Accentuate the positive

Sylvie Charbonnier

A lot of people in France are in an uproar because of some proposed changes in the lingua franca, simplifying some spellings (ognon instead of oignon for “onion,” for example, and making their “week-end” into a shorter “weekend”). The biggest outrage, though, is reserved for the proposal to remove the circumflex (the little hat) above î and û if its absence doesn’t change the meaning of word.

That last part is very important: If it doesn’t change the meaning of a word.

As we wrote a while ago, English itself has no accents but borrowed a lot from other languages. We, too, should err on the side of retaining accents when they would change one word into another, as we said of “resume” and “résumé.” And we, too, have been losing some accents, while clinging to others.

Here, in the 1964 printing of Webster’s New World College Dictionary, is “façade,” for the front of a building. That little curlicue is called a “cedilla,” and it makes that “c” into an “s” sound, rather a “k” sound. But it quickly lost favor; by the 1982 printing of the second edition, WNW’s entry was “facade, façade,” putting the preference on the Americanization, where it remains in the fifth edition.

“Café,” too, started life in WNW with its acute accent, which makes the final “e” sound like an “a.” In the 1982 second edition, “café” had been joined by “cafe,” with the accented version preferred. By the 1991 printing of the third edition, the accentless “cafe” became preferred.

To this day, however, WNW wants that acute accent on “fiancé/fiancée.”

The French are not proposing dropping those accents, which are definitely needed for pronunciation. Instead, they’re proposing to jettison what are in effect anachronisms.

The circumflex in French is often used to indicate a ghost letter, one that used to be there but isn’t anymore: in hôpital, for example, which used to be spelled the way we do it, “hospital.” Around the 11th century, people stopped pronouncing the “s” when it occurred before a “hard” consonant in some cases, changing the vowel sound just before it. Even so, it took until 1740 for the Académie Française to start printing those circumflexes. The same Académie Française is now proposing to circumscribe many of them.

Among the circumflexes that would disappear are those in huître (oyster), coût (cost), and, um, disparaître (disappear). Francophiles writing in English would have to write “s’il vous plait” instead of “s’il vous plaît,” if you please.

Some of these preferences are academic, and certainly existed before the advent of computers, when few English-based typewriters could produce accented characters: Accents were the purview of dictionaries and publishers with specialized font sets. Today, however, most accents can be produced with one extra keystroke or selection from the “insert symbol” menu. Yet not many publications use them. Part of this is practicality: The systems used by The Associated Press and some other wire services cannot transmit accented characters without garble.

People use or don’t use the accents for various reasons: They can’t, are unaware that they are needed, don’t know how, etc. And sometimes people use them if they don’t have to (see “cafe” and “facade,” above). In fact, the Dragon Naturally Speaking dictation program we used to write this column put the accents in “café” and “façade,” and we had to physically circumcise them. But in most circumstances, losing (or using) the circumflex has no effect on the meaning of the word—in French or in English.

What of one of our most cherished accented expressions, maître d’ and its more formal form, maître d’hôtel? The 1964 WNW called it a “foreign” expression (though it’s been used in English since the 16th century), but now it’s fully acceptable as English—though most dictionaries still want those accents. Would a “maitre d’hotel” render the same service? Will we continue to use the circumflexes when the French have stopped?

It would not be circumspect to make any predictions.

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.