12th February 2016

What can #JeSuisCirconflexe tell us about language and consumer identity?

If, like me, you enjoy keeping up to date with what’s happening with our Gallic neighbours on the other side of the Channel, then you may have seen the news last week that the Académie Française had controversially revised the spelling of more than 2,400 words across the French language. Among the words that have been tweaked are “oignon” (that’s “onion” to you and me), which is now “ognon”, and “nénuphar” (waterlily), which has become “nénufar”. Even the English loanword “week-end” has been revised… to “weekend”.

The final straw for many linguistic purists though, was the decision by the Académie – the final arbiter of correct French (if you live in France, at least) for more than 380 years – to banish the circumflex (the pointy hat that has sat atop the vowels of hundreds of French words for centuries). This led to accusations that the language was being dumbed down, and culminated in the trending Twitter hashtag #JeSuisCirconflexe demanding the return of the beloved accent.

All this controversy has been highly amusing, and I can relate to the French speakers who feel their language is being tampered with. I get just as irked when I see American spellings peppering the books of British authors, or when I hear people say “I text him yesterday” (surely it should be “texted”?).

However, this hoo-hah is rather misplaced, as the “new” circumflex-free spellings have existed as acceptable variants since 1990 (I can remember being taught to use many of them myself in my Key Stage 3 lessons way back when). They have been reported on many times since – most recently on French TV channel TF1, the source of the recent row.

The only thing that has changed now is the decision to update school texts to reflect the Académie’s preferred spellings, rather than a ban on the older convention. So, while children in school will now be taught to use only the revised writing system, adults brought up eating oignons rather than ognons and crowning their vowels with circumflexes will be able to continue to do so, without complaints from their computer’s spellchecker.

All this, of course, means that how you write in French will say something about your age and your outlook – whether you happily embrace progress, or prefer to stick with what you’re used to. This is just as true for brands as it is for individuals.

With this in mind then, it will be important for international brands operating in France to review their marketing literature to ensure the spellings they use reflect their brand image. Brands that wish to be seen as forward-thinking, for instance, or want to target younger consumers, would be best served using the new spelling conventions. Using the older forms, like using archaic language or old-fashioned colloquialisms, might undermine their efforts to present themselves as innovative or in touch with youth culture.

For heritage brands, however, sticking with more archaic spellings and language could work in their favour, reinforcing their connection to the past and their pedigree in their particular market. Equally, a brand appealing to elderly consumers could stick with older spellings to ensure they keep hold of the attention and affection of their target market.

The spelling revisions proposed by the Académie Française don’t put brands (or anyone else for that matter) under a legal obligation to rip up their existing content. Nevertheless, they should begin to review their material to make sure it continues to support and reinforce the brand image they wish to convey. To build a strong relationship with target consumers, a brand needs to communicate in the language they use every day – this means it has to use the right social register, the appropriate national or regional dialect and, in the case of written content, use the right spelling conventions for that audience. If they don’t, brands risk alienating the people they most need to engage with.

By Michael Wood, Senior B2B Copywriter