Rumours of the circumflex’s demise greatly exaggerated

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There is a wonderful passage in Jonathan Swift’s “Gulliver’s Travels” about the war between Little-Endians in Lilliput and Big-Endians in Blefuscu over how to open a hard-boiled egg.

It would be extremely rude of me to suggest that the uproar in France about the proper use of the circumflex is in any way comparable to the goings-on in Swift’s satire.

On the contrary, I completely understand why French linguistic purists have scrambled to their social media accounts to support that noblest of causes, #JeSuisCirconflexe.

To refresh our memories, here’s a circumflex: ^. And here are some French words that are forever associated with their circumflexes: tête de veau (calf’s head) and maîtresse (mistress).

The trouble began last week with a report on TF1, a French television network. It stated, entirely accurately, that a set of spelling reforms would be applied in new school textbooks later this year. These reforms were originally agreed in 1990 by the Académie Française, that august guardian of the French language’s purity.

Among the reforms are some limited changes to the use of the circumflex. They do not abolish the circumflex completely. Nor are they compulsory. Any schoolchild who sticks to the old ways will not lose marks.

But it wasn’t long before wild rumours were flying around the internet to the effect that the circumflex, like the Bourbon monarchy in 1792, was being killed off by a hysterical mob.

Similar outrage erupted, by the way, in Germany when a modest set of spelling reforms was introduced there in 1996. Authors, professors, scientists and – killer of killer blows – even the Springer-Verlag publishing house refused to accept the changes.

So what will actually be different in France? Not a lot. In certain words with a circumflex on “i” or “u”, the accent can now be dropped. But otherwise it stays.

It will be easier to understand if I give an example. Imagine a French politician who takes his mistress for a romantic calf’s head dinner.

When he writes about it in his diary afterwards, he will be free to change “maîtresse” to “maitresse”. But tête de veau will stay tête de veau. Who would wish it otherwise?

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