You’ve got to give it to the French. They marched with their heads held high, singing their rousing national anthem La Marseillaise, after the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo was attacked in January 2015. They were out on the streets again in solidarity in November, after more than a hundred innocents were murdered in coordinated attacks across Paris. It was their hour of grief, and the French were united.
Now, it is the French language that is under attack – or appears to be – and ordinary citizens are marching again. They are howling for justice. They are standing at the gates of Academie Francaise, the highest authority on matters of the French tongue, and they’re demanding that the head of the Socialist Education Minister should roll. Emotions are running so high that the minister had to go on television to calm the mob. “I wish to reassure everyone that the circumflex accent will not disappear,” said Najat Vallaud-Belkacem. Notice the hyphen in her name. It tells you she is both French and Moroccan.
Under the new linguistic dispensation, some hyphens are being banished. The use of hyphenated words is being revised in favour of portmanteau, or hold-all, terms.
You can’t, for instance, call a centipede “Mille-pattes” anymore, or even “Mille pattes” but “millepattes”. If on the other hand you wish to engage in the admirable activity known as an afternoon of passion with your beloved, you can no longer signal the time as “Des après-midi” with an accent on the “e” that may indicate a visual flourish towards decadence, but just as “des apresmidis”. Which really does seem to be a whole different proposition, not to mention the plural “s” at the end. What you might ask has become of Le Week-end? Eyebrows raised in the Gallic manner? Will it still have the same resonance if it becomes le weekend? Non, non, that is absurd, mon ami.
It all started with the Academie Francaise (purists please note that the second ‘e’ of Academie has a left sloping, or sharp accent; and the ‘c’ of Francaise carries a small tail known as the cedilla) taking it upon itself to rethink around 2,400 words. The odd part is that the Academie gave its verdict in 1990. Now, 26 years later, its moves to rehabilitate certain words and reform certain practices are being put into effect, with new textbooks required to carry the changed forms.
More than anything else, it’s the pointy hat-shaped sign that we call the circumflex that has gone to the heart of the matter. In French, it’s called the Circonflexe. It sits jauntily on certain vowels and changes the flavour of the language. French intellectuals affiliated to the Left and the Right are describing the fight for the circonflexe as a fight to save “The Soul of France”. A television channel with an extreme lack of originality has launched a hashtag war: “#Je Suis Circonflexe”.
Distancing ourselves from the immediate scene of battle, here is a layperson’s guide to how the French accents and signs work.
An acute accent, the one sloping towards the left, is like a brisk handshake, or a quick slap if you prefer. The one sloping towards the right or “grave” accent is a slower, tender stroking of the vowels. And the much-debated circonflexe is like a double-handed flourish, a handshake between two heads of state perhaps, which is meant to linger on the tongue and in the air to make it memorable.
For instance, the word “Maitresse”, which is one of the words on the rehabilitated list, comes with a little hat on the “i”. With that small sign, the word becomes just that more interesting. It could mean “mistress”, as in wife, or “Mistress”, as in lover, or the more quotidian “Teacher”. Take away the circonflexe and sadly the ‘maitresse’ becomes a common, or garden, drudge.
The same can be said for the other contentious word change – the common or garden onion. It carried a certain prestige when it was rolled around the tongue as “Oignon”. You could taste the tear-inducing fumes. By reducing it to “ognon”, as the Academie Francaise recommends, its mystery is reduced to a mere bulb, grown to Euromarket specifications and utterly without character.
In short it lacks rigour. And rigour is what is expected of anyone wanting to learn the French language. Its charm is that it is full of rules and lists of words that have to be drilled into the young student’s mind, no questions asked or needed. Take the case of the Irregular Plurals. As anyone who knows the language will tell you, all you need to make a word into its plural form is to add an “s” at the end.
Easy enough you think, but then you are told that there are exceptions. These are to be memorised. They are the words: “Bijou. Genou. Caillou. Chou. Hibou. Joujou. Pou.” The list translates into “Jewel. Knee. Pebble. Cabbage. Owl. Toy. Lice.” These words can only be seen in the plural with an “x” at the end. They are such a delicious choice of sounds that if you were to be climbing the steps to the guillotine, they would instantly take your mind off the executioner’s blade.
Then of course there are the “wet consonants” known as “mouille”, with an acute accent on the last ‘e’, that allow you to taste the bubbles on the word “Champagne” without so much as hinting at the harsh sounds of ‘gne” at the end.
There’s no doubt about it. The Academie Francaise has become, in the words of Charles Baudelaire, “Je suis un vieux boudoir plein de roses fanees." Or to paraphrase, “I am an old boudoir full of faded roses.”
Let the battle continue. Vive le Circonflexe.
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