The Modern French languages evolved from Vulgar Latin, which came from Classical Latin with important Germanic influences from the Germanic tribes that inhabited Europe during Roman times. It has passed through several recognizable stages: Old French, from 842; Middle French from circa 1400; early Modern French from circa 1600 and Contemporary French, from circa 1800, marked by certain spelling reforms listed below.
Spelling and punctuation before the 16th century was highly erratic, but the introduction of printing in 1470 provoked the need for uniformity.
Several Renaissance humanists (working with publishers) proposed reforms in French orthography, the most famous being Jacques Peletier du Mans who developed a phonemic-based spelling system and introduced new typographic signs (1550). Peletier continued to use his system in all his published works, but his reform was not followed.
- L'Académie s'eſt donc vûe contrainte à faire dans cette nouvelle Edition, à ſon orthographe, pluſieurs changemens qu'elle n'avoit point jugé à propos d'adopter, lorſqu'elle donna l'Edition précédente. — Académie, 1740, using accents for the first time
The third (1740) and fourth (1762) editions of the Académie dictionary were very progressive ones, changing the spelling of about half the words altogether.
Diacritics, which had been in common use by printers for a long time, were finally adopted by the Académie, and many silent letters were dropped.
- estre → être (to be)
- monachal → monacal (monastic)
Many changes suggested in the fourth edition were later abandoned along with thousands of neologisms added to it.
- uil → vil (vile)
Many changes were introduced in the sixth edition of the Académie dictionary (1835), mainly under the influence of Voltaire. Most importantly, all OI digraphs that represented /ɛ/ were changed to AI, thus changing the whole imperfect conjugation of all verbs. The borrowing of connoisseur into English predates this change; the modern French spelling is connaisseur.
- étois → étais (was)
The spelling of some plural words the singular form of which ended in D and T was modified to reinsert this mute consonant, so as to bring the plural in morphological alignment with the singular. Only gent, gens retained the old form, because it was perceived that the singular and the plural had different meanings. The Académie had already tried to introduce a similar reform in 1694, but had given up with their dictionary's second edition.
- parens → parents (relatives)
With important dictionaries published at the turn of 20th century, such as Émile Littré's, Pierre Larousse's and Arsène Darmesteter's, and later Paul Robert's, the Académie gradually lost much of its prestige.
- grand'mère → grand-mère (grandmother)
Since the 1970s, though, calls for the modernisation of French orthography have grown stronger. In 1989, French prime minister Michel Rocard appointed the Superior Council of the French language to simplify the orthography by regularising it.
The rectifications of 1990
- Main article: Appendix:French spelling reforms of 1990
The Council, with the help of some Académie members and observers from Francophone states, published what it called the "orthographic rectifications" on 6 December 1990.
Those "rectifications", instead of changing individual spellings, published general rules or lists of modified words. In total, around 2000 words have seen their spelling changed, and French morphology was also affected.
Numerals are joined with hyphens:
- sept cent mille trois cent vingt et un → sept-cent-mille-trois-cent-vingt-et-un (700,321).
Elements of compound nouns are fused together:
- if one element is a verb: porte-monnaie → portemonnaie (wallet)
- in bahuvrihi compounds (where the individual sense of the elements has changed): sage-femme → sagefemme (midwife)
- in onomatopoeias: coin coin → coincoin (quack).
Loan compounds are also fused together:
- hot-dog → hotdog (hot dog).
Compound nouns joined with hyphens (or fused) make their plural using normal rules, that is adding a final s or x, unless the modifier is an adjective (in which case both elements must agree), or the head is a determined noun, or a proper noun:
- des pèse-lettre → des pèse-lettres (letter scales)
Loanwords also have a regular plural:
- lieder → lieds (songs)
The tréma (known as diaeresis in English) indicating exceptionally that gu is not a digraph is to be placed on the u instead of on the following vowel. Also, such trémas are added to words where they were not previously used:
Examples of where the tréma is found
- aiguë → aigüe (fem. acute)
- Noël (Christmas)
- je céderai → je cèderai (I shall give up)
Additionally, verbs ending in e placed before an inverted subject "je" change their e to è instead of é:
- cédé-je ? → cédè-je ? (am I giving up?)
- mû → mu (driven), but qu'il mût unchanged (he must have driven), and
- dû (the past participle of the very common irregular verb devoir, or the noun created from this participle) is kept to make the distinction with du (the required contraction of de le, which means some when used as an undetermined masculine article, or means of the when used as a preposition).
Wherever accents are missing or wrong because of past error/omission or change of pronunciation, they are added or changed:
- receler → recéler (to receive – stolen goods)
- événement → évènement (event)
Accents are also added to loanwords where dictated by French pronunciation:
- diesel → diésel (diesel)
Schwa changing into open e
In verbs with an infinitive in -eler or -eter, the opening of the schwa can currently be noted either by changing the e to è or by doubling the following l or t, depending on verbs. Only the first rule shall now be used except in appeler, jeter, and their derivatives (which continue to use ll and tt).
- j'étiquette → j'étiquète (I label)
This applies also when those verbs are nominalized using the suffix -ement:
- amoncellement → amoncèlement (pile)
Past participle agreement
- je les ai laissés partir → je les ai laissé partir (I let them go)
This is an alleged simplification of the rules governing the agreement as applied to a past participle followed by an infinitive. The participle fait already followed an identical rule.
Many phenomena were considered as "anomalies" and thus "corrected". Some "families" of words from the same root showing inconsistent spellings were uniformized on the model of the most usual word in the "family".
- imbécillité → imbécilité (idiocy)
This rule was also extended to suffixes in two cases, actually changing them into totally different morphemes altogether:
- cuissot → cuisseau (haunch)
- levraut → levreau (leveret)
Isolated words were adjusted to follow older reform where they had been omitted:
- douceâtre → douçâtre (sickly sweet)
- oignon → ognon (onion)
Lastly, some words have simply seen their spelling simplified, or fixed when it was uncertain:
- pagaïe/pagaille/pagaye → pagaille (mess)
- punch → ponch (punch, the drink)