Why do some French words have more than one spelling?

Posted by Josh on 23rd Nov 2022 in the blog in the learning french category

If you’re learning French, you may have come across the word 'oignon', only to come across it again at a later date spelt 'ognon', without the 'i'. This is bound to provoke confusion. Why is the same word spelt two different ways? How are you meant to know which of the two spellings is correct?

It isn't just 'oignon/ognon'. Words with spelling variations abound in French, from common words such as 'brûler'/'bruler', to more obscure words like 'cuissot'/'cuisseau'.

Many of the things that make French confusing are due to its development over the centuries, as pronunciation has diverged from spelling, and as the Académie Française — who, if you’ve read our other blogs, you’ll know are in charge of the French language - has sought to modify or maintain elements of the language. But until 1990, it could at least be said that all words in the French language had only one spelling. That year, however, the Académie introduced a series of spelling reforms to the language. The aim of these reforms was to simplify the language by removing certain accents, standardising the endings or reducing the lengths of certain words.

Ironically for French learners, the result of this is that it can make learning French more complicated. The new spellings did not replace the old spelling, but rather both were given the seal of approval by the Académie. While the new spellings are starting to be prioritised in schools, the old spellings are still popular with the wider public, especially older generations. As a result, French learners will often come across both possible spellings of these words, making it difficult to decide which spellings they themselves ought to use when it comes to writing in French. It also means that when they come across a word spelt differently than how they are used to seeing it, they may not know whether the new spelling is a correct alternative or simply an error.

It’s therefore a good idea to be aware of the roughly 2,400 words affected by the reforms, as well as both official spellings for each of those words — or at least the main ones. Here we’ve listed some of the most common words — it's worth remembering them, as you're very likely to come across these words in your reading.

The traditional spelling is on the left, while the new spelling is one the right.

bonhomie | bonhommie (friendliness)

s’entraîner | s’entrainer (to train)

innomé | innommé (unnamed)

août | aout (August)

pagaïe, pagaye | pagaille (mess)

sotie | sottie (foolishness)

coût | cout (cost)

dessiller | déciller (to open someone's eyes)

chauve-souris | chauvesouris (bat)

There are also a few rules which each affect words with certain spelling patterns.

Numbers can now use hyphens instead of spaces. For example, 'quatre cent trente-cinq' can now be written as 'quatre-cent-trente-cinq'.

For words which end in '-illier' and '-illière', the new spelling removes the final 'i'. For example, 'serpillière' becomes 'serpillère' with the new spelling.

For words which end in '-olle' and '-otter', the new spellings now use one consonant instead of two. For example, 'corolle' becomes 'corole'.

With the new spellings, circumflexes no longer appear above the vowels 'i' or 'u' (as in the words île/ile and coûter/couter) — but they continue to be used with 'a', 'e' and 'o'. Connaître, fête and hôtel, for example, must always be spelt with the circumflex.

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