The English Pedant goes French

While the English language drifts along, changing largely through mass-adopted errors, the French have taken the radical step of introducing a number of new spellings and discontinuing the circumflex (circonflexe). The spelling changes were suggested several years ago and are now being promoted as correct alternatives to the conventional ones.

The moves are designed to simplify the language, but this column’s counterparts, the French pedants, are not happy.

The spelling changes affect such everyday items as onions, with the removal of the i from oignon, making it ognon. Often you can’t hear the i even when it’s there, so perhaps it makes sense.

The removal of the circumflex would make no change to sounds, but would affect words like cost, which would change from coût to cout, while maîtresse (mistress, teacher) would simply become maitresse.

While the circumflex can denote different things in different languages, in French it usually means there is an s missing, as in hotel (Eng. hostel) and côte (Eng. coast), so after a few years of not pronouncing it, I think we get the picture. After all, if you’re going to remove a letter, why introduce another mark to show that’s what you’ve done? You might as well have left it alone.

circumflex
This French pedant is pointing out that if you put a circonflexe over the u in jeune it no longer means young, but the noun fast, meaning a period of not eating

Hyphens are under scrutiny too, with porte-monnaie (purse, wallet), for instance, becoming portemonnaie. It’s a natural process anyway, since the hyphen merely shows we’re attaching one word to the other and eventually we stop seeing it as an amalgam.

In English, hyphens sometimes show us that a group of words is being used as an adjective (off-the-peg suit, round-the-clock service), which is persuading many people that the words have to be hyphenated even when not used as adjectives, whereas that is unnecessary and incorrect – it should be “I will buy a suit off the peg to save money”.

Expressions such as these are probably decades away from being seen as single words, but when the time comes, and people are doing it routinely, will the British government see fit to announce it, or just go along with the change? Judging by the way the English dictionaries accept anything commonly used as being correct, probably the latter.

Just watch how the two words any time are being routinely squashed together by people influenced by the telcoms companies’ concept of credit that doesn’t have to be used during a specific period, i.e. ‘anytime minutes’.

Similarly, many sports writers now cannot see the difference between in to and into. So when a footballer passes the ball from one side of the pitch towards a teammate in the middle, they’re saying ‘he played it into Rooney’, which literally means it got inside Rooney, rather than what they meant: he played it in (towards the middle) to Rooney.

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