Popular Science Monthly/Volume 69/December 1906/The Simplification of French Spelling




IN February, 1903, the French government appointed a commission to prepare the simplification of French orthography. It consisted of MM. Bernès, Clairin, Comte, Croiset, Devinat, Gréard, Meyer (members of the Superior Council of Education), M. Havet (of the institute), Professors Brunot and Thomas (of the University of Paris), and MM. Carnaud and Cornet (deputies). M. Paul Meyer was the president of the commission and M. Clairin the secretary. The commission made its report in July, 1904, advocating a series of simplifications of French spelling, in accordance with the principle of omitting useless silent letters—the same principle which is guiding the action of the Simplified Spelling Board here in the United States.

The report of this commission was submitted to the French Academy, which charged M. Emile Faguet with the duty of expressing its opinions. As a result the government appointed a second commission, of which M. Faguet is a member and of which the report was written by Professor Brunot. This report is in type, but it has not yet been distributed. M. Meyer has now reprinted his report, prefacing it with a personal paper of his own in which he discusses the present condition of French orthography, explains the historic reasons for its absurdities and points out how it can most easily be improved. His pamphlet, 'Pour la Simplification de notre Orthographe,' is published in Paris, by Delagrave. His statement of the case is curiously like that which has been made in English by the Simplified Spelling Board.

Ordinarily, spelling is defined as 'the art and science of writing the words of a language correctly, according to established usage.' But that usage becomes established under conditions differing widely, according to the period and the country; and in order to appreciate the value of the orthography of any language it is important in the first place to know the origin of that usage, made permanent in the spelling. Almost everywhere the original idea was that spelling should reflect pronunciation as closely as possible; the phonetic tendency is predominant. But wherever spelling became fixed at an early time, whether by academies or through printers' influence, it ceased gradually to be phonetic in character, because language changed, little by little, in pronunciation as well as in vocabulary and grammar, whereas spelling, once established, paid no attention to these changes. Other causes entered into play which helped gradually to take from the spelling of certain languages the symbol of graphic representation of sounds they originally possessed. One of these causes, and perhaps the most potent, was the pedantry which introduced into the writing of many words so-called etymological letters which were not pronounced. These contradictory tendencies may be seen elsewhere as well as in French. Thus, to cite a single example, English spelling, which was principally phonetic in the sixteenth century, has now become purely conventional, the pronunciation having undergone since that time considerable change which the written form does not indicate.

M. Paul Meyer then calls attention to the fact that "the great obstacle to the development of a spelling both logical and suited to our language has been the inadequacy of the Latin alphabet, which could not express sounds originating after the Latin period."

In the sixteenth century various expedients were suggested to remedy this poverty of symbols. About 1530, Geoffrey Tory, a printer, introduced the use of the cedilla, already known among the Italians and Spaniards, to indicate the sibilant sound of c; but it occurred to no one to employ a similar device to distinguish the two sounds of g. Geoffrey Tory also used the accent aigu (′), but without giving it exactly the value it has to-day; he made use of it solely to distinguish the e pronounced from the e mute. The accent grave, which distinguished the open e from the closed, was not introduced until much later. In 1562 Ramus succeeded in having the distinctions between i and j, between u and v, pass into common use.

He shows clearly that French spelling has suffered from some of the same unfortunate influences which have reduced English spelling to its lamentable condition:

In spite of its lack of uniformity, written French had had until then a phonetic tendency. Unfortunately, there was an antagonistic movement under the influence of humanism, which introduced into the notation of speech certain silent letters to indicate the derivation of words: they wrote aultre, advocat, doigt, droict, faict, poids, scavoir, soubs, subject, etc., in order to make the true or supposed etymology of these words visible. This was absurd; there was no need to put an l in autre to represent that in the Latin alter, which was already shown by the u (altre, autre). These 'superfluities,' so called by the Abbé d'Olivet, editor-in-chief of the third edition of the 'Dictionaire de l'Academie' (1740), in a great many cases, but not in all, have been expunged from the language.

