Sorry – je ne suis pas circumflex

What’s going on in France?

I’m talking about the way some people are reacting to the modest spelling reforms put forth by the Académie Française. According to a New York Times report, no sooner had the Académie proposed removing the circumflex from some words (only in cases where there would be no ambiguity), than Je suis circumflex became a thing on Twitter. It’s a nod, of course, to last year’s Je suis Charlie [Hebdo] meme.

academie

We don’t need an Academy of English. But if we ever get one I hope it has a classy building like the Académie Française. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

You might think that I, a lover of language, would join the movement. But I won’t. Here’s why.

I grew up in an orderly home. There were rules. There were right ways and wrong ways to do things. As a result, life was pretty predictable. I liked that.

At school I learned the rules of grammar. I didn’t just learn them — I soaked them up. There was a right way and a wrong way to speak and write. I liked that.

Those rules became ingrained. Never split an infinitive. Never end a sentence with a preposition. Never use a plural pronoun (they) when talking about just one person.

Then a funny thing happened. As I grew older, I watched the English language evolve. I had a ringside seat, in fact, because I made my career in writing.

English evolved, because that’s what languages do. They evolve.

It took a while for me to see it, but over time those rules proved to be more rigid and less sensible than I’d supposed. Often, trying to obey the rules, I wrote myself into a corner. I learned that sometimes it’s best to ignore the rules.

A few months ago I even embraced the singular they. Because languages evolve.

So, back to France and Je suis circumflex. People are basically saying you can take my little hat when you pry it from my cold, dead hands.

I know that the French treasure their language, that they see it as an extension of their culture. And perhaps, like me, they like the orderliness that comes from having rules.

But just as the French culture has evolved through the centuries — being enriched by the likes of Hugo,  Monet, and Sartre — perhaps their language should be allowed to evolve as well.

Because that’s what languages do. They evolve.

 

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5 thoughts on “Sorry – je ne suis pas circumflex

  1. Colum McAndrew

    What I found interesting about these changes is that the Académie Française traditionally have been a conservative bunch. The French language is locked into the French culture is similar ways to the Gaelic language was in Ireland. It was an extension of being French. Maybe by relaxing some of the rules, they are acknowledging that by losing a battle, they can win the war. Maybe we English speakers could learn from this? Where should we start? Apostrophes anyone? 🙂

    Reply
  2. Larry Kunz Post author

    Thanks, Colum. That’s an interesting take (and likely a correct one) on why the Académie has proposed its changes. Changing the apostrophes in English? I don’t know. George Bernard Shaw tried to do that about 100 years ago. Do you think we’re ready for it now? 🙂

    Reply
  3. Ugur Akinci

    Great post Larry. As someone who started to learn English when he was 13 through British teachers, I certainly am keenly aware of the change you’re referring to. Just the other day I heard an esteemed colleague use “status” as a verb (“this item has already been statused as XYZ”) and I had to remind myself to keep calm and just observe and absorb 🙂 It’s a dilemma: should we go with the flow and feel negligent or guilty about not defending the standards, or stand our ground for the “fundamentals” but at the cost of feeling left behind by the “real world” out there? It’s been a while I quit reminding people that “impact” is a noun and not a verb. So may be I’ll get used to things being statused as well.

    Reply
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