the curious case of the French word ‘oignon’

Decided by the Académie française, the erroneous spelling oignon of the French word meaning onion has become a symbol of prejudiced people, ignorant of the history of their own language.




In October 1989, the French Prime Minister, Michel Rocard (1930-2016), instituted the Conseil supérieur de la langue française (CSLF), whose chief mission was to propose rectifications of orthographic incoherencies inherited from the past, in order to facilitate the teaching of French orthography and the creation of new words in the scientific and technical fields in particular.

Presided by the French novelist Maurice Druon (1918-2009), permanent secretary of the Académie française, the CSLF was composed of linguists, teachers, proof-readers and dictionary editors. (Significantly, although the Académie française is responsible for the standard form of the French language and for compiling and revising a definitive dictionary of the French language, none of its members is a linguist.)

After several months’ work, the CSLF published its report, which was unanimously accepted by the members of the Académie française on 3rd May 1990, officially presented to the Prime Minister on 19th June 1990, and published in the Journal officiel de la République française on 6th December 1990.

The orthographic rectifications that the CSLF advocated concerned only about 2000 words of common usage and five aspects: the use of the hyphen in compound nouns, the plural of compound nouns, the use of the circumflex accent, the agreement of the past participle of pronominal verbs, and a few orthographic anomalies (among which the word oignon).

Additionally, the new written forms were not intended to be compulsory.

But the publication of the report caused a first public outcry in 1991, and the orthographic rectifications remained largely forgotten for the following quarter of a century.

Until the publishers of schoolbooks got together in 2016 and decided to put the rectifications into effect as of the next school year. This led to a second public outcry, amplified by social networks. Oddly, among those who voiced anger at the rectifications was the Académie française, who had approved them in 1990…

The opponents of the orthographic rectifications regard the word oignon as exemplifying the levelling down of linguistic and educational standards induced by the corrections. Ignorant as they are of the history of their own language, they wrongly believe that the spelling ognon is not a “rectification”, but a “simplification”, that it is intended to merely reflect the pronunciation. This was exactly what, for example, Olivia Gesbert, a supposedly highly-educated journalist, claimed on France Culture, the French cultural public-radio station, on 5th June 2019.

This reminds me of the following passage from La Réforme de l’orthographe : lettre ouverte à M. le ministre de l’instruction publique (A. Colin – Paris, 1905), an open letter on the necessity of orthographic reform that the French linguist and philologist Ferdinand Brunot (1860-1938) addressed to the Minister of Public Instruction:

Le préjugé orthographique ne se justifie ni par la logique, ni par l’histoire, mais […] il se fonde sur une tradition relativement récente, formée surtout d’ignorance.
The orthographic prejudice is justified neither by logic, nor by history, but […] it is based on a relatively recent tradition, chiefly made up of ignorance.

The following image, published on the forum on 5th February 2016, illustrates how the opponents of the orthographic rectifications misunderstand them. They believe that the written form ognon is a “simplification” that will open up the way to a phonetic system of writing, exemplified by truk ki fé pleuré, a phonetic rendering of truc qui fait pleurer, literally meaning thingy that makes cry:

'oignon' vs. 'ognon' - prejudice




(Preliminary note: The word oignon translates into English as onion, but also as bulb, i.e., a rounded underground storage organ present in some plants.)

Neither the origin of oignon nor the orthographic conventions justify the presence of the letter i in this word.

1: Etymology:

The French word oignon (like the English word onion) is from classical Latin ūniōn-/ūniō, a rustic Roman name for a single onion, also a name for a large single pearl.

Latin ūniōn-/ūniō is based on classical Latin ūnus, meaning one. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED – 3rd edition, 2014) explains that, according to the classical-Latin agricultural writer Columella, the peasants used ūniōn-/ūniō for a certain variety of onion because it put forth no shoots, i.e., it represented a single entity. The OED also says that the application of the word to a pearl may represent an independent derivation from ūnus, one, alluding to the fact that it was worn alone, or it may be a transfer from the sense onion, with reference to the similarity in shape.

2: Orthography:

The fourth edition (1762) of the dictionnaire de l’Académie française gave this justification for the presence of the letter i in the word oignon:

On ne prononce point l’I, mais il sert à mouiller le G.
One does not pronounce the I, but it is used for “moistening” the G.

What the dictionnaire de l’Académie française meant was that that the letter i indicates that the following letter sequence gn forms a digraph spelling for the palatal nasal sound /ɲ/—the word oignon being pronounced /ɔɲɔ̃/. The Académie française implied that, without the presence of the letter i, gn would not be pronounced /ɲ/ but /gn/ (the latter pronunciation being similar to that of gn in the English verb ignite).

However, the Académie française was mistaken, as the French Jesuit and grammarian Jean-François Féraud (1725-1807) explained in the third tome (Marseille, 1788) of Dictionnaire critique de la langue française (1787-88):

Oignon, ou Ognon, s. m. [Le 2d serait préférable, puisqu’on ne prononce pas l’i. L’Acad. dit qu’il sert à mouiller le g : cette raison ne me paraît pas fort bone [sic]. On mouille le g dans besogne, rogne, rogné, rognon etc. sans i.]
Oignon, ou Ognon, masculine substantive. [The second would be preferable, since one does not pronounce the i. The Académie says that it is used for “moistening” the g: this reason does not seem to me very good. One “moistens” the g in besogne, rogne, rogné, rognon etc. without i.]

Note: For example, in French, the word rognon (meaning kidney, used as food) is not pronounced /ʀɔgnɔ̃/ but /ʀɔɲɔ̃/ (cf. /rɒnˈjɒ̃/ and /rɒnjɒn/, the British pronunciations of rognon). This French word used to be spelt roignon, but the first edition (1694) of the dictionnaire de l’Académie française had already adopted the spelling rognon, accompanied by this note: “Quelques-uns escrivent encore Roignon.”, i.e. “Some people still write Roignon.

The fifth edition (1798) of the dictionnaire de l’Académie française adopted ognon as the sole spelling of the word.

But, in the second tome of the sixth edition (1835) of its dictionary, the Académie française re-established the spelling oignon, and indicated, as in the 1762 edition, that:

L’I ne se prononce point, mais il sert à mouiller le G.
The I is not pronounced, but it is used for “moistening” the G.

However, the sixth edition immediately added:

Quelques-uns écrivent, Ognon.
Some people write, Ognon.

One century later, in the second tome (1935) of the eighth edition (1932-35) of its dictionary, the Académie française retained the spelling oignon, but—oddly—also said that the word was often spelt ognon when used in the sense of bulb.

The third tome (2011) of the ninth edition (1992-…) of the dictionnaire de l’Académie française has adopted oignon as the spelling for all the acceptations of the word, but has added this note:

Peut s’écrire ognon, selon les rectifications orthographiques de 1990.
May be written ognon, in accordance with the orthographic rectifications of 1990.

One final remark: An effect of the presence of the letter i in oignon is that it sometimes gives rise to the pronunciation /waɲɔ̃/, on the pattern of words such as poigne, pronounced /pwaɲ/ and meaning grip. Unsurprisingly, the Académie française considers this pronunciation a “faute de français”…


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