To make or break a spelling reform

A decades-old French spelling reform is the unlikely source of a popular rebellion in 2016. But the current debate arguably has more to say about the social context of modern-day France than the actual orthographic changes.

When a group of French textbook publishers decided to adopt a series of spelling proposals for the 2016 school year, could they have expected such a backlash? The reforms were first proposed in 1990—almost 30 years ago—and their aim is pedagogic: they were designed to simplify and standardise French orthography. Now, a former education minister has come out against the reform; several high-profile authors and academics have also said they are opposed. Twitter is alive with criticism of the changes. And the Front National, a far-right political party, has said the reform will ‘exile French youth from their own language.’

Upward spike in Twitter usage of #reformeorthographe ('spelling reform')
Upward spike in Twitter usage of #reformeorthographe (‘spelling reform’)

The changes were never made compulsory in France, and for the most part they fell by the wayside. A study undertaken between 2003 and 2004 showed that other Francophone regions were far ahead of the French in teaching the changes: 60.1 per cent of Belgian university students surveyed declared their knowledge of the reforms, 53.6 per cent of Swiss French, and 35.1-40.6 per cent of Quebecois students, compared to 4.5 per cent for a group of students in Paris. The Académie française originally endorsed the changes, but even its own ranks are not immune to the current polemics; the French newspaper Libération reported in February that Jean d’Ormesson, a life-long member of the Académie, has said he was originally in favour of the reforms ‘because 25 years ago, the public was not so unhappy as it is today, and the country in this state.’

The German precedent

Ormesson’s statement suggests that a larger issue is also at stake. He is pointing to the social and political state of the country as the real decider of whether to adopt a spelling reform, rather than the content of the reform itself—and the attitude is not without precedent. Proposed changes to German spelling in the 1990s were met with a similar response throughout the country, provoking popular protest and appeals to the constitutional court.

The circumstances are not altogether dissimilar. A cross-country panel of experts in German orthography worked on a series of proposals in an attempt to facilitate learning, as in the years leading up to the 1990 French proposals. After a period of consultation, the changes to German spelling were announced on 30 November 1995, with an implementation plan for the 1998 school year, and a subsequent transition period lasting until 2005. Almost immediately, in 1996, a law professor challenged the reform, saying that it abused his fundamental rights—as a citizen it violated his right to personal dignity and freedom (to spell as he wished), as a professor his freedom of teaching. The case was dismissed, but further legal challenges abounded.

And popular dissent: in October 1996, a Bavarian schoolteacher named Friedrich Denk distributed a pamphlet at the Frankfurt book fair which outlined his ten major objections to the new spelling. Denk was able to gather 450-odd signatures, and the ‘Frankfurt declaration’ was later published in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper. Signatories included the Nobel prize-winner Günter Grass and the author Walter Kempowski—who admitted to not being overly familiar with the reforms, but who said the issue at stake was also ‘the loss of national identity in a unified Europe.’

Foretelling the future of reform

The political scientist İlker Aytürk develops this theme in discussing Turkey’s adoption of the Roman alphabet in 1928, compared with unsuccessful attempts to romanise the Hebrew language in the 20th century. Turkey shifted from using the Arabic script as part of the Westernisation effort led by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, and Aytürk identifies a number of social, political, and technical factors that may facilitate or hinder such a transition more generally. Apart from the phonetic compatibility of the language and alphabet, which was much greater in the case of Turkish, a low level of literacy, authoritarian governance, a ‘revolutionary fervour and desire for a clean break with the past’ can all contribute to a successful transition. Potentially preventing the same reforms could be a democratic and participatory society, high literacy levels, or the existence of canonical texts in the original script.

So Ormesson’s comment, while having little to do with the nature or content of the spelling reforms to be introduced in school textbooks this year, is perhaps tapping into a broader trend—one that links together orthography, language, and society. For one to change, the others have to be ready, as well. Up for reform are around 2400 words—which represents between 3 and 4 per cent of the local lexicon. It might not seem that much, but the question then becomes: how prepared is French society for even a minor evolution?

Madeleine Willis

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