A post from Shady Characters

Miscellany № 84: zut alors!

Happy new year! Here’s a post that I certainly did not expect to crest 1,400 words.


There have been a rash of recent news stories from Brittany, the westernmost region of mainland France, concerning parents wishing to give their children traditional Breton names. In September 2017, for example, Agence France-Presse published an account of a baby boy named “Fañch” whose parents were told that per government rules their son could not have a tilde in his name. As the French government’s website explains,

L’alphabet utilisé doit être celui qui sert à l’écriture du français. Les caractères alphabétiques qui ne sont pas utilisés dans la langue française ne sont donc pas autorisés (par exemple le « ñ »).1

[The alphabet used must be the one used for writing French. Alphabetic characters that are not used in the French language are therefore not allowed (e.g. “ñ”).]

“Fañch” is the regional equivalent of the French “François” or the English “Francis”, and although it is a Breton name rather than a French one, it is by no means unusual. There are prominent Breton writers named Fañch Peru and Fañch Broudig, for example, and so the parents of young Fañch Bernard were understandably upset when their choice of name was rejected. The boy’s father, Jean-Christophe, vowed that “He will have his tilde, that’s for sure”, and AFP reported that he plans to appeal the ruling.

Then, only a week or so ago, I came across a similar report from thelocal.fr, this time claiming that a different Breton couple has been told that they cannot christen their son “Derc’hen” — again, another traditional Breton name — for the same reason. First tildes, now apostrophes: does Brittany have a problem with its native tongue? Does France have a problem with the Breton language? Now, I’m no more than an armchair Francophile, but if I was to hazard a guess then I’d say the answer to both questions is yes. And also no. It’s complicated.


France’s passionate and sporadically vexed relationship with its mother tongue is best seen in the existence of the Académie française. Founded in 1635 by Cardinal Richelieu,2 this state-sponsored body is emblematic of the French establishment’s fiercely protective attitude towards its, well, lingua franca, and, as such, it has held firmly to the tiller of French grammar and usage for more than three centuries. Fittingly for such a durable institution, its members are called les immortels after the Académie’s motto, ‎À l’immortalité, or “to immortality”. The larger part of the Académie’s duty to defend the French language takes the form of a dictionary that attempts to replace commonly-used foreign terms such as “weekend”, “email” and “podcast” with neologisms such as fin de semaine, courriel and diffusion pour baladeur. This last term translates directly as “broadcast for walkman”; little wonder the Académie is sometimes accused of being behind the times.3

Beyond its lexicographic work, the Académie issues official statements whenever linguistic evolution takes a notable turn — which, more often than not, is in a direction that les immortels do not especially like. Given that its membership is and has always been conspicuously male, pale and stale, this happens rather a lot these days. As an example, when, in 1998, Prime Minister Lionel Jospin directed that women serving on his cabinet should be referred to as the feminine la ministre rather than the more conventional le ministre, the Académie’s president called an emergency meeting to discuss this assault on the French language.4 More recently, the proposed use of bullets to formulate gender-inclusive terms such as étudiant·e·s to mean a group of students with both male and female members, where ordinarily the masculine étudiants would take precedence over the feminine étudiantes, led the Académie to brand the move a “mortal danger” to the French language.5 With immortality comes a certain ossification of viewpoint, it would seem.

France’s hands-on approach to its language extends far beyond the Académie’s ivory towers. In 1990, a different quango called the Conseil supérieur de la langue française (the CSLF, or Superior Council on the French Language) published guidelines for a spelling reform affecting about 2,400 words such as oignon (onion), now to be spelled ognon to better match its pronunciation; paraître (to appear),* which was to be shorn of its silent circumflex; porte-monnaie (wallet), whose hyphen was to be dropped, and so on.6 The reforms attracted little notice at the time but in 2016, when the changes were finally adopted by educational publishers, there was a general and predictable outcry.7 Ironically, by this time the CSLF had been abolished8 and so the French media turned its accusatory gaze on the Académie française. For once entirely innocent, the Académie found itself in the unique position of having to tamp down a linguistic controversy rather than fan its flames.9

Then there are France’s naming laws.

