foretSurprisingly (perhaps), The Economist is a great source for articles about linguistics. When an article is also about world politics, however, no one is surprised. Yesterday’s issue included a piece with the odd title of “Je suis circonflexe”; what could that possibly be about? Circumflex accents????

Well, yes.

And some commenters, of course, have to turn the issue into an anti-Muslim diatribe. But the issue is merely one of a minor spelling reform, such as the change from colour to color in the early days of the U.S. An attempt to get rid of most circumflex accents has led to a protest with the hashtag #JeSuisCirconflexe. Strange but true.

It brought back a conversation I had with my late Greek teacher back in 1964. He was, to put it mildly, conservative about these things. In fact, he was conservative about all things — saying repeatedly, for instance, “Andover will go coed over my dead body.” (That didn’t quite happen, but close. When the school eventually went coed, he immediately retired. “I don’t know how to teach girls,” he explained. “They’re a different species.”) He also said that it would be the death of our democracy when 18-year-olds got the right to vote. Anyway, I asked him one day why we were required to memorize all the accents in ancient Greek words, since almost every word has an accent (acute or circumflex, with the acute accent becoming grave under certain well-defined circumstances) but the accent virtually never distinguishes one word from another. He responded in a huff that “Greek has been written with accents for hundreds of years and we’re not going to stop now.” So there.

Categories: Linguistics