BBC and newspaper headlines, 5 February, 2016
Back in the 1950s while still at school, I learnt the basics of how to write and speak the French language. Learning foreign languages didn’t come easy to me—I failed O-level Latin, and subsequent dalliances with German and Russian came to nought—but I did scrape a decent O-level pass in French and for a while could almost hold a French conversation with my schoolboy contemporaries; almost. Unfortunately, when I left school I didn’t use the language and these days I can barely remember the conjugation of verbs, regular or irregular; the gender and declension of nouns; or any of the idiomatic expressions except ça va? (literally, it goes?) and its response oui, ça va bien merci (yes, it goes well thank you) which is a pity because two of my granddaughters live in France and my wife and I visit them regularly. The girls are bilingual. Just think how cool it would be if I could converse with them in French as well as English. It’s not meant to be however. They laugh at my attempts!
One thing that did fascinate me about the French language was all those little marks above and below some of the letters. In the previous paragraph, did you spot the little squiggle under the C in ça va? The squiggle is named a cedilla and is an example of what’s called a diacritic mark, a mark added to a letter to indicate something about the letter. In the case of the cedilla under a C, it means the C is pronounced like a letter S rather than a letter K—sa va? not ka va? The French language uses five common diacritic marks as follows:
- The bottom-left to top-right acute accent (l’accent aigu) used to emphasise an E sound as in née, pronounced nay rather than knee;
- The top-left to bottom-right grave accent (l’accent grave) used on the vowels A, E or U to separate homophones, words that sound the same but mean different things such as feet and feat in English, ou (meaning or) and où (meaning where) in French;
- The two-dots trema (le tréma), also known as a diaeresis, used to indicate that two consecutive vowels are pronounced separately as in naïve (pronounced nigh-eve), Noël (pronounced no-ell) and the English word cooperative that used to be spelt coöperative;
- The squiggly cedilla (la cédille), as discussed earlier;
- And the mighty multi-talented acute-plus-grave circumflex (le circonflexe) found on any vowel and used for any one of three reasons:
- to indicate the historical presence of a letter, usually S, that has fallen by the wayside: hôpital (hospital), forêt (forest), côte (coast), pâtes (pasta);
- to distinguish between homographs, words that look the same but have different meanings such as the English words minute (min-it)—as in a unit of time—and minute (my-newt)—as in very small). In French, we have examples such as côte (rib, side of, coast) and cote (quota, dimensions, mark, quotation), sur (on) and sûr (sure);
- how to pronounce a particular vowel, usually by lengthening it as in Château where the single â lingers longer than the three-lettered eau sound. Fête (party) is similar. The first ê is longer than the second e.
Now you see why I said the circumflex is mighty and multi-talented. It occurs in many other languages, including Welsh where it’s called the hirnod (long sign), acen grom (crooked accent) and colloquially as tô bach (little roof). As with the French circumflex, the Welsh circumflex lengthens a vowel. So why, oh why, is the French circumflex being abolished [1, 2, 3]?
Unlike the English language, the French language is looked after by an authoritative organisation called the Académie Française founded in 1635 by, among others, Cardinal de Richelieu, made famous in Alexandre Dumas’s The Three Musketeers. The organisation consists of forty elected Immortals, so named after the motto À l’immortalité (“To Immortality”), one of whom is chosen to be the Perpetual (secretary). Past Immortals include such literary giants as Voltaire, Victor Hugo, Alexandre Dumas… but there were many who didn’t make the grade: Jean-Paul Sartre, Honoré de Balzac, René Descartes, Molière, Marcel Proust, and Jules Verne for example. Therein lies a story of treachery, intrigue and downright shenanigans waiting to be unmasked but… back to the present.
In 1990, the Académie Française decreed that the circumflex served no useful purpose and proposed alternative spellings for circumflexed French words—coût (cost) became cout, maîtresse (mistress or female teacher) became maitresse, and so on. Nobody in France took any notice until earlier this year when school books started to use the new forms of spelling. A #JeSuisCirconflexe Twitter storm erupted. Hunger strikes are being planned. There are riots in the poorer suburbs of southern Paris. The Champs-Ėlysées is awash with protest marchers. French truck drivers are barricading the port of Calais much to the annoyance of the migrants trying to reach England. As they say in France, la merde a frappé le ventilateur!
What a to-do ! Quelle cafouillage! Who’s next on the guillotine ? The acute? The grave? The sexy little cedilla, the only female diacritic in the group? The trema trembles. If all these diacritics are phased out of the French language, it will become as confusing and ambiguous as English and that we cannot allow. One ambiguous language is enough! Vive le circonflexe!