The orthography of French was already more or less fixed and, from a phonological point of view, outdated when its lexicography developed in the late 17th century and the Académie française was mandated to establish an "official" prescriptive norm.
César-Pierre Richelet chose the latter option when he published the first monolingual French dictionary in 1680, but the Académie chose to adhere firmly to tradition in the first edition of its dictionary (1694).
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.
The third (1740) and fourth (1762) editions of the Académie dictionary were very progressive ones, changing the spelling of about half the words altogether.
Many changes suggested in the fourth edition were later abandoned along with thousands of neologisms added to it.
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 /?/ 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.
The spelling of some plural words whose singular form 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.
With important dictionaries published at the turn of the 20th century, such as those of Émile Littré, Pierre Larousse, Arsène Darmesteter, and later Paul Robert, the Académie gradually lost much of its prestige.
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.
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:
Elements of compound nouns are fused together:
Loan compounds are also fused together:
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:
Loanwords also have a regular plural:
The tréma (known as a diaeresis in English) indicating exceptionally that the u is not silent in gu + vowel combinations is to be placed on the u instead of on the following vowel. Also, trémas are added to such words where they were not previously used:
A tréma is also added to a u following an e muet added to soften a g, to prevent the eu combination being read as [oe]:
Wherever accents are missing or wrong because of past errors or omissions or a change of pronunciation, they are added or changed:
Accents are also added to loanwords where dictated by French pronunciation:
In verbs with an infinitive in -eler or -eter, the opening of the schwa could previously be noted either by changing the e to è or by doubling the following l or t, depending on the verb in question. With this reform, only the first rule shall be used except in the cases of appeler, jeter, and their derivatives (which continue to use ll and tt respectively).
This applies also when those verbs are nominalized using the suffix -ement:
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".
This rule was also extended to suffixes in two cases, actually changing them into totally different morphemes altogether:
Isolated words were adjusted to follow older reform where they had been omitted:
Lastly, some words have simply seen their spelling simplified, or fixed when it was uncertain:
These "rectifications" were supposed to be applied beginning in 1991 but, following a period of agitation and the publication of many books such as the Union of copy editors' attacking new rules one by one, André Goosse's defending them, or Josette Rey-Debove's accepting a few (that have been added, as alternative spellings, to Le Robert), they appeared to have become, for a while, dead proposals.
In 2004, an international institutional effort to revive the 1990 spelling reforms arose. Notably, a French-Belgian-Swiss association was set up to promote reform. In July of the same year, Microsoft announced that the French version of their applications would soon comply with the new spelling rules. On 23 March 2005, a version of Encarta was published using the new spelling, and, on 14 April 2005, an update of Microsoft Office was offered.
Officially, French people, including public workers, are free for an undetermined length of time to continue using the old spelling. The new spelling is "recommended", but both old and new are considered correct.
In Quebec, the Office québécois de la langue française, which was reluctant at first to apply what it prefers to call the "modernisation", because of the opposition it received in France, announced that it was now applying its rules to new borrowings and neologisms.
More and more publications are modernizing spelling. Le Forum, from the Université de Montréal, and Les Éditions Perce-Neige have adopted the new spelling.
In 2009, several major Belgian publishing groups began applying the new spelling in their online publications.
The 2009 edition of the Dictionnaire Le Robert incorporates most of the changes. There are 6000 words that have both the traditional and alternative spellings. The 2011 edition of the Dictionnaire Larousse incorporates all of the changes.
Currently, there is a movement driven by the linguist Mickael Korvin who battles to radically simplify French, first by eliminating accents, punctuation and capital letters, then attacking the French literary establishment, and in 2016 inventing a new way to spell French called nouvofrancet.