In France, the land of Molière, questions of language are so sacred that every Thursday the “immortals,” the guardians of the French language at the Académie Française, meet to discuss — among other things — proposed changes to the institution’s vaunted dictionary.
The last complete edition of the dictionary was published in 1935, according to the academy, and changes evolve over centuries. The newest complete edition is not finished — the authors have reached the letter R.
So it was perhaps not surprising that tempers flared this week after a news report from the broadcaster TF1 that changes were afoot to cut back the circumflex accent, known as “the hat,” from French-language textbooks.
Adding to the horror, the report said that as of September, when the new school year began, teachers would also have to make changes affecting about 2,400 French words, including spelling oignon — or onion — as ognon.
Among the words appropriated from English, news reports noted, the hyphen in week-end would be eliminated, along with the hyphen in tictac (now tic-tac, or ticking, like a clock), while leader would be given a French makeover and be spelled leadeur. Nénuphar, or water lily, would be spelled nénufar.
The reaction on social media was harsh and swift, as intellectuals, teachers and traditionalists took to Twitter to vent their anger at what many saw as an attack on centuries of culture and history.
In a sign of the frenzy inspired by the changes, “Je suis circumflex” became a popular hashtag on Twitter — an allusion to “Je suis Charlie,” the rallying cry used to show solidarity after the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo was attacked by terrorists early last year.
One Twitter user called Guillaume C. reacted to the spelling changes, including the pruning of the circumflex, as a personal affront. “I started the day with a bit of vomit in my mouth,” he wrote on Twitter.
Others were quick to warn of the linguistic perils of losing the circumflex to distinguish between sûr, or sure, an adjective, and, sur, or on, a preposition.
“I am sure your sister is well” and “I am on top of your sister she is well” are not the same thing,” wrote another Twitter user, using a colloquial form of French.
In fact, the circumflex is becoming optional on i’s and u’s, and only on those words that do not need it. It will remain mandatory in several French verb tenses and when there is a clear distinction in meaning.
Joining the revolt, the National Inter-University Union, a right-leaning student group published a petition accusing the education minister, Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, of abusing her “authority” to overturn the rules for spelling in French.
Unfortunately for them, Le Monde noted, the students incorrectly conjugated the verb “to authorize,” misspelling the word.
But for all the outrage, the Education Ministry said that the changes were nothing new and that, in fact, they had been approved by the Académie Française in 1990 as optional recommendations that many textbooks and schools had chosen to ignore.
In 1635, Cardinal Richelieu, the chief minister of Louis XIII, established the Académie Française to rule on the usage of the French language.
The 1990 changes that caused all the fuss this week also came up in 2008, when the Education Ministry published a bulletin urging schools to put them in place.
Nicolas Sarkozy was president at the time of that bulletin, which was largely ignored. Another bulletin issued by the ministry to schools in 2015 — this time during the presidency of François Hollande, a Socialist, received a similarly muted reaction.
This latest debate appears to have been reignited when education officials again this year reiterated their plea. Only this time, publishers of textbooks decided to embrace them.
Patrick Vannier, who works in the elite dictionary service of the Académie Française, said by phone from Paris that the backlash appeared to be overwrought. But he said he was heartened that in the age of the iPhone, the French remained so wedded to their dictionaries.
“I am happy that this shows the extent to which the French are still attached to their language,” he said. He added, “It also shows that there is a lack of historical perspective and that people think that changes of language are fixed for all eternity, when, in, fact, they evolve.”
Indeed, it is a sign of the times that attitudes toward language in France are shifting. Three years ago, when a proposed law was introduced to allow French universities to teach more courses in English, one leading intellectual called it a “suicide project.”
But last year, France’s minister of culture, Fleur Pellerin, said French was not in need of protection from foreign influences, including English. Her words were welcomed by modernizers.
After all, she is the leadeur of the ministry