The endless battle of spelling, from the Middle Ages to inclusive writing

On May 25, 2023, a pamphlet entitled The Frenchman is doing very well, thank you, written by a collective of “appalled” linguists refuting declinist discourses on the state of the French language, appears in the “Tracts” collection from Gallimard editions (64 pages, 3.90 euros). Calling for a new spelling reform, the signatories begin by applying the spelling corrections decided by the Superior Council of the French Language in 1990, but also the agreement of proximity and the invariability of past participles of verbs conjugated with the auxiliary “have”. The reaction was not long in coming: the day before the publication of the leaflet, a column with an antithetical title was published In Le Figaro“French is not doing so well, unfortunately”, signed “by around twenty specialists and lovers of French”. The latter castigate the speech of“great bad faith” of the authors of the volume published by Gallimard, are outraged to read there that “the past participle with the auxiliary avoir tends to become invariable” and summarize laconically: “At this rate, we can eliminate the teaching of spelling. »

“Franco-French psychodrama”, to use the formula of the linguist Nina Catch (1923-1997) in her work Spelling Madness (Plon, 1989), the debates around spelling and its possible reforms are all the more lively at the present time as, regularly, the approximate mastery of spelling by French students is pointed out. Whether it is considered as a failure of the school system, as a reflection of a laziness which would be completely contemporary, or as proof of the need to modify certain spelling rules, the drop in level is confirmed and clarified. In December 2022, investigation published by the evaluation, foresight and performance department shows that the average number of errors on the same dictation has doubled since 1987.

From controversial explorations of inclusive writing – which proposes, among other novelties, a new typographic sign, the midpoint – to hesitations when it comes to writing the plural of certain words borrowed from other languages, the orthography remains a place of protean questions and recurring oppositions. Confronted with this, on the one hand, are the supporters of a renovation, simplification or harmonization of exceptions and, on the other hand, the defenders of a more etymological tradition, respecting the heritage of the centuries, such as the writer and academician Danièle Sallenave, who states in an article from 2016 : “Simplifying spelling, or making it closer to pronunciation, is to make the texts of the past unintelligible. » Although profoundly current in its modalities and its issues, this quarrel nevertheless seems to have existed forever: “There is definitely a spelling problem and there always has been one”claimed, as early as 1969, the linguists Claire Blanche-Benveniste and André Chervel in Spelling (Maspero). Let us therefore return to the origins of this thorny debate.

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