[Journal of the Simplified Spelling Society, 1992/1 pp14,15 later designated J12]
[Also on this page, German spelling reform update. Cartoon.
[Susan Baddeley: see Journals.]

Spelling: A National Sport.

Susan Baddeley.

Susan Baddeley belongs to the HESO research team and AIROE association, Paris (for details see JSSS J10 1989/1 p10) and keeps the Simplified Spelling Society up to date on spelling developments in France.
On the 26th of November 1988 a large proportion of the French adult population went back to school again. Seated behind wooden desks in the Chaillot theatre in Paris, or, more comfortably, at home in front of the television screen, they took down a short text dictated by Bernard Pivot, presenter of the popular weekly book programme Apostrophes, who was dressed for the occasion in a schoolteacher's grey overall.

This unlikely-sounding event was the 4th in a series of annual National Spelling Championships, founded by Pivot himself, and which by now have become something of a national institution. Relying for their success on a strange mixture of nostalgia for the daily dictation of many people's childhood and the spirit of competition, these 'championships' have at least one thing in common with Olympic events: it is well-nigh impossible to achieve a perfect score. As a German colleague recently said, "It could only happen in France".

Why only in France? Firstly, because of the nature of French spelling, which lends itself particularly well to this kind of competition. It is extremely complicated, full of mute internal and final consonants, of homonyms distinguished graphically (the word lait for example has no less than thirteen homonyms), with doubled consonants whose use is irregular, even among words belonging to the same family, and accents which are often unpredictable: the circumflex accent, for example, no longer has the phonological function of denoting long vowels that it once had in many French words. Above all, French spelling is grammatical, with agreements of gender and number made between nouns and adjectives (though not always), in verb forms (past participle and reflexive verb agreement), and the conjugation of verbs in writing is extremely complex.

In order to write French, some Latin and Greek may also be useful: the fact that the word alléger, meaning 'to lighten' is written with double <l>, whereas its antonym, alourdir ('to weigh down'), only has one <l>, can be explained by the fact that the first is derived from the Latin alleviare and the second is a French formation, from the adjective lourd with the prefix a. However, no amount of Latin and Greek can explain forms like nénuphar ('water lily'), from the Arabic ninufar, or dompter ('to tame', from which the English word daunt is derived), from the Latin domitare.

Secondly, and perhaps most important, there is the attitude of the French in general towards their national spelling system. Known as "poor man's Latin", spelling is mastered (or not, as the case may be) at a cost of several hours' teaching per week at junior and secondary level, with weekly dictations (no marks if you make over five mistakes...), and by the absorption of large numbers of complicated rules and exceptions. Those who manage to come through it unscathed naturally have proprietary instincts towards something they have put so much time and effort into making 'theirs'. Good spelling is required for access to public positions (since Napoleon), and it is perhaps no coincidence that the French word for a spelling mistake, faute, can also mean 'misdemeanour', 'lapse' or even 'sin'!

To the organisers and to most of those who take part, it's "just a game", to be put on a par with crossword puzzles and other word-games, of which the French are particularly fond. However, to an outsider the whole thing seems fraught with contradictions. For many foreigners, the French language is to be admired for its qualities of precision, elegance and regularity. Yet, in these spelling championships, we see all the anomalies and aberrations of its written system dragged out in the name of "love of the French language". Most of the difficulties put into the dictation are anomalies, which have no justification (not even etymological) and cannot be retained by any logical process.

It is also distinctly worrying that not even the best 'professional' spellers are able to take down a text of 200 or so words without making a few mistakes. If the 'champions' can't do it, what about the rest of us? Today, the ability to read and write one's own language correctly is such a necessity (one could even say: a civic right, since this year is the anniversary of the French Revolution) that it seems irresponsible to maintain unnecessary complication for the sake of a game, and for those who happen to like this sort of mental gymnastics.

