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French NEW Spelling vs. OLD Spelling

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So ! Since Vova insisted that I post a topic on this much heated theme :

French spelling – Old spelling vs. New spelling.

During our last senior blitz, I got bad marks from reviewers who noticed my bad spelling. However, those reviewers did not take into consideration the fact that I write using new spelling.

So what is the new French spelling ?

The new French spelling follows the rules of the 1990 reform. The three main points of that reform are :

1) Circumflex accent disappears from letters where it is not needed for pronunciation or grammatical reasons – this concerns almost every instance of letters « û » and « î ». So new spelling has « ile » instead of « île », « il connait » instead of « il connaît » and « surs » instead of « sûrs ». However, the accent is retained where needed to distinguish between words : « sûr » (“certain”) not « sur » (“on”), « crû » (“grown”) not « cru » (“believed”)

2) Grave accent replaces acute accent on letter “e” when in front of a “e” muet, to reflect the actual current pronunciation in French as it spoken in France (where “e muet” is almost always dropped, meaning that the “é” sound from old pronunciation/spelling becomes a “è” sound because it now stands in front of two consonant sounds). Examples : « évènement » not « événement », « règlementaire » not « réglementaire », « sècheresse » not « sécheresse », « je gèrerai » not « je gérerai ». (and too bad for Belgians, Québécois and Africans who have a different accent and still pronounce many “e muets”)

3) many composed words become “fused” (porte-monnaie –> portemonnaie, plate-forme –> plateforme, etc.) and the rules of plural for those words are changed : « des portemonnaies » instead of « des porte-monnaie », etc.

4) Additionally, many absurdities have been corrected : « ognon » not « oignon », « combattif » not « combatif », « aigüe » not « aiguë », etc., etc., etc.

(a full list of changes and words concerned can be found on this link : www.renouvo.org)


So what's the fuss all about ?

Now, where the problem starts, and the reason of the debate, is that the official position of the French Academy has been not to enforce any standard as the only official one : it means whoever is free to choose which spelling to use, old or new, and noone can blame her for that. They hoped that by doing so, the new standard would finally prevail. But so everyone kept living on as if the new spelling did not exist. Almost thirty years later, books, newspapers, etc. are still published using the old spelling, and even computer softwares such as MSWord, OpenWriter and many spell checkers such as the ones by current translation agencies on their own systems have kept marking words written using new spelling as “mistaken”.

Recently though, in 2008, the French government decided that the new spelling should be the one taught at school, although the textbooks and… the governement communication on that subject were still using the old spelling ! Since this year however, the textbooks follow the new spelling, but most people 1) are not aware of it, 2) are not aware that the new spelling exists or 3) are strongly against it, for no other reason than nostalgia about how the old spelling is supposed to look, much like nostalgia for tviordy znak and yats in Russia today.

– Most of the criticism touches on the legitimacy of the French Academy and of the French government to apply any changes to the way the French language should be written. In my opinion, those critics are mostly uninformed, since the rules for the French language have ALWAYS been defined by the same Academy and the 1990 reform is not the first reform of the language, nor the last. That is, current “old” spelling was at one point “new”, and, just like the current “new” spelling, was also integrally defined by the same French Academy that defined today's new spelling.

– A good deal of the rejection also stems from the fear that, supposedly, people are now encouraged not to learn the “proper” way of writing, that is, we are making people lazy. Although not really, since the reform does not touch a lot of issues that could make French writing really easier, and only deals with the most glarant absurdities. But we still have many circumflex accents as in “tache”/“tâche”, double consonants and useless silent letters at the end of words (“aspects”,“doigts”…), plural of “chou” is still “choux” while plural of “cou” is “cous”, etc., so fans of hard spelling can still rejoice.

– An opposite point of view is that the reform is useless since exactly, it still does not make French writing purely phonetic, but only corrects a very few of the most absurd aspects of the spelling. So, waiting for a more far-reaching reform, those people refuse to apply the new spelling. My opinion though is that the new spelling should be used because, even though the reform is limited and could be much further-reaching (like to replace “philosophe” by “filosofe” and such –– to my knowledge French and English are the only languages that use “ph” as a combination for “f”), I still think that a small reform is better than no reform at all.

