The diacritical mark, that puzzling addition to a recognisable letter, arrived in my life at about the age of six, like an insect lighting on the page of a school textbook. Only it happened out of school, in the world of foreign stamps, where I first encountered ‘accents’. My arbitrary collection included a stamp from Hungary commemorating the ‘technical and transport museum’ – Közlekedési Múzeum – and another from Yugoslavia commemorating what I think is a children’s day: ‘Decja Nedelja’ (1957), with a wingless creature fixed to the lid of the ‘c’. French stamps were easy to obtain: on these you could see your first cedilla, even if you didn’t know it. All these marks were mysterious, but mystery gets irritating before long, and mostly I wanted to swat them away.
The French have done just that: for school children of the future the circumflex accent will be a rarity. It’s part of a 25-year-old plan to rationalise spelling, and it means that kids are likelier to encounter this once-familiar mark (hyphenation is also under attack) in Tolkien (Nazgûl, or Nâzgul, who cares post-Pêter Jacksôn?) than they are in their textbooks. If they go on to read Joyce they’ll find it in Finnegans Wake – ‘Yard inquiries pointed out… that they ad bîn “provoked”’ – and if they ever do Greek, they’ll discover it’s been around for a long time: versions of the New Testament had diacritical marks in the fifth century.
The circumflex came into use in France much later, in the 16th century, and the Academie Francaise – let’s dump the acute and the cedilla – haven’t fought to the death to hang on to this trifling novelty. Diacritical marks are now ironic, as they were for Joyce. Anglo-Saxon bands use them as a design feature, even if they privilege the umlaut, a rare mark in French: Mötley Crüe, Maxïmo Park, Motörhead etc. Amon Düül is dying proof that no one should listen to a band with more than one umlaut.
The new edict will make teachers’ lives much easier. It also hints at a return to the age of pre-regulated spelling, enjoyed by most scholars and poets up through the Renaissance. When one set of rules is cast aside, another can join it later in the same obscurity. If we’ve really set our hearts on spelling bees, Göögle will be a far more powerful consensual institution than the Academie Francaise.
I used to toil through Villon – sent there, like most British poetry readers, by Basil Bunting – trying to figure out where the circumflex would have applied in modern French. ‘Ou gist, il n’entre escler ne tourbillon.’ Roughly, in modernised French: ‘Là où il gît, ni éclair ni tourbillon n’entre.’ No lightning or whirlwind can bring ‘le povre Villon’ back from the grave.
‘Gist’ is a nostalgic’s lullaby. The circumflex on gît keeps the cradle rocking, and reminds us that an ‘s’ has gone missing over centuries of usage. Châtelet for chastelet, prêtre for prestre (as in Prester John), plâtre for plaster, abîme for some early French equivalent of abyss. From côte to côte, the circumflex tells us how closely French was related to other languages, often via Latin. But according to the Academie Francaise even educated people (‘les personnes instruites’) have trouble with the circumflex, and there’s no need to build a diacritical cult around a consonant that’s disappeared from any given part of speech. Nos ancêtres les Gaulois would have agreed.