Similar superfluities abound in English still, and they are still defended by arguments like those contained in the preface to the first dictionary of the French Academy (1694). "The Academy adheres to the old spellings accepted among men of letters, because they aid in showing the origin of the words. That is why the academy believes that it ought not to authorize the abridgments which certain individuals, chiefly printers, have made, because these omissions destroy every vestige of the analogy and relation between words that are derived from Latin, or from any other language. Thus the words corps and temps are given with a p, and the words teste, honneste with an s, to indicate that they come from the Latin tempus, corpus, testa, honestus" As M. Meyer asks, "What value can be given to a spelling founded on such fluctuating principles?" And he quotes Gaston Paris as saying that "the academy, deceived by superficial data, thought it was furthering scientific accuracy by adopting traditional spelling; in reality they followed routine and added to confusion." M. Meyer declares that "what should have been done, had the academy understood its mission, would have been to follow methodically the path taken, instinctively and without purpose, by the writers of the middle ages; a gradual modification of the system of representing sounds was necessary to preserve the connection between spoken and written language. Pronunciation, like vocabulary, alters, insensibly from generation to generation; the written words ought to record each change as it occurs." Asserting that it is impossible now to inaugurate suddenly a complete series of changes which might readily have been adopted had they been introduced gradually as need arose, M. Meyer tells us that his committee retained existing conventions in so far as they are not in conflict with other conventions no less worthy of consideration, and it denied any wish to establish a phonetic system of spelling. It limited its work to the correction of the most striking irregularities of the present spelling of French. Here again the attitude of this commission of French scholars is seen to be in absolute accord with that taken in America by the Simplified Spelling Board. And the reasons given for action are also almost identical:

1. The esthetic argument: Our spelling is irregular, and gives the language an ugly irregular look.
2. The argument for preservation: It is important to maintain our customary pronunciation upon which the irregularities of our spelling react.
3. The practical argument: These same irregularities make the study of spelling needlessly difficult.

With the contention that certain useless silent letters ought to be retained, because they reveal the derivation, M. Meyer has the impatience of a scholar; and he points out how the existence of these needless letters is dangerous to accuracy of pronunciation:

We write prompt, promptitude, dompter (although there was no p in the Latin domitare), indomptable. The Academy says plainly that in the words indomptable and prompt the p is silent. Nevertheless, we hear constantly the pronunciation dompter, promptitude, because the school masters who teach French to children, not having the Academy dictionary always at hand, are naturally inclined to pronounce words as they are written. The same cause of error exists in other languages. In English the g in recognize is pronounced, but formerly it was not even written; the g is a pedantic addition which has ended by making its way into the spoken usage. Fault and author are pronounced as they are written; formerly they were both written and pronounced faut and autor.

Littré noticed how intimately pronunciation was allied to spelling. They are two forces, he says, which react continually upon each other. When there is no extensive teaching of grammar, and the language is learned orally rather than by the eye, then pronunciation modifies spelling, which follows it closely. When, on the contrary, books play a large part in teaching the mother tongue, spelling influences pronunciation: the tendency is to pronounce all the letters, and traditional pronunciation succumbs in many places to the visible symbols. There are to-day frequent examples of this.

As might be expected, French teachers find the same fault with their illogical spelling that teachers of English find with ours, which is actually far more illogical than theirs and far more irregular. M. Meyer raises their objections with much sympathy:

Although it is to be regretted that children must make such prolonged efforts to learn to write in conformity with obsolete rules a language which they often speak very correctly otherwise, still the misfortune would not be without some compensation if these efforts contributed to the development of their reasoning powers; but they do not. Learning spelling is above all a matter of memory, especially of the visual memory. Reasoning has nothing to do with it, for there is no reason why apporter should be written with two p's, while apercevoir and apaiser should have but one; or why the plural of chou and six other words should be formed with an x, while all other words terminating in ou take s, following the ordinary usage. On the other hand, the acquisition of a logical spelling would bring the reasoning powers into play far more than the memory.

But the most forcible passages in M. Meyer's own plea for simplification are in response to the various arguments urged in behalf of the existing orthographic confusion:

The objections advanced by the public to all modification of spelling may be grouped under four heads:

1. Every change in spelling distresses us. We dislike to alter our habits. Books printed in a new spelling are distasteful to us. Besides, we have had enough trouble to learn the current spelling; why should we be obliged to learn another?

2. Words in their very form and independently of their sound, have an esthetic beauty, which would be lost as soon as the appearance was modified.

