I was amused by the report about spelling reform on the French news tonight. The Académie Française, the guardians of the French language, periodically bless changes. The most recent reforms were in 1990, more than twenty years ago now, but the report explained that few French people are clear about how they should be spelling words as common as “le weekend.” Hey, I’m a French teacher, and I didn’t know that the hyphen was gone, and the text we use at school, which post-dates the changes, still uses “le week-end.” The full list of changes is extensive, but they can be grouped as follows:
- most numbers didn’t used to have hyphens – now they do: trois-mille-cinq-cent-trente-neuf
- words borrowed from English, like le weekend and le hotdog, now don’t have a hyphen
- some accents, like the tréma, moved: aigüe is now aiguë
- some accents changed: événement, is now évènement, for example
- some accents are gone, for example, the circumflex is gone from “i” and “u”, except where it’s needed to avoid confusion: so dû (the past participle of devoir) keeps its accent to avoid confusion with du, (the contraction of de le that means “some”)
Agreement with past participle
- French has a series of fairly complicated rules about when to make changes to the past participle to show that a word is feminine or plural. Of course, the rules have exceptions. The exception for the verb faire “to do/make” now applies to laisser “to let” as well. Great. More exceptions for my students to master.
- Oignons are now ognons. Onions still make my eyes water, with or without an “i”. (Terrible pun, I know.)
The good news is – all the changes are considered optional and the old spellings are as correct as the corrections. So I’m not messing up all my students.
Today’s expression, occupe-toi de tes oignons! (ahkoop two de tays onyohn) means “look after your own onions” or “mind your own business.” I kind of feel that the Académie Française should have taken that advice and not made so many changes that no one likes or follows. I like oignons with an i.
If you want to practice your spelling in French, try this book of exercises: