Hats off: Many French words losing circumflex accent

If you happen to be writing in French about tasting oysters and onions on a weekend in August, things are about to change. Starting in September, schools in France will teach new spellings of some words in a bid to reform the written language.

Spelling reform removes accent from 'août,' 'goûter,' 'chaîne'

If you happen to be writing in French about tasting oysters and onions on a weekend in August, things are about to change. Starting in September, schools in France will teach new spellings of some words in a bid to simplify the written language. 

Under the spelling reforms, the circumflex over i and u (or î and û) in many words will be removed. This affects words such as "goûter" (to taste), "huître" (oyster), and "août" (August).

As well, the word "oignon" (onion) will lose its pesky and silent "i" to become "ognon." And the French word "week-end," borrowed from English, is among several that are dropping the hyphen. 

The Académie française, the council on French language that decides such things, approved the changes to about 2,400 words in 1990, but it took 26 years for them to make their way to the school system. 

However, despite this advance notice, many francophones aren't pleased with the news that many words will be losing their beloved little hats. The hashtag #ReformeOrthographe was a worldwide Twitter trend on Thursday morning. 

Some people added extra, unneeded circumflexes to compensate for the loss. (Here, the bear mascot of Xbox in France turns to a friend for comfort.) 

Some mocked the changes by adopting even more drastic "simplifications" to written French. (At the same time, this tweet satirizes the Académie for forcing the spelling changes, as if at gunpoint.)

To some, it was as if the world were ending 

This tweet and its hashtag #JeSuisCirconflexe call back to the #JeSuisCharlie Twitter trend that followed the Paris shootings last year at Charlie Hebdo. 

It was among many tweets to use the phrase "nivellement par le bas," which loosely translates to "dumbing down." 

The deputy mayor of Nice, Christain Estrosi, used the hashtag and called the changes "absurd." 

Florian Philippot, vice-president of the Front National political party, also used #JeSuisCirconflexe in his tweet about the reforms, calling the French language "our soul" and going out of his way to use words that include the circumflex (all of which will be kept under the changes.)

In another tweet, Philippot called the reforms a "massacre" of the language. 

It's not every î and û that will disappear, though. They will still appear in certain obscure verb conjugations, the kind of words that will give French immersion students flashbacks (le passé simple, l'imparfait du subjonctif, le plus-que-parfait du subjonctif). 

The circumflex will also be kept on i and u in cases where removing it would cause confusion. For example, "sur" means "upon," while "sûr" means "certain." "Un jeune" means "a young person," but "un jeûne" is "a fast." 

This tweet mocks the reforms by noting the possible confusion of "mûr," meaning "ripe," and "mur," meaning "wall." 

The Canadian equivalent of the Académie, l'Office québécois de la langue française, already recognizes the spelling reforms, but notes that neither the new spellings nor the traditional ones should be considered wrong.


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?