Battle lines drawn in France's spelling wars

Battle lines drawn in France's spelling wars

9th September 2009, Comments 0 comments

A French essayist has launched a one-man crusade against France's arcane spelling rules, coming out at 75 as a dictionary dunce and insisting it is a doomed art in the age of the text message.

PARIS - As millions of French children file back to class for the new school year, Francois de Closets, a prominent writer, journalist and TV presenter, decided to admit his shortcomings in a pamphlet called "Zero Mistakes."

"Lots of countries have problems with their spelling. What makes France different is that we have elevated spelling to the status of a cult," he told AFP. "People who can't spell are stigmatised."

"Make a mistake on science or geography and people will forgive you. But an accent in the wrong place, and it's as if you've insulted the cross or Allah."

French schoolchildren are drilled on their spelling up until high school, sitting endless spelling bee tests stuffed with trick alliterations, wily verb-endings and devious double-consonants.

Once out of the school system, strong spellers cherish their skills as a mark of sophistication in a country that prides itself on its literary culture, and many revel in the brain-teasing challenge of a good spelling test.

Until 2005, hundreds of people signed up each year for a fiendishly tricky spelling championship, broadcast on national television, and the international Francophonie organisation still holds annual contests around the world.

But despite years of flogging, Closets says many French adults live in fear of a hiccup -- in a letter, a job resume or an email -- that will harm them in the eyes of an employer, a client or even a friend.

Hammering home the point, French newspapers gleefully printed details this month of a press pack from the new education minister, Luc Chatel, that was riddled with gross errors.

"There are thousands of us who are filled with apprehension the moment we pick up our pens," Closets said in an interview promoting his book.

He is convinced that millions like him are stigmatised because of a lack of visual memory that leaves them stumped by seemingly irrational twists -- a silent "d" at a word's end, or the 13 different ways of writing the sound "o".

"People who make mistakes will always make mistakes. It's not a question of intelligence or work," he said.

In France as in other parts of the developed world, official studies and evidence from classrooms and recruitment offices show literacy levels falling.

One study by the group Sauvons les Lettres showed scores for 15-year-olds in the same test fell drastically between 2000 and 2008, with twice as many kids -- 58 percent -- scoring a rock-bottom zero.

With the advent of email and text messaging, where teenagers the world over chop up and subvert words as a sign of rebellion, Closets is convinced the days of classical spelling are numbered.

"I think we are at a crucial turning point," he told AFP.

"People are writing more and more -- in emails, blogs or text messages. But nowadays writing is not about laying down words in stone -- it is about conversation, it is a flux, not something intended to last."

Rather than fight the tide, he would like to see electronic spellcheckers handed out in schools, and for some of the more bizarre words in the dictionary to be simplified.

Linguists at the Francophone observatory of contemporary French reached the same conclusion after monitoring the errors that cropped up most often in searches on the Internet search engine Google.

They have produced a series of booklets calling for hundreds of everyday words to be brought closer to phonetic spelling, with double letters and silent endings excised.

But teachers and linguists reacted coolly, arguing that ironing out spelling oddities will not help those children who misspell because they lack a basic grasp of grammar, and how words and concepts fit together.

"Writing is the wisdom of language. Good, grammatical spelling is a sign of clear thinking," argued the linguist Alain Bentollia in Le Figaro newspaper.

"Someone who cannot master that cannot understand the world around him."

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