April 07, 2006

The discreet charm of French orthography

Francophones can be just as peevish about spelling, grammar, and usage as Anglophones, but at least they can have fun with their linguistic foibles rather than descending into murderous rage. I base that ridiculous generalization on an article in the (UK) Times about the rise of "spelling clubs" (clubs d'orthographe) across France. The clubs are devoted to "dictations" (dictées) in which texts full of difficult words are read aloud, transcribed by participants, and then corrected.

If the article is to be trusted, the clubs are remarkably free of griping or defensive complaints about Anglophone hegemony. "This is about pleasure," says Suzanne Commerçon, who leads dictations in the town of Plouay. "You can see how much everyone is enjoying themselves." Jean-Pierre Jaffré of the French National Centre for Scientific Research ascribes the participants' joie de vivre to the "nostalgic flavor" that dictations provide, reminding older speakers of the "proper French" they were taught as children. "As people grow older, they want to go back to their past," Jaffré told the Times.

Vonick Epaillard of the Plouay spelling club maintains that "the main thing is that you have a great time here." But he doubts that Anglophones could experience the same delight:

"I expect dictations in English are not very exciting, because the only difficulty with English is the accent. In French, we have irregular verbs, complexities with past participles, lots of rules, exceptions to those rules and exceptions to the exceptions. It's a real challenge."

English certainly has no shortage of orthographical and grammatical peculiarities, but a snippet of Mme. Commerçon's dictation correction illustrates the sort of French-specific headache that the spelling clubs find perversely enjoyable:

"There is, of course, a circumflex accent on dûment [duly]," she said, provoking mostly self-satisfied nods. "And there is, of course, no circumflex on éperdument [desperately]," she added, to much dismay among her audience.

Darn that pesky circumflex!

[Update, 4/9/06: Much incisive discussion can be found at millionary wherewhens and No-sword.]

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at April 7, 2006 02:56 PM