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Reforms of French orthography
The orthography of French was already more or less fixed, and from a phonological point of view outdated, when its lexicography developed in the late 17th century and the Académie française was mandated to establish an "official" prescriptive norm.
César-Pierre Richelet chose the latter option when he published the first monolingual French dictionary in 1680, but the Académie chose to adhere firmly to the tradition, "that distinguishes men of letters from ignoramuses and simple women", in the first edition of its dictionary (1694).
It has since then accepted a few reforms and initiated, not always successfully, numerous others.
- L'Académie s'eſt donc vûe contrainte à faire dans cette nouvelle Edition, à ſon orthographe, pluſieurs changemens qu'elle n'avoit point jugé à propos d'adopter, lorſqu'elle donna l'Edition précédente. — Académie, 1740
- estre → être (to be)
- monachal → monacal (monastic)
Many changes suggested in the fourth editions were later abandoned along with thousands of neologisms added to it.
- uil → vil (vile)
Many changes were introduced in the sixth edition of the Académie dictionary (1835), mainly under the influence of Voltaire. Most importantly, all OI digraphs that were pronounced [ε] were changed to AI, thus changing the whole imperfect conjugation of all verbs.
- étois → étais (was)
The spelling of some plural words whose singular form ended in D and T was modified to reinsert this mute consonant, so to bring the plural in morphological alignment with the singular. Only gent, gens retained the old form, because it was perceived that the singular and the plural had different meanings. The Académie had already tried to introduce a similar reform in 1694, but had given up with their dictionary's second edition.
- parens → parents (parents)
With important dictionaries published at the turn of 20th century, such as Émile Littré's, Pierre Larousse's and Arsène Darmesteter's, and later Paul Robert's , the Académie gradually lost much of its prestige.
- grand'mère → grand-mère (grandmother)
Since the 1970s though, the urge for a modernisation of the French less and less phonological orthography kept growing. In 1989, French prime minister Michel Rocard appointed the Council of French Language to simplify orthography by regularising it.
The 1990 orthographic rectifications
Those "rectifications", instead of changing individual spellings, published general rules or lists of modified words. In total, around 2000 words have seen their spelling changed, and French morphology was also affected.
Numerals are tied with hyphens:
- sept cent mille trois cent vingt et un → sept-cent-mille-trois-cent-vingt-et-un (700,321)
- porte-monnaie → portemonnaie (wallet)
- sage-femme → sagefemme (midwife)
- couin couin → couincouin (quack)
Loan compound are also fused together:
- hot-dog → hotdog (hot-dog)
Compound nouns tied with hyphens (or fused) make their plural using normal rules, that is adding a final S or X, unless the modifier is an adjective (in which case both elements must agree), or the head is a determined noun, or a proper noun:
- des pèse-lettre → des pèse-lettres (letter scales)
Loanwords also have a regular plural:
- lieder → lieds (lieder)
- aiguë → aigüe (fem. acute)
- arguer → argüer (to argue)
- je céderai → je cèderai (I shall give up)
- cédé-je ? → cédè-je ? (am I giving up?)
- mû → mu (driven)
- but qu'il mût unchanged (he has driven)
Wherever accents are missing or wrong because of past error/omission or change of pronunciation, they are added or changed:
- receler → recéler (to receive – stolen goods)
- événement → évènement (event)
Accents are also added to loanwords where dictated by French pronunciation:
- diesel → diésel (diesel)
Schwa changing into open E
In verbs with an infinitive in ELER or ETER, the opening of the schwa can currently be noted either by changing the E in È or by doubling the following L or T, depending on verbs. Only the first rule shall now be used except in appeler, jeter, and their derivatives.
- j'étiquette → j'étiquète (I label)
This applies too when those verbs are derived into nouns using the suffix -ement:
- amoncellement → amoncèlement (pile)
Past participle agreement
- je les ai laissés partir → je les ai laissé partir (I let them go)
This is an alleged simplification of the rules governing the agreement as applied to a past participle followed by an infinitive. The participle fait already followed an identical rule.
Many phenomena were considered as "anomalies" and thus "corrected". Some "families" of words from the same root showing inconsistent spellings were uniformised on the model of the most usual word in the "family".
- imbécillité → imbécilité (idiocy)
Very daringly, this rule was also extended to suffixes in two cases, actually changing them into totally different morphemes altogether:
- cuissot → cuisseau (haunch)
- levraut → levreau (leveret)
Isolated words were adjusted to follow older reform where they had been omitted:
- douceâtre → douçâtre (sickly sweet)
- oignon → ognon (onion)
Lastly, some words have simply seen their spelling simplified, or fixed when it was uncertain:
- pagaïe/pagaille/pagaye → pagaille (mess)
- punch → ponch (punch – to drink)
Those "rectifications" were supposed to be applied beginning in 1991 but, following a period of agitation and the publication of many books such as the Union of copy editors' attacking new rules one by one, André Goosse 's defending them, or Josette Rey-Debove 's accepting a few (that have been added, as alternative spellings, to Le Robert ), they appear to have become a dead letter.
Officially, the French, including public workers, are free for an undetermined length of time to use the new spellings or not. New spellings cannot be considered errors.
In Quebec the French Language Commission, that was reluctant at first to apply what it prefers naming the "modernisation", because of the opposition it received in France, announced that they were now applying its rules to new borrowings and neologisms.
- http://www.orthographe-recommandee.info/ (in French)
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