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Canada Rejecting the statuquo, Quebec educators embrace new school of French spelling

For some people, the new spelling for onion in French is enough to make them cry.

The food may now be spelled ognon along with the traditional oignon in Quebec classrooms, part of a French-language spelling reform that's stirring the ever-simmering language pot in the province.

The humble onion is among 2,000 words that have undergone spelling modernization across the French-speaking world, a mini-revolution to sweep away some hyphens, accents and medieval spellings. Under the changes, igloo can now be spelled iglou, fjord may be fiord, maître loses its accent to become maitre and the status quo is no longer that: it's the statuquo.

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The changes, which have been eliciting passions since they were introduced in France two decades ago, had been largely ignored in Quebec - until now. This fall, the Quebec Education Ministry announced that both the old and new spellings were acceptable for students writing their province-wide exams this academic year.

In a province where language is a pillar of identity, and where parents have coped with endless education reforms, the decision launched a debate that has sparked talk shows, letters to the editor and online discussion forums.

On one side, spelling reformists are crying victoire.

"We're at the point of no-return," said Chantal Contant, a linguist at the University of Quebec at Montreal who has championed the reforms. "Hairdressers have to stay up to date with changes and mechanics have to stay up to date with changes - why shouldn't French teachers?"

Ms. Contant has been fending off criticism from traditionalists who see the spelling reforms as a dumbing-down attempt to boost performances in Quebec classrooms. Former premier Jacques Parizeau, who has been lamenting the province's high drop-out rate, bemoaned the measure.

"Once again, we're going to use children as guinea pigs," Mr. Parizeau told a Montreal newspaper.

Author and commentator Denise Bombardier said Quebec students have already become "dysfunctional in orthography" and wrote in Le Devoir that Quebec education officials are churning out students who are "writing disabled."

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Why the fuss? To proponents, the changes would merely simplify French and do away with anomalies that make the language so notoriously difficult to master.

The circumflex accent would be dropped from the i or u in some words: une île becomes une ile, une flûte is une flute. Other words lose their hyphen, so that le ping-pong becomes le pingpong and un extra-terrestre becomes un extraterrestre.

As for oignon - the i is silent - its spelling dates to the Middle Ages and is considered archaic.

Borrowed words that have passed into the French language, such as referendum, would be francified and written référendum - something that is already common practice in Quebec, where there has been plenty of practice.

If there's resistance to the changes, it's because the French language is codified, rule-bound and fiercely protected. The Académie Française, a group of intellectuals created under Louis XIII in 1635 whose members are known as immortals, have acted as guardians of the language down the centuries.

"Historically, the French language has always been more centralized - there was one way to spell, one form of grammar and one dictionary, and everywhere it had to be the same," said McGill University Professor Michel Biron, Canada Research Chair in Québécois and Francophone Literature.

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Changes to the language are few and far between. The latest changes, first introduced in France in 1990, caused an uproar. They eventually got the blessing of Quebec's Office québécois de la langue française in 2005 and have slowly made their way into established French-language dictionaries.

Under the latest changes, Quebec students won't be penalized for using a new spelling variation of a word as long as it appears in the dictionary, a Quebec education official said.

For Ms. Contant, these changes are overdue.

"Some people see French as sacrosanct, like it comes down from God and is immutable," she said. "But it's created by humans. And it can change."

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New spellings

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Here are a partial list of words with their old spelling and their new spellings, both of which are being accepted this year by the Quebec Education Ministry.

allô - allo

eczéma - exéma

pizzeria - pizzéria

acupuncture - acuponcture

connaître - connaitre

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croque-monsieur - croquemonsieur

coût - cout

marketing - markéting

renouvellement - renouvèlement

revolver - révolver

strip-tease - striptease

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shampooing - shampoing

A full list of the new spellings can be found at the website www.renouvo.org/liste.php?t=3&lettre=a

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