

Up until recently, it hadn’t been a problem, since everyone in France, including the Academie itself, had ignored the new spelling rules for years. Actually the new and old spellings are both acceptable, because the idea was that the new rules were supposed to be taught in schools, with the expectation that the new spellings would eventually replace the old.

Only hitch was that the teachers were not teaching the new spelling, because French textbook publishers were not changing the spellings in their text books. It was tough on the kids, since teachers and textbooks didn’t always agree.

But then Delphine Guichard, an elementary school teacher in the Loiret region, called on publishers of French textbooks to ensure correct spelling. “Spell checkers are up-to-date, and dictionaries are beginning to be, so why not textbooks?” she asked. Publishers have been reluctant to adopt the new system for fear of offending teachers who, like most, think the old spelling is fine. Guichard had to close the post to comments because of all the nasty remarks she was getting from readers presumably heavily larded with “î” and “û”.

For many self-appointed guardians of the language, the fact these changes came from the Academie is an act of betrayal. “The French depend on the Academie française to defend their language, and some seem to have taken its participation in and endorsement of the changes as an abrogation of duty. The body that proposed the rules — the Conseil superieur de la langue française — is presided over by the prime minister and takes direction from the president, an indication of how seriously the French take their language,” says Sarah DiLorenzo of AP.

In its nearly four centuries, the Academie has occasionally modified the spellings of words, including in its very first dictionary, which appeared in 1694.

But many take the Academie’s mission to “defend” French to mean that it should ensure the language never changes. Other francophone countries adopted the new spellings without much fuss years ago. But French in France is special, and preservation of the language is important, even if it means misspelling it.


  1. Marek says:

    Hej, super informacje, życzymy wiele szczęścia w nowym roku! Greets from Poland! Translogos Team.

  2. Phies says:

    Happy new year to the Translation Guy. Another interesting blog, and kudos to anyone who is trying to improve spelling in any language. We ive in a lazy world.

    • Ken says:

      Phies, wouldn’t improved spelling make us even lazier? As in donut vs. doughnut? I can practically taste it.

      Thanks for your comments last year. Glad you are enjoying.

  3. I wonder if the spelling changes are followed in Belgium, Switzerland and Canada where French is a major language – not to mention parts of the Carribean and Africa. Do those countries buy French publisher textbooks are do they make their own?

  4. Rebecca Wong says:

    Intersting, French has not really changed must in recent history – at least compared to English. The ole’ academy keeps it the language “correct” by virute of existence itself.

  5. I never understood the necessity of proper spelling. Most people don’t write anymore and computer programs fix spelling for us. However, it just seems to me that one would learn to spell mostly correctly if they just read occaisionally and see how words are spelled.

  6. Languages have always changed and should continue to change when needed. Happy new year.

  7. If the French textbook publishers are anything like the American ones, creating a more useful textbook is not the goal. Too many times publishers get on the next “kick” and change the book, but it never catches on and the next time you adopt a book it’s changed again. Not sure who’s falt it is, the publishers or the school systems for not demanding what is actually wanted and needed for the students and teachers.

    • Ken says:

      Textbooks are ever the ideological battleground of elites struggling for control of young hearts and minds, or rather control of the wallets of supporters.

  8. Jim Near says:

    My wife spells better than me and English is her third language. I feel cheated with the education I got. Spelling needs to be more of a priority.

  9. Roy Wagner says:

    Bonjour! I think in today’s world, however the spelling, if someone knows what you are talking about, what does a spelling error matter.

  10. I wish spelling was a marker of social status here, too. Education should be for all, but it seems that sometimes people who have less learn it better out of need and the rich simply slide by in the school system. Teachers need to have more control and a heavier hand in the classroom to get back to basics. Yes, English changes so much, sometimes too fast, but with a little work, everyone should be able to spell.

  11. Ihadapheo says:

    I know Quebec was not origianlly on board. As a teacher of French studies, the modernization of the language was not widely accepted.

  12. Lori Edwards says:

    Laziness and money are the reasons publishers and teachers don’t want to change. The same reason why the US doesn’t adopt the metric system, which by the way was started in France.

  13. Randy Howell says:

    After so many years why would a language need to be changed? I can see dropping a language in favor of another for better communication between peoples, but making corrections seems like a pointless and expensive thing that only impresses a few literary scholars. Just leave things they way they are since they seem to work fine enough. Changing things isn’t going to get people to spell any better.

  14. The French can’t spell, but neither can most other countries. As an 8th grade teacher for the last 18 years, I have had a front row seat to the demise of spelling in the public school system. No accountability either. Not even state tests take spelling in to account when grading writing. Pitiful.

  15. Dave Jenks says:

    If France can make some things a little easier, maybe English should be looked at too. I for one think the language is very difficult to learn and too many words sound the same and are spelled differently. Maybe if it became an easier language to learn in it’s written form, then maybe just maybe the several million hispanics in the U.S. whould actually learn it.

  16. Not so sure it’s laziness as to the reason why teachers don’t want to change to the new spelling rules. Maybe they just haven’t been brought on board by a good enough explanation as to why the change needs to take place. If they are shown a real need for the change, I think educated teachers would adopt for the good of education itself.

  17. The “immortals” finally got their way. I thought they just wanted to get the “bad english” words out of the language.

  18. Claudia Kirk says:

    My question is, “Do the changes make the language easier?” I think that only changes making things easier should be considered. No sense in preserving archaeic spellings that only confuse people.

  19. I guess nearly 22 years to get something going is about right. I have always heard the French aren’t exactly go getters.

  20. In all, only about 2000 words were affected, and connecting numbers require the use of hyphens. Nothing too major, and if the teachers hit the changes from the start, students shouldn’t have a problem. But of course the older way needs to be taught too since so many print items are in existence already.

  21. Florrie says:

    There have been some major re-writes in French the last few centuries. I would have thought they had a finished product by now. Of course, I am for any change that can better the chances of a languge being properly learned.

  22. Terri Floyd says:

    French is such a nice sounding language. Probably my favorite foreign language. I never mastered it, but I have been learning a little hear and there since I was in the 7th grade.

  23. Frank says:

    I am sure the publishers of the French textbooks simply didn’t want to do a big rewrite on everything. But if they did, I am also sure that teachers would have been forced to adopt the new method sooner.

  24. The Killer says:

    There was a lot of opposition to the proposals and they were pretty much left dead in the water for a while. I think Microsoft and Encarta problably helped with their updates in “05. Things started to look a little easier then.

  25. If the French want to keep the language special they should go to Quebec and offer free lessons to everyone attempting to speak French there. Talk about butchering a beautiful language.

    • Ken says:

      Who is butchering who?

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