Tuesday, September 06, 2005


By now, most people who are the least bit internet-saavy have some idea of email etiquette. There are articles seemingly every other day in my local paper or workplace newsletter giving advice on how not to offend people through email. The hint that is always mentioned is this: "Don't write using all captial letters. It's the email equivalent of shouting." I hope I am correct in assuming that the vast majority of people are annoyed when they come upon someone who cannot seem to turn off caps lock. It's the equivalent of wearing one's high school class ring in college: it screams freshman; novice; greenhorn. Only people who are not "with it" type in all caps.

Not in France, however.

In France, typing in all caps is a convenient shortcut. Somewhere down the line, the nice folks down at the Sorbonne decided that when using a capital letter, it is not necessary to include the accent mark on said letter. So many people in France type in all caps just to avoid those bothersome accent marks.

During the planning stage of my study abroad in France, I had to correspond frequently with my future host father and his secretary. I would spend at least fifteen minutes per email, meticulously checking my grammar and copy-and-pasting accent marks onto my words and phrases. The responses I would get back would horrify me; first, because I THOUGHT THEY WERE YELLING AT ME and second, because there wasn't one freakin' accent mark in the whole email!

Now, I don't know about other languages, but in French, accent marks serve to distinguish one word from another in some cases. The word mais means "but" and the word maïs means "corn". Ou means "or"; means "where". Somtimes these accent marks signal a change in pronunciation; sometimes they do not--so, aside from context, the accent mark is the only indication of what is truly meant. It might not be a big issue when one is reading the user's manual for a new tire, but it may make a difference when reading some types of poetry or literature.

When I'm in a hurry, I tend to just leave out the accent marks. My friends still know what things mean, and I do, too--I just wish I wouldn't get responses back that read something like this:




[It should read:

Salut ma poule
Bien reçu ton email et j'éspère que tu vas bien.
Je t'embrasse très fort.]

I wouldn't mind the lack of accents so much if my friends would just type in all lower-case letters. At least then I wouldn't feel like they were screaming back at me.

I have another French friend who is a good deal younger than me--my experiences with email correspondance with her have taught me that the blight of "AIM-speak" that seems to afflict teenagers has crossed the pond. It's even more annoying, though, since it has absorbed quite a few English words (especially in cases where the English word is shorter than the French word or phrase) and so it can't even be called "French AIM-speak".

I feel like a stodgy schoolmarm sometimes. Maybe that's why half of Pitt's French department dresses like them! I guess it rubs off after a while.

photo: A correctly-accented sign (in all caps) carved on a building in the Rue des Francs Bourgeois, Paris.

1 comment:

Sangroncito said...

As always, your post strikes a cord with me.
Interestingly, the Spanish Academy has also decided that capital letters do not need accent marks. And as a purist this bothers me. But what is it that they say about "converts" or "former smokers"? They are the most adamant.
And just like French the accent or lack of it can change the meaning of a word in both Spanish and Portuguese, but especially in Portuguese. The most common example would be "e". Without an accent mark it means "and". with an accent mark ("é") it means "is".
(example: Ela é bonita e inteligente. She is pretty and intelligent). I haven't had the experience of someone corresponding with me in CAPS to avoid accents, put I can imagine it would be very annoying.
(and thanks for correcting my little french phrase in my blog...babel fish is worthless!).