IT was once the common language of Europe, spoken by the world's literary elite, preferred among nobles and diplomats alike. But these days the French language is facing difficult times. English is leaving it further and further behind in international scientific and cultural circles, and now the French themselves are debating measures to bring its written form up-to-date and to make it - purists shudder! - more egalitarian.
Earlier this year, Paris's highly regarded Pasteur Institute announced it would replace its principal research publication, Annales, with a new English-language publication complete with an English title.
The cries of travesty and treason were fierce, but no one could rebut the statistics furnished by the institute's director, Maxime Schwartz: Last year, of the 249 manuscripts the institute received, half were from Francophone countries, but only 6 percent were submitted in French. Researchers at Pasteur and other French research centers know from experience, Mr. Schwartz continued, that their work will not receive near the exposure from Annales that it does in English-language publications.
The choice, according to Schwartz, was either to publish in English, or risk seeing fewer and fewer French and Francophone researchers cited in international scientific studies.
For some of the French, it is quite simply a crisis of stature and of French civilization's place in the world. But as Maurice Allais, Nobel Prize winner for economics, explained recently in the Paris daily Le Monde, either French publishers, writers, and researchers take serious steps to publish and be published in English, or not just the French language, but French thought, will disappear from the international scene.
Sensitivities over the Pasteur Institute's decision were still sharp when a group of school teachers, linguists, and sociologists proposed a major overhaul of French spelling, to simplify it and make it easier to learn and retain.
Such proposals have come and gone for years, but this time reform proponents have chosen the publication of a new book on the subject to jump-start the debate. Available in bookstores at the end of August - right as hundreds of thousands of students and their teachers were invading them in preparation for the new academic year - the book is titled ``Que vive l'Ortografe'' (``Let Spelling Live''), with the authors' preferred spelling for orthographe making their intentions clear right from the cover.
Opponents of such a reform reject it as insensitive to French historical and linguistic traditions, and unnecessary for all but the laziest or least intelligent. At the French Academy, charged since its creation in the early 18th century with overseeing the French language, academician Jean Dutourd bluntly dismisses any spelling overhaul as benefiting only ``the ignorant.''
But proponents say reform is needed not only to bring written French ``out of the museum'' it has been in for more than a century, but to make language a more egalitarian element in French society.
``Spelling has become a sign of social recognition,'' writes Jean-Claude Barbarant, general secretary of France's largest schoolteachers' union, in the book's afterword. ``Behind the debates surrounding it are conflicts over power to preserve, share, or conquer.... Spelling today penalizes severely those who haven't mastered it, not only in school but in everyday life.''
Reform proponents say that, while spoken French has steadily evolved, the written language, at least since the early 1800s, has not. And they cite the following reasons: With an explosion in publishing in the 19th century, spelling became fixed; the advent of universal schooling spread one accepted orthography, and higher life expectancies have helped to perpetuate it.
``Other countries, such as Spain and Turkey, China and the Soviet Union, have undertaken modernizations of spelling,'' says Jacques Morin, a middle-school teacher and publication director for the national schoolteachers' union (SNI). ``But we still write French as it was written in 1835, and it's becoming more difficult for more people.''
Examples of how French spelling would be simplified include: getting rid of such exceptions as plurals formed by ``x'' instead of ``s'' (bijoux, cailloux, choux); standardizing the use of double consonants (ville would become vile); dropping such anomalies as the ``s'' in temps, or coordinating a noun's written form with its gender (trophee would become trophe, vertu would become vertue).
Mr. Morin believes it is ridiculous to equate a reform of French spelling with disregard for French civilization's classical roots, as some opponents have charged. ``Take the word rythme,'' says Morin, which he and the other reformers would spell ritme. ``The `y' [literally `Greek i' in French] has nothing to do with the Greeks, but was given to us by copyists during the Middle Ages, who thought it was pretty. Italians write ritmo,'' he adds, ``does that make them less Latin than the French?''
As for the charge that such a reform simply accommodates society's lowest achievers, Morin tells the story of a university student who came to him, distressed because he couldn't spell well enough to pass written, graduate-school entrance exams.
``After two years of working on his spelling, he was able to pass. He is now the chief administrator at a Paris-region hospital,'' says Morin, ``but out of curiosity I recently gave him a spelling test, and he was back to making the same mistakes he did years ago.''
While they point up the degree of concern over the state of the French language, the calls for orthographic reforms are not expected by many French to go much further.
Although it traditionally remains the French Academy's ``privilege'' to determine spelling, the government can also take steps toward reform if it chooses.
Prime Minister Michel Rocard named a group to study the state of the French language earlier this year, and Education Minister Lionel Jospin addressed the issue of spelling reform in his address marking the new school year this fall.
Mr. Jospin said he is ready ``to battle against the absurd and that which is not justified, but for the rest to keep as our primary concern a respect for the French language.'' He would allow specialists to work in this ``sensitive domain'' and obsverved that any spelling reform would require great sensitivity ``because our language expresses our literature and our culture.''