France in shock as dictionary Le Petit Robert relaxes language rules
Alain Rey's dictionary has stunned a country proud of its linguistic identity
Schoolchildren are celebrating, commentators are astonished and purists are fuming over what they describe as a scandalous attack on 500 years of French history.
In the most sweeping linguistic reform in France for centuries, Le Petit Robert, the nation's premier dictionary, has cast aside tradition to allow alternative spellings for thousands of words. Accents have become optional, consonants can be doubled on a whim and hyphens will float in and out of literary texts under the changes imposed by Alain Rey, the linguist responsible for the opus.
He says that the reform has been necessary to enable a rigidly codified language to move forward in a society of slang and multi-ethnic innovation. “We have to make spelling simpler,” he said. “It's too complicated and it's not surprising that schoolchildren have trouble learning it.”
In an attempt to ease their task in schools that continue to impose weekly dictations, he has included variable spellings for 6,000 of the 60,000 words in his dictionary, including many of foreign, and notably English, origin. Cameraman, for instance, can be written with or without an acute accent over the “e” in Le Petit Robert 2009, published this month. Manager can be spelt manageur and acupuncture can be turned into acuponcture.
Mr Rey says that reform was long overdue, since the last great linguistic clean-up in 1762, when medieval spellings were prodded into what became modern French. He points out that the changes have been authorised by l'Académie Française, the body that regulates the language, and that the concept of twin spellings is nothing new. The French word for key, for example, has been written two different ways for years, he says - clé or clef.
However, the initiative has sparked a furious row in a country that has clung to la langue française as a pillar of its identity ever since King François I made it the official language in 1539.
“Until now, we tended to consider the French language dictionary as the supreme judge, the final arbiter,” Pierre Assouline, the renowned literary commentator for Le Monde, said. “We doubted, it decided, we obeyed. Those were the good old times. Confidence reigned. What are we to do if it is having doubts itself?”
The controversy has spread to internet forums, where users have denounced the arrival of text-message terms at the heart of Gallic culture. snip