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At the start of February, the Académie Française - who are responsible for upholding the French language - announced that the circumflex (ˆ) was being made optional, and the spelling of over 2,400 words was going to change. Most controversially, the word for “onion” - “oignon” - will be spelled as ognon in future.

This change has been in the works for over 25 years, originating in 1990, and was intended to make written French easier to learn, and improve the language’s overall accessibility. The rules are due to come into effect at the start of new school year in September.

This decision won’t just impact France, but any of the 56 French-speaking countries. As one of the UK’s popular business languages and in the world, changing spellings and phasing out the circumflex will have an effect on any Francophone nation, from Canada to Ghana.

Un peu de confusion

Almost immediately Twitter was up in arms, with #jesuiscirconflexe and #jesuisoignon becoming the day’s biggest trending topics in France. But, much like any Twitter outcry, not every voice in the crowd was talking accurately.

The circumflex will remain over the letters o and e. It will continue to differentiate between words which are spelled the same, but can have different meanings - such as sur (on top of) and sûr (sure). Sadly, this also means that the viral image below isn’t going to be the confusing future of French:

Translated, the poster reads:

I am sure your sister is doing fine.

I am on top of your sister, she’s doing fine.

This is why the circumflex is important.

Hyphens considered “unnecessary” in the opinion of the Académie Française are also being removed - so “pic-nic” becomes “picnic” and “week-end” is now “weekend.”

Voilà, le selfie

This alteration to the language comes only a few months after words like “vegan” and “selfie” found their way into the French dictionary. This caused une petite tempête in itself, as many French-speakers (particularly in Quebec, where a selfie is officially called “un egoportrait”) are against the rise in anglicisms. The dictionary’s powers that be are insistent that including words such as “hashtag” are allowing French to be a more “dynamic” language, which can prove it can accept “influence from outside” without altering completely.

A gender-neutral Germany? 

This isn’t the only overhaul that a major European language has undergone in recent years. As another language with gender pronouns (“das” for masculine, “der” for feminine), German job titles often take a feminine pronoun; this is a linguistic trait which has been adopted by the University of Leipzig, where all teaching positions are referred to this way.

2014 saw Germany’s federal justice ministry begin enforcing a rule around gender-neutral pronouns in paperwork and job advertisements. There are a few German dialects which have already abandoned gender pronouns entirely, but one linguist has stated that the majority of the German language is “very comfortable...but very unfair.”


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Au revoir, circumflex - why is the French language changing?
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