The Awful Fate of French Spelling

As I was surfing the web this week, I stumbled upon an interesting article about a book whose concept made me quite skeptical. The book, entitled «Zéro faute, l’orthographe : une passion française» (Zero mistake, spelling: a French passion) allows its author to express his point of view regarding the so-called complexity of the French language – that French spelling should undergo a reform for the benefit of all. On the various websites mentioning this book debates were quite passionate – is French really too complicated to write? Should we make the language “simpler” to limit the number of spelling mistakes amongst French-speaking people?

I stand firmly against these enemies of the French language and I think these kinds of statements are outrageous. Of course, it is clear enough that French is a very difficult language to write (even for natives!) because of its complicated rules, its numerous exceptions and its illogical written form. We all know that you don’t pronounce French as it is spelled! But is it really a reason to essentially make the language poorer and tear apart all of its riches? Some people evoke other Latin languages like Portuguese or Spanish, whose writing is phonetic and thus much easier to write for people speaking these languages. As this is the case it would, according to them, be judicious to reform our language to follow the example set by these “more logical” models.

It has been said by those wanting to simplify French that it is a language for scholars, and therefore apparently impossible for the majority of the population to write it without any mistake. Strangely, about twenty years ago, French people wrote in a very correct way. So have we become stupid in the past two decades? Some may blame the complexity of the language, but it would seem the problem lies elsewhere. Nowadays, it has become nerdy to read books, and everyone is chatting away and butchering the language. Can we really pretend that French is “too hard”? The real problem is that less and less people bother to really learn the language properly. Well, it can’t be that illogical as everyone seems able to learn it. Otherwise, how could I explain that many people of my acquaintance write without making practically any mistakes? Loving your language and its literature is a good start.

What the people unsatisfied with French spelling rules suggest is quite simple – they would like to see the language reformed so it can be more “phonetic” and therefore more “available” for the majority of the population, and not only for bookworms and scholars. But should we really take things that far? The French language has an incredible richness; even I discover new things about my mother tongue every day. Some may reply that it is really painful to write in French and say it is impossible to enjoy because the writer’s head is close to exploding while always thinking about the spelling of words and the agreement of past principles. As for me, I dare say that if a musician does not know his instrument well enough, he should avoid playing and practice more. Practice does, as they say, make perfect.

Another statement puzzled me somewhat – that the complexity of the French language would place it at a disadvantage globally speaking. Essentially by holding on to its illogical rules, we would take it to its death. If French does not undergo any reforms it could easily follow the path taken by Latin by becoming a language exclusively used by the intellectual elite. If this is the case then why would English work as an international language? I heard that English pronunciation was far from easy…

French is obviously a language whose spelling rules are very delicate to master. It is also a very rich, precise and interesting language. Rather than ‘dumbing down’ the language for those who are struggling (since everybody makes mistakes while writing, let’s reform our language), why not insist on the teaching of our spelling like they used to do in schools? Reading official letters or students’ essays with countless huge spelling mistakes now happens all too often, however this is only a recent phenomenon. It is really necessary that pupils once again become interested in reading and bother to use a dictionary when facing even the slightest doubt about spelling.


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6 thoughts on “The Awful Fate of French Spelling”

  1. I very much agree with your point that to simplify French spelling would be a terrible linguistic loss. I must, however, correct you on your assumption that Portuguese is spelt phonetically. You are indeed correct in stating that Spanish spelling is largely phonetic however Portuguese is a different matter, particularly European Portuguese which is phonetically very rich and relatively complex to spell when compared with the Spanish language. I completely agree that French should be maintained as it is. English with its illogical spelling patterns and complicated pronunciation has not undergone a spelling reform and it is, of course, the global lingua franca in spite of this.

  2. Nadeau and Barlow, in The Story of French, contrast modern French and English. To some extent, they argue, the ideal in written English is to sound more conversational, whereas the idea in spoken French is to sound more literary. They point out that in “the supposed golden age of French,” the time of Louis XIV, three-quarters of the population of France spoke the language poorly–or not at all.

    “A careful examination of…the Academy’s dictionary shows that half of French words have changed spelling at least once–sometimes two or three times–since 1694.” Many spellings attributed to the classics were in fact made during the 19th century, in a wave of centralism and purism.

    “The result of this gigantic revisionist enterprise was that most francophones today–even the best-read–swear that the geniuses of the past wrote in the standard modern French they themselves learned in school in the twentieth century.”

    Nadeau and Barlow quote Claude Hagège’s opinion that this is in part an expression of class struggle over who gets to set the standard.

  3. I couldn’t resist adding an observation I came across today. It’s from Michel de Montaigne:

    Selon la variation continuelle qui a suivy le nostre (nostre langage) jusques a cette heure, qui peult espérer que sa forme présente soit en usage d’icy à cinquante ans? il escoule tous les jours de nos mains; et, depuis que je vis, s’est altéré de moitié. Nous disons qu’il est asture [à cette heure] parfaict; autant en dict du sien
    chasque siècle. Je n’ay garde de l’en tenir là tant qu’il fuyra et s’ira difformant comme il faict. C’est aux bons et utiles escripts de le clouer à eulx.

  4. I speak and write French as it is, along with English, my primary languages. I can assure you that French is not difficult to master, it is impossible. It is easy for English speakers to say “you should work more” and believe that French students will learn to spell while writing about Voltaire or Hugo(to take two names the English would know) with a dictionary at their side. But the reality is that most students grow frustrated by these senseless rules who invariably go hand in hand with a book of exceptions. They leave school shattered and their self esteem is lowered. French is nonetheless a magical language, a language of intellect and poise, of clarity and purity. I only wish more students could learn to appreciate it.

  5. This is a very informative article. May I copy this article in my blog? surely I’ll write down the source. I was looking for these kind of articles. I am doing a project and this information is very useful for me. Great post!

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