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Gone Mot: The French Uproar Over Removing Some Circumflex Accents

Children attend a lesson in a classroom of a primary school, in Cherbourg-Octeville, northwestern France.
AFP/Getty Images
Children attend a lesson in a classroom of a primary school, in Cherbourg-Octeville, northwestern France.

New editions of textbooks in France will look a little different.

References to onions? You'll see the word ognon rather than oignon.

A tale about a centipede? The many-legged insect will be known as a millepattes, no longer a mille-pattes.

And most controversially, France is removing the hat-shaped accent known as a circumflex in some cases. For example: the word for "to train" will be spelleds'entraine, and notthe circumflexeds'entraîner.

The spelling changes apply to around 2,400 French words, and The Guardian reports they're mean to "simplify them for schoolchildren." But the move has "brought accusations the country's Socialist government is dumbing down the language."

French headlines quickly picked this up: "The Death of the Circumflex" and "Farewell to the Circumflex, Spelling Reform Will Be Applied in September," to name a few.

Social media users launched an angry campaign using the hashtag of #JeSuisCirconflexe ("I am circumflex"), a nod to the #JeSuisCharlie campaign following the deadly shootings at the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris last year.

But France is not completely hanging up its circumflexchapeau.

As the BBC reported, "France's education minister has said the changes will not culminate in the end of the circumflex, and that old and new spellings will both remain correct."

The well-loved accent will be optional on the "i" and "u" but will generally remain atop the "a" and "o", as well as in several other uses, France's Le Monde reports.

The spelling changes were approved by the in 1990 and then generally ignored, as The Guardian reported:

"In 2008, advice from the education ministry suggested the new spelling rules were 'the reference' to be used, but it appears few people took notice. Last November, the changes were mentioned again in another ministry document about 'texts following the spelling changes ... approved by the Académie Française and published in the French Republic Official Journal on 6 December 1990.' Again, the news went unremarked."

The difference now is that the changes will actually appear in school books, which was first reported by France's TF1.

Here are a few other words that are changing in the new textbooks, via TF1:

Nénuphar will become nénufar (waterlily)

Maîtressewill become maitresse (mistress)

Coût will become cout (cost)

Paraître will become paraitre (to appear)

Week-end will become weekend (weekend)

Porte-monnaie will become portemonnaie (purse, wallet)

Des après-midi will become des après-midis (afternoons)

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Merrit Kennedy is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She covers a broad range of issues, from the latest developments out of the Middle East to science research news.
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