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Missing the Point

1200x630_323218_french-language-revolution-in-france The news from France is grim. Whether you adore France or have a love-hate relationship with all things French, one thing we’ve all been able to agree on is the spelling of  the words hôtel and août.

But l’Académie française, guardian of the French vocabulary, has agreed that la langue can do without  the pointy lid that sits atop certain words.

The plan to remove the circumflex has sparked outcry and bemused commentary. A New York Times op-ed beat me to the punch with its title, “Hats Off to the Circumflex.” Twitter has enjoyed an uptick of remarks under the hashtag #JeSuisCirconflexe, which I hope is deeply ironic.

Why all the fuss? The circumflex is primarily a vestigial marker of a missing s, which is why a vacationing academic stays in an hôtel instead of a hostel (you lose the s but you get your own bathroom and towels).

One argument put forward for the retirement of the circumflex is that it will make printing easier. Well, maybe.

But the same could be said for the cedilla, the little wattle that depends from the French letter c to ensure that what looks like a consonant sounds as an s, as in français.

And while we’re on the subject, what about the accents, acute and grave, that have made café crème something more than creamy coffee? Do we need them? Or rather, if one needed the accent marks in order to be told how to pronounce those two words, should one really be allowed to order?

Like a bundle of American legislation stuffed with pork, the contract out on the circumflex has more in mind. La soupe à l’oignon, that classic of French cookery, is about to be simplified orthographically to la soupe à l’ognon. Try telling me that it will taste the same.

Yes, languages change, and orthographic conventions do, too.

English abandoned the long s (it looks like an uncrossed f),  which was common in the 17th and 18th centuries. Enjoy the classroom merriment when you teach Ariel’s song from The Tempest that begins “Where the bee sucks, there suck I.”

But the circumflex was something different,  a little crown,  a vestige of imaginary diacritical royalty.

Maybe this is a tempête in a teapot, but I feel the French I knew (and knew badly) is being replaced with a plastic mannequin. Still lovely if you squint a little, but not the real thing.

All right, then. I suppose we, like the French themselves, will just have to learn to be circumflexible.

But the Ritz Paris — where I’ve never stayed and never will — just won’t feel the same. What used to be called an hôtel de luxe might as well start calling itself a hostel of lucks.

 

Follow me on Twitter @WmGermano

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