The circumflex isn’t disappearing, but I’m still slightly heartbroken

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.



Parliament’s best kept secret

I love tips, life hacks and shortcuts, and today I’ve got a corker to share with you:

ctrl + POST.

Except you can drop the ‘ctrl’.

Today I’m going to tell you about POST: Parliament’s best kept secret and one of the best shortcuts I’ve ever come across. So, if you can identify with any of the people below, then read on.


POST is where I worked this summer and where this blog began.

‘POST’ stands for the ‘Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology’ and is an office that produces briefings for MPs and Peers on topics in science and technology. But not just any old briefings…

POST takes huge topics like Trends in Crime and Criminal Justice or The 100,000 Genomes Project and analyses, synthesises, digests and distills them. The key areas, main issues and policy implications are condensed into four sides of printed text. (POST is the office incarnation of what you get if you cross a ruminant with a blast furnace.)

This is the best bit, though: POST’s briefings are publicly available! Do I need to say anymore?! Here’s the link that will take you to an index of four-page synopses of loads of topics in science and technology of importance today.

Not convinced that you’ll get much insight in just four pages?

Well, let me tell you, a hell of a lot goes into the briefings that POST produces. In fact, having researched one myself this summer, which has been published today, I can tell you precisely what goes into them, or at least what went into mine…

What went into Sarah’s POSTnote:

  • 111 academic articles
  • 83  government and legal documents
  • 53 other documents
  • Contributions from more than 50 academics, industry specialists, civil servants and others
  • Correspondence from more than 400 emails
  • Information from enough telephone calls to cure a phobia of telephoning people

I’ve done some calculations and I reckon that, had I printed out all the documents I could have, it would have taken 2364 sheets of paper (ball park figure, obvs). According to Conservatree, that’s the equivalent of 1/3 of a tree or 4 metres of tree.

The ruminant blast furnace is always in action, and a new POSTnote comes out every couple of weeks. Whilst you, dear readers, are going about your day-to-day lives, POST staff and fellows are investigating, delving, probing, digesting and distilling the world of science and technology.

If POST were a cleaning product it would be Flash. Remember the tagline? That’s right:  does the hard work, so you don’t have to!

And that, dear friends, is why POST is Parliament’s best kept secret.

Oh, and here’s a big P.S. if ever there was one: here‘s the link to my POSTnote on Forensic Language Analysis, which is as exciting as it sounds! No need to tune into CSI: Crime Scene Investigation this week, you can learn about the real deal in POSTnote 509.