Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

French in Uproar over Spelling Reform

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

French in Uproar over Spelling Reform

Article excerpt

LAST fall, several French publications chided the American public for beating itself into a froth over the issue of women reporters in professional football locker rooms, at a time when the country faced a budget deadlock at home and a deepening crisis in the Middle East.

With expiration of the Jan. 15 United Nations deadline for Iraq to leave Kuwait, and with France a key Western player in a conflict that could erupt into war at any time, the French are in an uproar of their own - over yet one more proposal for reform of spelling in the French language.

Which proves that the French take their language as seriously as Americans take their football.

No fewer than five French Nobel prize winners - in economics, physics, medicine, and literature - came out last week in opposition to the proposed reforms. Many of France's most illustrious writers and thinkers have joined in. Prime Minister Michel Rocard, whose government initiated the latest reform, has taken a position on the topic (very much in favor), as has President Francois Mitterrand (less so).

"This reform is not absurd," Mr. Mitterrand recently told journalists anxious for his perspective. Any changes in spelling must remain "prudent" and "respect the etymological power of words," he added. Noting, however, that he had personally reviewed the proposed changes, the French president offered this tantalizing observation without further explanation: "I was a little frightened by what I saw, and I saved some accents."

To some, the controversy may seem like a lot of spilled ink for an accent. Slated to disappear in most cases is the circumflex, the "little hat" that generally indicates a lost letter, as in foret, and some double consonants and hyphens. A handful of new rules would be introduced to simplify plurals and past participles.

Mr. Rocard says the reform would involve no more than 1,500 words. He also defends the simplification as necessary for making French accessible to high-tech projects for electronic language translation. …

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