And anyway, even if not compulsory, it is the official spelling and is going to be more and more enforced, want it or not.


So, why this post ?

It has three objectives :

1) to make you aware that this reform exists, so that you can start using it, too (and bluff your old French teacher)

2) to make you aware that this reform exists, so as next time you won't give me the same bad marks for bad spelling :D

3) because it is necessary, when several translators work on a same project, that they agree on what spelling they are going to use, lest the translation uses mixed spellings in the same text, which would definitely give a bad impression

We could of course also imagine that we allow the customer to choose herself which spelling she wants – just the same way that we propose to choose between « French (standard) » and « French (Canadian) », we could imagine to have a choice between “old” and “new” spellings.


So, what's your opinion ? Do you consider transiting to the new spelling, or will you be part of the resistance ? Or do you find it difficult to learn again how to write ? Tell us what !

– Gil


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Hello, Gil, it was very educational, thank you

I've heard about this problem only last year (when my interest in French was piqued by my studies), but then I forgot about it (I made several attempts at learning French, but to no avail; I'm focused on Japanese now)

Anyway, I just wanted to point out - even though it might be obvious - that we already have the same issue with British and American English. Eventually it will become stable, Personally, I like when it's hard to learn something, because it means more joy in the end (hence, again, my interest towards Japanese with its hieroglyphics)

So, I agree that we need to at least agree on what spelling we use (just as with Cambridge English exams you can use both BrE and AmE if you use only one of them consistently). And ideally we should somehow reflect this difference of spellings in the system.

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An important topic to take on!
The new spelling is as catastrophic as was its introduction in France (and around the French-speaking world). In many instances, It has created a flurry of memes last year over the internet. Taking the circumflex out the word "jeune" for example was bound to create salacious comments (and it has).   Most absurdities, as you mention the word, come from the reform itself.  Which maybe why the French Academy kept this reform project on its table for decades without moving forward. 

Whether left on arbitrary choice or not, I would say the new rules should be set aside by translators. Academic books and dictionaries have yet to be updated. And I doubt people and institutions able to "pay" for translation services into French are able (or eager) to keep up with the free-form set of instructions to which their audiences may not even be familiar with. 

Same old is the best choice here for translators across the board.


Vova Smart Cat ai.jpg

Edited by anathalie g. durand

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Although I fully agree that the way the reform was (not) implemented is catastrophic, I totally disagree with your opinion, especially since your argument (and the meme above) is the fruit of a gross misinformation.

The rule states :

« L'accent circonflexe disparait sur les lettres i et u (ex. : nous entrainons, il parait, flute, traitre).

Exceptions : le circonflexe est maintenu, pour sa fonction analogique ou distinctive,

– dans les terminaisons verbales du passé simple (ex. : nous vîmes, vous lûtes) et du subjonctif (ex. : qu'il partît, qu'il eût voulu) ;

– dans jeûne(s), les masculins singuliers , mûr et sûr, et les formes de croitre qui, sinon, seraient homographes de celles de croire. »

If you look at the list here, you see that the verbe « jeuner » is written without the circumflex, but the noun « jeûne » still has it.


In this case, the rule is 100% coherent with itself. Yes, you have to remember that « jeûne » takes the circumflex, but again, in old spelling you have to remember so many things which are even more silly. By the way, it is not even difficult to remember, since «jeune» and «jeûne» have a different pronunciation! «Jeûne» is the only instance in the French language of the sound « ø » in a closed syllable ; while « jeuner » doesn't need the accent because the same sound is, in that instance, in an open syllable. (to illustrate how exceptional this is, compare the pronunciation of «eu» in the words “peur” and “peureux”).

Where I find the rule to lack coherence is that « je jeune » is written without a circumflex, even though the pronunciation is the same as « un jeûne ». I would rather have « je jeûne, tu jeûnes, il jeûne, nous jeunons, vous jeunez, ils jeûnent ». Looks difficult ? not more than « j'appelle / nous appelons / ils appellent » – it would then follow the same logic.


As for the “economical argument”, I disagree once more.

