‘I am the circumflex’– language rules, language purity, and language rage

by Nicola McLelland

My earliest memory of learning French, aged about seven, is being told to learn the verb ‘to be’ in a particular order, starting with Je suis [‘I am’], and working through to ‘they are’. When I was given a list of vocabulary to learn, I assumed, logically, that these words must also be memorized in the exact order in which they appeared in my book: la table, la chaise, la femme [the table, the chair, the woman] … and there were bitter tears when my mother tried to explain otherwise. It’s a trivial example, but the point is that language learning for me began with rules. It continued that way when I began German – one day in our first term, we spent a whole lesson copying down a table of 48 possibilities for choosing the ‘right’ adjective ending. (There aren’t 48 adjective endings in German – there are a very manageable four – but that wasn’t how it was presented to me on that day).

So, rule-obsessed as I was, I was stunned to discover years later, as a student of Linguistics, that there hadn’t even been any grammar books of French of German before the 16th century. That’s still 500 years ago, but even so, it left many more hundreds of years when some people were – apparently – managing to learn each other’s languages without a rule-book. Educated, not to say steeped, in the standard language ideology of our own time, I could barely imagine what a language without strict rules would be like. For in my own language, too, I had clear views on what was right and what was not. I had a moral certainty that nite, for example, was not OK. I’m not the only one – the hashtag #jesuiscirconflexe [‘I am the circumflex’] was used earlier this year by some French Twitterati who were so furious at the official removal of the circumflex accent from a number of French spellings that they were willing to place this offence on the same plane as the murder of journalists at the magazine Charlie Hebdo, which had prompted the expressions of solidarity in the hashtag #jesuischarlie.

Since European languages began to be standardized and fixed in grammars and dictionaries about half a millennium ago, the interactions and tensions have multiplied between authorities who control what we call ‘right and ‘wrong’ in language (including institutions, educators, and testers) and everyday language users who keep pushing the language in new directions. For many speakers, a pure language, especially one free from foreign ‘contamination’, is a good language, and the language often symbolizes a particular national, regional or ethnic identity. And yet multilingualism is fundamental to the history of language rule-making. The first rules were set down in grammars for European merchants and travellers learning a new language, after all, and language purity was only ever threatened if there were enough speakers who knew another language (often Latin, French or Italian) to ‘sully’ their own with it. Today, challenges to supposed purity can come from economically powerful multinational companies like Deutsche Telekom mixing English and German (Was spricht für ein Investment?), but also from sub-cultures, such as the German Hip-Hop artist Shindy rapping, with Ali Bumaye, “Alle meine Bitches nennen mich Daddy / Chille mit der Family / Hoes schicken mir Emojis”. (Thanks to University of Nottingham student Louis Cotgrove for the lyrics!)

Looking at who controls the norms and standards of our language, who challenges them, and the beliefs, emotions, values that motivate both the desire to control and the challenge, is the focus of Strand 2 of the MEITS project.

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