Simplified French spellings are (slowly) taking root

Boite has lost its hat! And that’s not all. Many of the tricky French spellings that have long bedevilled students – and teachers – are gone or are, at the very least, now optional.

It’s been 17 years since the Conseil supérieur de la langue française recommended eliminating a few “anomalies and absurdities” in the French language and proposed solutions to the contradictory spellings found in different dictionaries.

Like most change, the proposal was embraced by some and decried by others.

But in the case of a living language, use is always the final word and changes are unfolding in Ontario classrooms.

by Lyse Ward
illustrations by Marie-Ève Tremblay, colagene.com

For those who struggled, while learning French, with the intricacies of accents or other spelling challenges, there may be a mixture of relief and frustration at the news that those struggles may now have been for naught.

Still, if you want to hold on to your hard-learned spellings, you will be relieved to know that the new spellings are recommended but not mandatory. For now at least, the new spellings will exist side by side with the old, as long as people use them.

“Since the older and new forms already coexist in many dictionaries and reference grammar books, no student shall be penalized for the use of either variant,” says the 1996 bulletin distributed to teachers in the French-speaking areas of Switzerland. Similar statements have now been made by government bodies and other authorities around the world.

Teachers in France participated in the reform movement that led to the current changes. In 1988, the Syndicat national des instituteurs published the results of a questionnaire in which 90 per cent of the 1,200 teacher respondents favoured reasonable and gradual orthographic simplification. When the Ministre de l’Éducation nationale stated that there was no question of tampering with spelling, 10 eminent linguists came to the rescue by publishing a manifesto titled Moderniser l’écriture du français in the February 7, 1989 issue of Le Monde. Four months later, the French prime minister yielded to this pressure and set up the Conseil supérieur de la langue française.

A history of change

But not everyone has responded favourably. And in response to various arguments levelled against the recommendations, André Goosse reviewed the history of change in the French language in his 1991 work, La “nouvelle” orthographe, in order to provide some perspective on the current changes.

He notes that even purists attached to traditional spellings often have problems using the circumflex accurately or following all the rules of agreement.

Surveys conducted in France in 1989 revealed that the most common mistakes in high school final examinations involved the circumflex (45.9 per cent) and double consonants (34.72 per cent). It therefore seems logical to eliminate the circumflex over the letters i and u and the double consonant in certain words, as indeed usage seems to be dictating already.

The written word in the Middle Ages was a fairly faithful reproduction of the spoken language, with each letter representing a sound. Joachin du Bellay published his Deffense, et Illustration de la Langue Francoyse in 1549; at that time accents, the hyphen and cedilla had just been invented and had not yet spread into general usage.

In 1684 the celebrated epistolary writer Madame de Sévigné noted in one of her letters:

iariue [arrivai] hier a cinq heures au pont de se, apres ayoir vey le matin a saumur ma niece de bussy, et entandu la messe a la bonne nostre dame, je trouué [trouvai] sur le bort de ce pont vn carosse a six cheuaux qui me parut estre mon fils, cestait son carosse, et labé charyes quila enuoyé me receuoir parce quil …

Is there any French teacher who would not be tempted to correct these lines?

Why then is there a tendency to think that people wrote better in an earlier time? André Goosse points out that it is difficult “to place this golden age when everyone knew how to spell effortlessly and accurately … ’Tis, alas, but a dream, like all golden ages,” he concludes, reminding us that spellings have changed considerably since the 16th century and we read the classics with contemporary spellings.


Written French has indeed undergone many changes over time. In 1740, for example, the Académie française modified the spelling of more than 6,000 words. In 1835 more changes were ratified. A century later, between 1932 and 1935, modifications were visited upon another 500 words.

But, since the mid-20th century, though changes were the subject of studies and reports – including proposals in 1965, 1967 and 1975 – none had been adopted till now.

The authors of Moderniser l’écriture du français note that the reforms of 1740 came well after actual usage. There is every reason to think that the current changes, based on today’s pronunciation and common misspellings, will be easily adopted.

Of course, as Goosse points out, “It was easier to make changes in written French when spelling rules were known to only a minority of people, who were mostly specialists.”

Over the years, written forms of words have been established by copyists, printers, dictionary publishers and grammarians – with writers sometimes using whatever spelling suited them! Indeed, Goosse notes that, until the early 19th century, “a knowledge of spelling was not considered mandatory for most writers, who relied for such matters on the knowledge of their printer or publisher.”


Official bodies, persons of letters, compilers of the principal dictionaries and – most importantly – teachers all have roles to play in encouraging the adoption of these changes.

At first glance, it seems we are progressing very slowly in Ontario vis-à-vis the new French spelling. The Ministry of Education has not yet implemented the new spelling, nor has it any current plan to do so. The school boards in the province do not yet have policies regarding the spelling changes and seem to think that teachers are not yet aware of the 1990 rectifications.

But some teachers are quite familiar with them and have begun teaching them to their students.