From the French Revolution on, under choix du prénom (choice of first name) rules parents had to choose from a list of prescribed names when christening their children. The law was not always perfectly applied (Le Parisien reports that a “Sue Ellen” sneaked through the net in 1986, when American soap opera Dallas was at its height), but it nevertheless placed considerable constraints on how children could be named. Having finally been struck off the books in 1993, parents can now choose essentially any name they like as long as the registrar is happy that it will not unduly harm the child.1

And yet, there remains one final consideration: that the only alphabetic characters allowed in names are those used in the French language itself. In Brittany, this is a problem.


The Breton language is emphatically not French. It’s a Celtic language, related closely to Cornish and more distantly to Welsh, Irish, Scottish Gaelic and Manx, and was first exported to the northwest coast of France by Britons who emigrated there in the 5th and 6th centuries.10 As with those other languages, Breton has not always had a smooth relationship with its host country; notably, it was only in 2008 that France’s constitution was amended to give equal status to regional languages such as Alsatian, Breton, and Corsican. Naturally, the Académie française bemoaned the announcement even as Breton cultural leaders rejoiced. British newspaper The Telegraph quoted one Per Vari Kerloc’h, a Breton druid, who took the opportunity to twist the knife a little:

Kerloc’h, the leader of the Gorsedd of Breton Druids, which champions Breton and Cornish culture, insisted the changes were fully compatible with the nation’s distinguished past. […] “Unlike today’s members of the L’Académie Française [sic], many great French writers admitted that regional languages and cultures were part of France’s heritage,” he said.12

The Telegraph did not mention whether Kerloc’h’s apostrophe exists in the officially-recorded version of his name, but it must have given les immortels palpitations all the same.

All this brings us back to 2018 and to Fañch and Derc’hen — and it explains, to a degree, why their names caused the local registrars such consternation. Those who read, write or speak minority languages often do not have the easiest of times using government services, and France’s naming rules, still adrift from the constitution’s more equitable position, are a case in point.

At last, though, things may be changing for the better. Just a few days ago, the public prosecutor of Rennes, where Derc’hen’s parents registered his birth, announced that the boy will be allowed to keep his apostrophe. Referring to the 2014 Ministry of Justice bulletin that had codified the ban on non-French characters,13 Jean-François Thony explained that although the standard French accents (é, è and ê), the diaeresis (ë) and the cedilla (ç) were definitively allowed, nowhere were marks of punctuation explicitly banned.14

For the parents of Fañch Bernard, however, things are as yet unresolved. The same 2014 circular that lets Derc’hen’s apostrophe slip through the net is quite clear on the status of other marks:

Tout autre signe diacritique attaché à une lettre ou ligature ne peut être retenu pour l’établissement d’un acte de l’état civil.

[Any other diacritical sign attached to a letter or ligature cannot be used for the establishment of a civil status document.]

As far as the French state is concerned, the Breton ñ is still forbidden. Fañch’s parents will get their day in court — Le Monde reports that their appeal will be heard at some point in 2018 — but for now, it seems that France is not quite ready to embrace all its languages equally.