3. The proposed changes would result, in many cases, in causing all trace of the etymology to disappear. We love the g of doigt, which reminds us of the Latin digitus; the p of temps, behind which we can see the Latin tempus; and physique written fisique seems barbarous to us. Further, these changes would obscure the derivation of words of the same family.

4. These same changes will lead to lamentable confusion, since we shall no longer be able to distinguish corps (a body) written without p from cors (a corn).

It is apropos of arguments of this kind that a great English linguist, A. *L Ellis, said: "These are very sweeping assertions, and those who have given serious attention to the subject for many years feel astonished that any person of ordinary intelligence and linguistic attainments could commit himself to such statements."

1. Let us take up these feeble arguments one by one. We shall not attempt to dispute the fact that any suddenly introduced innovation shocks us. When the fashion of crinolines came in during the Second Empire it seemed at first utterly ridiculous. But people became accustomed to it; the reason it disappeared was not that people disliked it, but because the fashionable dressmakers had to have new styles. It will be somewhat similar with the alterations in spelling that we propose. Assuredly, they will arouse a more general feeling of instinctive and inexplicable opposition than they would have a hundred years ago, for the number of people who know spelling, or at least who have studied it, is infinitely greater than formerly. The changes introduced by the third edition of the academic dictionary do not seem to have been combatted; those which we are proposing would scarcely have met with objections had they been brought to the attention of the revisers of the sixth edition (1835). But the longer we wait the more difficult it will be both to repair the harm done to the language by the bad spelling in vogue to-day, and to overcome the repugnance to any change. . . . It is inconceivable that, out of respect for opinions which are only prejudices, children and foreigners should be forever condemned to commit to memory complicated and contradictory rules whose only result is to pervert the reasoning faculty. Life is too short to waste a part of it in such absurdities. Besides, the transition will be made in a very simple way which will spare the prejudices of the present generation. . . . When we have to write a book, a memorandum, simply a letter, it is quite certain that we shall not stop at every word to ascertain how it ought to be written, according to the new spelling. In this matter changes can not be imposed by law or by decree, like those regulating public accounts. But although the generation that has reached maturity will continue to follow the usage with which it is familiar from childhood, the younger generation and foreigners who have not unalterable habits will learn the new spelling and spare themselves useless labor. Proof-readers, with the help of a printer's dictionary, will conform to it. . . . Thus the change will take place in the course of a generation, without wounding the deep-rooted sentiments of any one.

2. The second objection may be dealt with briefly. It consists in saying that the way in which words arc written evokes an idea of beauty which these same words would lose if they were written otherwise. The people who have this feeling, which is very difficult to analyze, are stylists, caring more for form than for substance, more for words than for ideas; more for the appearance than for the words themselves. Possibly these same people suppose spelling to be immutable in its nature and fixed by law; the exclusive use of recent editions has left them in ignorance of the fact that many of these very words, admirable in their present form, were written differently by the great writers of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. It would be interesting to know if these words as they were written in the manuscripts of these authors would be as beautiful or less beautiful.

3. The objection which maintains that the proposed changes will lessen the etymological value of words, has only an appearance of weight. It is the opinion of those people who wish to exhibit their youthful studies. Such an argument never has been and never will be advanced by a philologist. To begin with, let us bear in mind, among other points, that these etymological traces interest only the small number of those who have studied Greek and Latin, and that it is not quite fair to overload spelling with useless letters, merely for the satisfaction of a few students of etymology. In former times this was all very well when only a small minority knew how to read and write. But to-day spelling is intended for every one.

4. The objection which maintains that different words written alike will be mistaken for one another is so childish that I hesitate to make a serious refutation. Certainly there are those who insist that we shall no longer understand each other if we write poids (weight) like pois (a vegetable). It is always easy to make puns; but the writers, had they spent a moment's reflection on the subject upon which they give their opinions so freely, would have observed that the French language in its present spelling contains a large number of these homonyms, which are essentially different even though similar in pronunciation and spelling. But these homonyms have never been considered a cause for obscurity. Are there human beings so devoid of sense as to confuse the poids (weight) with the pois (sweet peas), or petits-pois (green peas) when the d is omitted from the former? Possibly; but theirs is a case for the expert in mental pathology. . . .

