Monday, February 08, 2016

Je suis Circonflexe

An apology first. I'm sorry to have missed my post last week, but my PC, the dreaded Beelzebub I posted about a couple of weeks back, had to be sent back to the maker to have its guts ripped out and reinstalled. I'm still trying to come to terms with all the little 'imporvements' that make my life more difficult, but I daresay it will work out in the end.

There has been an outcry in France. A government decision that the circumflex which adorns certain vowels is to be omitted in school textbooks has provoked demos and a storm on Internet sites under the hashtag, 'Je suis Circonflexe'. Further fury was aroused when it transpired that Monet's famous Waterlilies painting Les Nenuphars (sorry, can't find a way of doing the acute accent over the 'e') is now to be rendered Nenufars.

I love the French. A year when I don't visit France is to me a year wasted and it is a proud boast that if you go far enough back in my family tree you find Huguenots, who fled France under religious persecution in the eighteenth century. (The wealthy ones were silversmiths, the poor ones were weavers. Guess which my ancestors were.)

One of the things I most love about the French is their passion for what they care about:; 'To the barricades!' is a slogan never very far from their lips. And I particularly love it that one of the things they care passionately about is their language.

The Academie francaise guards it jealously and mounts quixotic campaigns to stop English – or possibly I should say American – infiltrating it. To be strictly correct, if you wanted to say 'email' in French, you would call it 'courrier electronique.' They don't, of course, any more than they can be persuaded to use 'travail en reseau' instead of 'networking'. It's clumsy.

One of the big problems for accented languages like French appears when it comes to using keyboards; the letter 'e' for instance would have to appear as e acute, e grave and e circumflex, and by the time you did that for all accented letters the keyboard would be enormous, so any accented letter is subject to another process.

So it makes sense to banish the circumflex when it doesn't affect the vowel sound. And you won't hear any difference in pronunciation when the ph in nenuphars is replaced by and f – and it's easier to spell. It's certainly more practical but it's a shame when the history of a language disappears from the printed word.

America, of course, took those decisions years ago, and because of the influence of films English-English has now wholeheartedly embraced Americanisms – they're colourful and fun. But I start getting all French when I see 'program' creeping in instead of 'programme' – and I still think 'honour' looks, well, more honourable than 'honor'. So far, though, 'gotten' hasn't come back into English; it's a pure Shakespearean past participle that left with the Mayflower and is never used on this side of the Atlantic.

As writers words are our stock-in-trade; we need to be passionate about them, treat them with respect and defend them against misuse.  To the barricades, anyone?

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