1.
Choix du prénom de l’enfant,” service-public.fr, 2017. ↩︎
2.
L’histoire,” www.academie-francaise.fr ↩︎
3.
Kim Willsher, “French must drop ‘ineffective barriers’ against other languages – minister,” The Guardian, 2015. ↩︎
4.
Feminising French,” BBC News, 1998. ↩︎
5.
David Chazan, “Gender-inclusive French is a ‘mortal danger’ to the language, Académie Française warns,” The Telegraph, 2017. ↩︎
6.
C. supérieur de la langue française, “Les rectifications de l’orthographie,” Journal officiel de la republique française editions de document administratifs, iss. 100, 1990. ↩︎
7.
Kim Willsher, “Not the oignon: fury as France changes 2,000 spellings and drops some accents,” The Guardian, 2016. ↩︎
8.
Historique – Langue française et langues de France,” Ministère de la Culture ↩︎
9.
Mohammed Aïssaoui, “Réforme de l’orthographe : l’Académie française réagit enfin,” lefigaro.fr, 2016. ↩︎
10.
Breton language,” Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1998. ↩︎
11.
Welsh National Anthem,” wales.com ↩︎
12.
P. Allen, “France’s L’Académie Française upset by rule to recognise regional tongues,” The Telegraph, 2008. ↩︎
13.
Circulaire du 23 juillet 2014 relative à l’état civil,” , 2014. ↩︎
14.
La justice autorise l’apostrophe dans le prénom Derc’hen,” lemonde.fr, 2018. ↩︎
*
I wrote an article about the threat to the circumflex for the New York Times, here↩︎
None of this will come as a surprise to natives of Iceland, Denmark, Sweden or certain other countries that have similar laws, but I was taken aback! ↩︎
Not coincidentally, Brittany’s anthem, Bro Gozh ma Zadoù, is sung to the same tune as the national anthem of Wales, Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau, and that of Cornwall.11 ↩︎

10 comments on “Miscellany № 84: zut alors!

  1. Comment posted by John Cowan on

    Breton is closely related to Cornish, less so to Welsh, and the relationship to the other languages is pretty much only visible to scholars.

    John Cowan

    Eoghan mac Eoghain

    Owain ap Owain

    Born-from-the-yew, son of Born-from-the-yew

  2. Comment posted by Martijn van der Ven on

    Interestingly, the circumflex article you wrote for the New York Times seems to blame the l’Académie française. Does that need a correction to be issued? Seeing as you now point out that the spelling changes were actually coined by Conseil supérieur de la langue française.

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Hi Martijn — you’re absolutely right! Remiss of me to get that wrong first time round. I’ll try to have the NYT article corrected.

  3. Comment posted by Jeremy W on

    The UK is as bad in some ways. When applying for a passport for my son, Tomáš, I had to use plain English characters. Oddly, when registering his birth here in Fife, the registrar had no difficulty inputting the correct letters …

    The whole issue of state approved names is bizarre. In the Czech Republic (my wife’s home country), there have been cases where children have been taken into care because the parents wanted an “unapproved” name for their children.

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Hi Jeremy — thanks for the comment.

      From this Home Office document, it looks like the UK passport situation is related to their IT infrastructure:

      Due to IT considerations, the British passport will not be issued with a name using numbers, symbols or punctuation marks other than hyphens or apostrophes; or any diacritical marks such as accents.

      Not that that’s an excuse, of course! Time for them to invest in a system that can handle more than 7-bit ASCII.

      Naming does seems to be a pretty charged subject for a lot of governments. It’s understandable in some cases, but it’s also frustrating.

    2. Comment posted by Rich Greenhill on

      The General Register Office for Northern Ireland used to claim that “you can register your child’s name in any language providing you use any unicode character” (wot not curly apostrophe?!). But their website is now vague as to which characters are acceptable. (Hat tip, Raymond Chen.)

      UK company names have been able to include a wide range of Latin-based diacritics since 2014 (even the marvellously obscure “Ŋ” – U+014A LATIN CAPITAL LETTER ENG), though this flexibility is combined with some dubious transliteration rules when determining uniqueness, and does not extend to recognising lower case.

  4. Comment posted by Andrew Wilson Lambeth on

    A proscription on diacritics is less of an imposition on a person’s identity than the Ellis Island practice of renaming incomers with easier-to-spell near homophones (or not even that, sometimes). Not just Ellis Island, of course – my uncle Jean was given the surname Hull on the Hull docks during the Second World War. Having flitted the French Foreign Legion (it’s complicated), he was not unhappy with the new moniker. My older cousin assured me, when I was about eight years old, that all dogs are actually called Smuts—they merely humour humans who like to distinguish creatures by name. They themselves individualise each other by smell. Anyway, if you call a dog Smuts, it will give you a knowing, but approving, look. I’ve found this to be true. At least in the UK. I’ve not tried it in France.

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