To sum up: it will not be disputed that our orthography is an incoherent mixture of spellings belonging to different epochs, often modeled on conflicting systems. Is it actually possible to reform spelling so as to make it absolutely logical? The committee whose conclusions I have reviewed thinks not, believing that so extended a reform would necessitate a complete revision for which the time is not ripe. But we can at least eliminate from our customary spelling the most hideous anomalies, and, in a word, simplify it. To accomplish this all that is necessary in many cases is to reestablish the old forms, unfortunately altered at the time of the Renaissance, notwithstanding objections from many thoughtful men of that period. In adopting this course we are not revolutionizing the language, as our opponents constantly allege, perpetually confusing language with spelling. We do not even propose radical changes in spelling, and are accepting all its conventions, even when these are not entirely satisfactory. We revert to the true history of the language, lost at many points by ill-chosen innovations. Ours is really a work of preservation. I have shown that not a single objection advanced has any weight. One thing is in our way—habit; that we shall overcome.

In the more formal report to which his own incisive essay is prefixed M. Meyer is able to deal with other aspects of the case. He sees that the prospect of successive reforms in spelling will perhaps alarm those accustomed to consider the manner of writing a language as subject to fixed and immutable rules:

But since it is impossible to hinder the progress of an idiom, and since it is as impossible to establish its pronunciation forever as to exclude it from the vocabulary, it must be admitted that spelling is not a permanent and unchangeable institution—that, on the contrary, from one time to another, it must undergo modifications in order to remain in accord with pronunciation. However, even a superficial acquaintance with the history of our language is sufficient to convince one that there is nothing less unalterable than our spelling. Without going back to early times, when writing was subject to no fixed rule, when each one expressed sounds according to his own pronunciation and following exceedingly vague methods—simply taking as the starting point the first edition of the dictionaire of the French Academy (1694), it is noticeable that each new edition of this dictionary has changed the spelling of numerous words. The third edition (1740), of which the Abbe d'Olivet was the editor-in-chief, altered the spelling of about 5,000 words out of 18,000 included in the dictionary. The fourth (1762), the sixth (1835), the seventh (1878), have continued, within narrower limits, it is true, to modify the spelling. But many of these changes so introduced at different periods, most of which merit approval, have the fault of having been proposed without regard for the whole, and without any certain method. In some words silent letters were eliminated, while in certain others they were allowed to remain. At times, even, by a retrogression, the spelling which had been simplified was again complicated.

The French are a logical race and they have not frightened at a theory as easily as the two peoples who speak English. And, therefore, the report of the French commission reveals the fact that they are looking further into the future than any English-speaking committee would dare to do while retaining the hope of ever achieving any practical result. The French commission ventures to hint at more radical reforms than have entered the minds of our own Simplified Spelling Board. Yet these final suggestions of theirs are as significant of the trend of scientific opinion as they are interesting in themselves:

These are the changes we propose, and which we hope will not be deemed excessive. The committee is not at all insensible to the objections which may be advanced against its work. The chief one is that the proposed alterations are not the result of a system of spelling logically devised, all of whose elements are rigorously coordinated. But it was not the business of the committee to create a new system of spelling; they were simply authorized to remove as far as possible the anomalies which complicate our spelling and render the study of it so difficult for children and foreigners. The committee has had, therefore, to use as a basis the present system of spelling, which represents a bygone condition of the language—and to restrict itself to regulating this system. They themselves admit that they have not even succeeded fully in this modest attempt. In the cases where a rational and uniform notation could not be obtained except by creating new conventional spellings, or at the price of too numerous changes, they refrained, leaving the present spelling intact in spite of its defects. But their self-imposed restraint does not bar subsequent changes. They foresee in the future reforms more general than those they endeavored to prepare by partial changes. Many of the members have even expressed the hope which ought to be recorded here, that some day a new committee composed not only of grammarians but also of phonetic experts may be set to work to develop a system of spelling better adapted than ours to the present state of the language, and sufficiently elastic to follow it through its inevitable changes.

But from now on, important advantages will be secured if the moderate propositions of the committee are accepted. At any rate, the teaching of the language will be greatly facilitated; the number of exceptions that the pupils must learn will be noticeably diminished. Our language will be more easily acquired by foreigners. Finally, by the suppression of inconsistent and obscure forms which make the real pronounciation doubtful, it will be made possible to teach in our schools, that greatly neglected subject, orthoepy. This teaching alone is able to prevent errors in pronunciation which, individual at first, finish by becoming general.