The whole business is not, however, entirely negative: the championships draw attention to the fact that French has a particularly complex spelling system, and the contestants are aware more than most people that many of its difficulties are unnecessary. Even Bernard Pivot himself, when interviewed recently, declared that he wouldn't be against a certain amount of "weeding" in today's spelling. Most important, the substantial media coverage given to the championships also gives spelling reformers a chance to be seen and heard.

For those interested, here is the full text of the dictation. Incidentally, two days after the Spelling Championship took place, the newspapers reported that 90% of French schoolteachers were in favour of spelling reforms. Sheer coincidence?

Text of dictation.
La longue balade des mots
Les mots ont la bougeotte. Seuls ou groupés, ils forcent les frontières, passent par-dessus les vallons, les vallées et les puys, s'immiscent dans nos fourre-tout, voyagent avec nos nippes et nos affûtiaux. Voudrait-on les empêcher de s'envoler tous azimuts que cela se révélerait inopérant. Car les mots sont cachés dans notre bouche, embusqués derrière nos quenottes, notre luette ou nos amygdales.

Sitôt arrivés à Montréal, à Canberra ou à Kinshasa, à peine avons-nous, les uns ou les autres, desserré les lèvres, que les mots, pressés de s'égailler dans la nature, s'échappent comme des étourneaux. Les mots sont d'infatigables globetrotters. Ils se jouent des fouilles et des censures. Les mots sont libres comme l'air.

Mais, de tout temps, les mots se sont battus pour vivre. Que de verbes et d'adjectifs, frappés d'obsolescence, se sont retirés du trafic! Que d'onomatopées se sont ressemblé, concurrencées, apostrophées, nui, exclues! Que de substantifs caducs et prétentieux de petits-maîtres se sont laissé supplanter par les mots succulents des rastaquouères!

Le vocabulaire détonnant et drolatique des sans-culottes a eu l'heur de régénérer substantiellement la langue. Tes esbroufes d'hier, ô ma langue! sont devenues prosaîsmes rabâchés d'aujourd'hui. Que de fois t'es-tu retrouvée, ma douce péronnelle, ballottée au gré des modes imprévisibiles! Maintenant, tout va plus vite, et les mots, eux aussi, se sont mis au prêt-à-porter, au clonage, à l'apocope spontanée. "Je cause, tu causes, il cause..." La plus belle cause, c'est la langue.

[Journal of the Simplified Spelling Society, 1992/1 p15 later designated J12]
[Gerhard Augst: see Journals.]

Update on the Reregulation of German Orthography.

Gerhard Augst.

In Journal J11 1989/2 (pp15-17) we published an account of recent proposals for simplifying the rules for writing German, up to their submission to the West German government in October 1988. Professor Dr Gerhard Augst, a member of the Commission which prepared the proposals, here brings us up to date on developments to September 1989.
Alarmed by the emotional public discussion of the proposals, the Standing Conference of Ministers of Education of the West German Länder decided to set up a Working Party. Its task would be to examine the proposals of the Institut für deutsche Sprache's Commission. Its brief from the outset ruled out the question of how words were to be spelt, as the proposals on this point were unacceptable. (This means that two areas are excluded from political discussion: the decapitalization of nouns, and the spelling of words.) The Working Party of the Ministers of Education showed a high level of understanding of the issues in its examination of the remaining proposals (regarding punctuation, joining words to form compounds, splitting words at line-ends, and the spelling of foreign words) and gave members of the Institute's Commission the opportunity for clarification. Probably before the end of 1989 it will publish the views of the Education Ministers, which will almost certainly prove to be broadly favourable.

The other German-speaking countries have meanwhile issued no official statements; but unofficially it appears that they too regard the proposals for reforming the spelling of words as too radical.

In October 1989 the experts from the four German-speaking countries were to meet in Vienna to give further thought to the question of reforming the spelling of words (including foreign words). At the same time as suggesting possible reforms, the rules are to be reworded, as another major orthographic problem is that the rules and exceptions are in some cases contradictorily and confusingly worded, i.e. in a rather user-unfriendly manner.

A conference of ministerial officials from all four German-speaking states, which had been planned for 1989, was postponed until 1990.



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