About five years ago more or less to the day, a cold, fresh February morning, I was working as an English teacher in a primary school in Laval, northwest France. It was the lesson before lunchtime and I had in front of me a small class of seven year olds. We were learning ‘food’. I’d given them a helping hand by choosing ‘chocolate’ (it’s a cognate) and ‘cheese’ (because show me a seven year old who will struggle to pretend to smile for a camera like an insane fool whilst squeezing a ‘cheeeeese’ through their teeth?). I’d also chosen the word ‘pasta’.
“Look,” I said, picking up a piece of chalk and moving over to the blackboard. I wrote it out in big letters next to the French word ‘pâtes’. “Let’s play spot the difference,” I said to these newly literate small children. In came the responses: “both start with ‘p’,” said one. “Both have a ‘t’ in,” said another. “Super!” I exclaimed to my little ducklings. “‘Pasta’ has an ‘s’ in the middle,” said yet another. “Brilliant,” I said.
I started writing on the board again: ‘hostel’. “A hostel is a bit like a ‘hôtel’,” I explained, writing ‘hôtel’ on the board. “What do you notice?” I asked again. “There’s no ‘s’ in the French,” someone said. And then another cried out: “where there’s an ‘s’ in English, we have a circumflex in French!” “Yes!” I exclaimed, the lot of us barely able to contain our excitement. “So,” I braved, “how do you think we say ‘hôpital’ in English?”
“Hospital!” came a chorus of high pitched voices. “Exactly!” They met my excitement and doubled it. They had spotted the trick. This helpful and precious little nugget from the past. This circumflex which takes the place of an ‘s’ that once was, which shows that our English words and their French words have a common ancestor in Latin. A secret path from one language into another.
“Guys,” I said, “you are geniuses. This is what I was learning at university!” Which is no word of a lie. They beamed. The bell rang and they skipped out of the classroom, bubbling with excitement and pride. I skipped out behind them.
It’s not often that French spelling reforms make the headlines in the international media, but this week they have. Helped into the limelight by some classic media distortion and exaggeration. However, news travels fast so hopefully by now most people have got their facts straight, but just in case:
- The circumflex is not disappearing
- In 1990 the Académie Française proposed to reform the spelling of some two thousand words, the explanation and justification for which can be found here
- One of the reforms proposed is that use of the circumflex on the letters i and u be optional, though not in verbs or in certain other instances
- The proposed reform does not affect the circumflex on the letters a, e or o.
- Since 1990 (so that’s for the past 26 years) use of the circumflex on i and u has been optional
- What’s news is the fact that when the kids return to school in September, their textbooks (if they’ve got new ones, that is) will include the reformed spellings
Of course the circumflexes my seven year olds and I played with won’t disappear with these reforms, because they are ‘ô’s’ and ‘â’s’. But the hat on the û in ‘dégoûtant’ might. Add in an ‘s’ and your not far from the English ‘disgusting’. Same for the French ‘coût’ (‘cost’) and what about the ‘croûte’ on your bread?
Not every circumflex represents a lost ‘s’; not by a long shot. But some of them do. Some of them are portals from one language to another, open to seven year olds and adults alike. Magical tunnels which whizz us from modern-day French back hundreds of years to Latin before propelling us forward to modern-day English. And vice versa. You know, there are portals everywhere if you know what you’re looking for. ‘W’ and ‘gu’, for example, were historically related. Think ‘war’ and ‘guerre’ or ‘warden’ and ‘guardien’.
I’m a linguist and I know that what language does is change and evolve. And the proposed spelling reforms are part of that. I get that, and in my head I’m okay with that. It’s just there’s a little bit of my excitable linguaphile heart that can’t help but feel that what these reforms will (albeit unintentionally) eventually do is block off some of the secret passage ways which make language and language learning so exciting: they’ll destroy some of the magic. So yes, my head’s fine, but I am a little heartbroken.