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Je suis circonflexe”: grassroots prescriptivism and orthographic reform


This paper addresses the role of bottom-up prescriptive pressures in language policy debates and their interplay with institution-driven, top-down influences. I approach this issue through an analysis of social media data concerning debates surrounding recent orthographic reform in France. Building on Heyd’s (Lang Soc 43: 489–514, 2014) discussion of grassroots prescriptivism, I illustrate how French speakers on Twitter oppose the suggested changes through a set of common strategies. I argue that these strategies largely hinge upon the mobilization of particular discourses, especially that of the ideal French speaker. This ideal French speaker is presented as a figure with which speakers in opposition to the reforms may align themselves, thus casting those in favour of the reform as “bad” French speakers. The dynamic in these social media discourses shifts the traditional balance of prescriptivist power away from the institutional level and toward the public. I conclude by arguing that prescriptivist ideologies need to be understood in terms of the interaction of top-down and bottom-up pressures, and in this context the role of policymakers in language planning projects becomes more challenging.

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  1. Zappavigna (2012) offers a thorough examination of the means by which Twitter encourages affiliation among users and allows access to others.

  2. Consider, for example, the fact that the Donald Trump’s Twitter feeds (both his personal and POTUS accounts) are now treated as official White House communication.

  3. The French government has since formed other bodies to regulate and promote the French language, such as the Délégation générale à la langue française et aux langues de France (which is responsible for the enforcement of language legislation such as the Loi Toubon) and the Commission d’enrichissement de la langue française (which is responsible, in conjunction with the Académie, for approving new French vocabulary and runs the free online dictionary of these neologisms, available at See Adamson (2007) and Wright (2004) for an overview of the development of these offices and accompanying legislation.

  4. The Conseil Supérieur de la Langue Française is an entity founded in 1989 to advise the French government on issues regarding use and promotion of the French language, comprising members of several other government bodies. Its first goal was to propose what would eventually be the rectifications currently in question.

  5. Hashtags of this type were popularized with #JeSuisCharlie ‘I am Charlie’, a tag used to show solidarity and remembrance after the Charlie Hebdo shootings in Paris on January 7, 2015. See De Cock and Pizarro Pedraza (2018) for a discussion of the varied pragmatic functions of this type of hashtag; the authors show, for example, that these hashtags do not always indicate alignment with the topic, but instead may be used ironically.

  6. These shared strategies may include individual acts of identity such as stancetaking; while these individual acts are not the focus of this paper, they nonetheless show how some Twitter users demonstrate membership in this larger group.

  7. For example, since approximately 65% of all tweets collected were posted on February 4, approximately 1300 of the 2000 tweets I selected for analysis were posted on this day.

  8. Many of these users also seemed to avoid the #jesuis hashtags or use them ironically, following De Cock and Pizarro Pedraza (2018).

  9. I use the term “strategies” here to refer to specific discourses—that is, the broad types of commentary Twitter users may make. These are related both to sociopragmatic phenomena and to questions of Ideology à la Eagleton (1991)—that is, how a group may articulate an issue to universalize or mythicize it.

  10. In (1), the English idiom ‘race to the bottom’ is sometimes used as a translation for nivellement par le bas. In (2), nous avons tous l’âme de resistants could also be translated ‘we are all rebels at heart’. The translations given above are more direct representations of what the French speakers are saying; the translations given in this footnote represent more figurative meanings as they might be expressed in English.

  11. Indeed, references to such literary figures are not uncommon in French television, advertising, and the like. The popularity of Bernard Pivot’s long-running literary television program Apostrophes and its successor Bouillon de Culture, as well as the Dicos d’Or (‘Golden Dictionaries’, a spelling bee in the form of dictation exercises), highlights the position literature and language hold within French culture.

  12. It is worth noting that Ms. Vallaud-Belkacem is of Moroccan and Algerian heritage, and thus many of the negative comments directed at her specifically may also be racially-driven, though I do not explore the idea in this paper.

  13. In this sense, bottom-up pressures are actually derived from the internalization of top-down pressures.

  14. Whether this continues to be the case remains to be seen; as older services like Twitter and Facebook see increasingly widespread use, language practices may more closely approximate offline language standards. Such a discussion is beyond the scope of this paper, however.

  15. Other political developments in 2016 have also raised the issue of misinformation and fake news. The effects of such phenomena remain to be seen (and warrant inspection in other papers) but it seems clear, in this case at least, that the spread of misinformation has changed the nature of the debate from one simply concerning facts to one that must also arbitrate between fact and fiction.

  16. This also raises questions concerning the role(s) of ideological positioning in demagoguery and its ultimate effects on democratic societies (and specifically the effects language and language ideologies can have). These questions merit more thorough investigation than is possible in this paper.


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The author would like to thank Rakesh Bhatt, Doug Kibbee, and the Language in Society Discussion Group (UIUC) for their helpful feedback on early drafts of this paper, as well as the three anonymous reviewers for their suggestions and insights. Any remaining errors are my own.

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Correspondence to Patrick Drackley.

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Drackley, P. “Je suis circonflexe”: grassroots prescriptivism and orthographic reform. Lang Policy 18, 295–313 (2019).

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