Lorianne Ratté teaches Grades 7 and 8 students at École catholique Nouveau Regard in Cochrane, in the Conseil scolaire de district catholique des Grandes Rivières. For the past three years, she has been teaching her students the new rules. “On the first day of the school year, my students are quite taken aback to see the date written on the blackboard as le 29 aout rather than le 29 août. But they get used to this in no time.”


Ratté considers it a point of honour to use the new spelling correctly, and always keeps her Vadémécum de l’orthographe recommandée within easy reach. “I’m constantly learning something new about the updated spelling,” she says. “And when we have an extra five minutes at the end of class, I do spelling exercises with my students so they can practise the new forms. It’s quick and fun and they remember what they learn.”

Her principal, Frédérick Villeneuve, is an enthusiastic devotee of the French language and has spearheaded the use by his teachers of resources that deal with the new spelling. “In the first place, I passionately adore French, and I see the spelling rectifications as a sign that the language is evolving. A language that rests on its laurels is at risk of dying. That’s all there is to it.”

He continues, “And furthermore, I think we should simplify our own spelling and show students that we’re doing our part to make things easier for them. For instance, it used to take three or four days to teach them how to write compound numbers; now this can be done in five minutes. When students tell me that written French is too difficult, I need to have arguments that will give them confidence.”

Practising what he preaches, Villeneuve uses the new spelling himself. At the beginning of each year he sends a letter to parents to let them know about the new word forms. The entire community thus benefits. Still, while asking his teachers to promote the new spelling within the school, and urging them to teach it to their students, he respects their personal choice. Both old and new spellings are accepted in student work, regardless of the subject.

Olivier St-Hilaire, a French immersion teacher at Herb Campbell Public School, also teaches the new spelling.

“You may feel a little nostalgic for those lost circumflexes, but times change,” he says. “And since the changes simplify spellings, why not adopt them?”

In New Brunswick, the University of Moncton, Edmonston campus has adopted the new spellings in recent documents on its web site, but at the Ministry of Education, Johanne Carrier, who is responsible for French-language programs says, “We’re aware of it, but no policy has yet been put in place.”

Pre-service programs fall in step

Students enrolled in the teacher education program at the University of Ottawa are offered a workshop on grammar and the new spelling. However, according to Nicole Bertrand-Wilcox, a part-time instructor at the Glendon Campus of the University of Ottawa’s Faculty of Education, the 39-hour language instructional methods course for the elementary school level gives students only minimal exposure to the changes.

“New teachers are, of course, exposed to the new spelling so they can recognize and accept the different forms used by their students,” says Bertrand-Wilcox. “But they’re not shown how to teach it. We don’t have enough time to go into this aspect of the written language in any great depth.”

In Québec, teacher education programs at both the Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM) and the Université de Montréal include an initiation to the new spelling. Other educational institutions are also using the new spelling in their written materials.


Chantal Contant, a member of the Groupe québécois pour la modernisation de la norme du français (GQMNF), teaches French at UQAM. She points out that, over the past two years, some progress has indeed been made at the university.

“Whereas in the past we merely accepted the two forms,” she says, “we’re now teaching the updated rules from the beginning.

“I would like for things to proceed at a faster pace,” she adds, referring to the failure of the Office québécois de la langue française (OQLF) to heighten public awareness of the issue. “The OQLF could, for example, disseminate information at events like the Fête de la Francophonie,” she suggests.

Nonetheless, reference materials already reflect and support the changes. The dictionaries and software most commonly used by schools and other academic institutions attest increasingly to the reality of the new spelling. Bescherelle’s L’Art de conjuguer (2006) has been completely updated; the 2008 edition of Le Petit Robert includes 52 per cent of the rectifications; and the 2003 edition of the Multidictionnaire de la langue française incorporates 26 per cent. On the software front, the well-known Antidote spell checker accepts all of the new word forms; and in 2005 the changes were integrated into the spell checkers included in the Microsoft Office XP versions of Word, Outlook, PowerPoint and Excel. (A free update is available from Microsoft for Office 2003.)

For several years now, printed materials and web sites have been displaying a compliance logo or sticker to let readers know that these texts are using the orthographic rectifications. The compliance logo or sticker can be downloaded from the GQMNF site.

Sentences at the beginning or end of many texts note that they conform to the new spelling. Indeed, readers of this article in our French-language edition, Pour parler profession, will have noticed the use of the new spellings.

Language politics

In June 1989, French Prime Minister Michel Rocard set up the Conseil supérieur de la langue française to study “the issues related to usage, development, enrichment, promotion and dissemination of the French language within and outside France.” The council was made up of persons of letters, linguists, filmmakers and writers, including Belgian philologist André Goosse, journalist Bernard Pivot, filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard, Moroccan writer Tahar Ben Jelloun, Québec novelist Anne Hébert and University of Sherbrooke Professor Pierre Martel.

In late 1990, the council published its report, The Orthographic Rectifications, in the Journal officiel de la République, with recommendations targeting approximately 2,000 of the 60,000 words found in the most common dictionaries.

“Neither the old or new written forms can be considered incorrect.”

To find out more about the spelling changes or to consult additional resources – web sites, publications, dictionaries and computer programs – or for information on developments elsewhere in la francophonie, visit the French version of this article.

Top of Page