Yes, a transition is needed before spelling be updated. But even if you take a text by Molière today, you will notice that most instances of « je ferois »  or « roy » have been corrected, so yes, it is possible to update the text.

The problem is not that the update has to be done or not, the problem comes from the fact that the update is only being done only now when it should have been done 20 years ago.

Again, there is no sign of the French Academy rolling back the reform (especially since the actual pronunciation of French is getting simpler and simpler with every passing year, with distinction lost between vowels «â»/«a», etc.), so customers who have the means to pay WILL in the end require the new spelling to be taken into account. So better get used to it now.


As for familiarity… it's just a matter of habit. This is the same debate as to the change of name from « Czech Republic » to « Czechia ».

Edited by Gil

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On 24/07/2017 at 1:33 PM, Vladimir said:

I've heard about this problem only last year (when my interest in French was piqued by my studies), but then I forgot about it (I made several attempts at learning French, but to no avail; I'm focused on Japanese now)

Anyway, I just wanted to point out - even though it might be obvious - that we already have the same issue with British and American English. Eventually it will become stable, Personally, I like when it's hard to learn something, because it means more joy in the end (hence, again, my interest towards Japanese with its hieroglyphics)

Hi Vladimir,

Thank you for your reply,

Unfortunately I have to disagree on one point :

The British and American English standards are both supported by the academia of different countries, as such, they both have official status. All other English-speaking countries decide then which of these standards they want to conform to – Nigeria and Guyana follow British rules, Liberia and the Philippines follow American rules, and so on. Now, if you are following the British spelling rules and some committee in Oxford decided that from now on the rule will be this and that instead of that and this and made it official, then you'd have to follow it ! Unless you'd decide to switch to American English, but then, once again, applying all the rules for the American standard !

So, actually, the situation with English is stable now with the double standard being accepted because there are two linguistic centres which each enforce their own spelling.

The trouble with the new French spelling is that there is only ONE standard of French, and that is the one determined by the French Academy and, accordingly, the French government. So it's not a question of wondering whether we live in this or that part of France or of the French-speaking world ! Because France is a democracy, they decided not to enforce the new spelling immediately and to let people choose, giving them “time to adapt”. But the only official spelling is the new one (or should be if there was any coherence in the actions of the Academy).

So we can't have a “stable” situation in France with the two spelling systems living aside each other. The most you'll get by such a situation of not enforcing a given standard is the worst of both “evils”, when people start mixing both spelling systems in the same text because in the end they are confused as to what is the right way of writing the words.


As for the difficulty of learning languages, don't worry, French is still a mind-breaker, it's just that now (some of) the spelling rules are more streamlined and coherent than before : more thinking about what you are writing, less learning by heart lists of exceptions contradicting each other (such as “charrette” and “chariot”, “combattant” and “combatif”). I also like things to be difficult, but for a good reason, for challenging my brain and my logical thinking. I like it better when things are “сложны”, not “трудны”.


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On 9/9/2017 at 1:08 PM, Gil said:

I like it better when things are “сложны”, not “трудны”.

An excellent insight into the intricacies of Russian semantics :) 

(For those who don't speak Russian, it means "complex not hard".)

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One point I'm not certain of in @Gil's comment is whether there are any "central authorities" when it comes to the English language. As far as I know, English — unlike French (and Russian, for that matter) — has descriptive not prescriptive grammar, so the Oxford and other guys can only give guidelines, not rules. 

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Yes indeed, there are no central authorities imbued by any vested State power – it's only “recommendations”, but still, those Oxford people do yield some influence and are considered as the heads of the English language for the UK.

You know, just like the UK does not have a Constitution ? Still, it is ruled by law :D

Likewise, even if there is no official central organ for the English language, we all understand that itte shood knott bee rittan leik zis. So there must be some sort of regulating organ. Also talking about the “correct” accent, even in America there is such a thing as a “Standard American accent”, even though it is even less clear who decides what is right or wrong in that regard.

Of course, in the case of French, that issue is not a problem : the French Academy exists since 1635 and no matter how many kingdoms, republics and communes have risen and fallen since then, its official role has never put been into question.



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