This diacritical mark has the power to change the meaning of words. It seems typically French, since it exists only in the French language. Curiously, this is not the case: the French imported it from Spain. But, according to specialists, it was the Visigoths who invented it.



Romain Segniovert is a French journalist living in Brussels. Tonight, he introduces us to a little sign in the French language that has the power to change the meaning of words. But take a look!

What is this pretty sign that appears at the end of some French words? Is it a misplaced comma, a printing defect, the remains of a medieval illumination? None of these, but the discreet and elegant little cedilla.
At school, young French people learn very early on that the cedilla must be placed under the "c" before the vowels "a", "o" and "u" if they want to obtain the "s" sound. Without it, the "c" would be pronounced "k". All schoolchildren remember being reprimanded after a lesson misspelled at the top of their paper. But it's quite simple. With a cedilla, the mason "le maçon" is the one who builds a house. Without it, he is a town in the centre of France called "Mâcon".

You can look all you want: the mysterious cedilla cannot be found on a German computer keyboard, and for the French, it takes a while before you find it, here in a small corner of the keyboard. It's because it's rather rare: of the forty-three hundred and forty-two words (40342) in the Académie française dictionary, only one hundred and thirty (130) contain a cedilla.

This cedilla has character: it was discovered in Spain in 1492. At the time, the Spaniards needed a grapheme to make the "s" sound in certain words. It occurred to them to steal the letter "z" from the Visigoths, which was nicely drawn in this way, and to place it under their "c". And history does not tell us why they preferred this Visigothic letter to another. However, they named their invention small "z", or "cerilla" in Spanish at the time. The first cedilla was born. Its shape would become rounder over the years, until it became a kind of small five that was faster to write.

It was not until 1529 that the little cedilla crossed the Pyrenees and became famous in France. It was Geoffroy Tory, a humanist printer, who first introduced it to the French along with two other new "stars": the apostrophe and the comma. It was an immediate success: the little cedilla managed to seduce the sovereign of the time, a certain François I, who incorporated it into his first name and thus into the French dictionary.

Well, today the cedilla has mysteriously disappeared from its country of origin, Spain. In France, it still resists spelling reforms, which inevitably plan to make it disappear. It is not certain, however, that it will survive for long in online usage: it is refused in e-mail addresses and the www does not want it in its address bar. As for text messages, they make it easier to use eccentric emoji than our little cedilla. So what could be more normal than for the lazy French to settle for a "ça va?" without the cedilla "ca va?" when it's not even a disturbing "sa va" and that, it must be said, is not good at all!

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