The Orthographic Variation in the French Short Textual Discourse

The new form of a written communication, which is presented with sms correspondence, also the situation and technical limitations or possibilities connected to it, make the costumer or enable him(her) to deviate from canonic norms. Therefore, the discourse becomes effective, live and expressive. The deviation from the norm is especially noticeable from the orthographic point of view when the abbreviations of words are used frequently. The given paper makes an attempt to reveal and analyze orthographic variations or nonstandard orthographic forms which are presented in the French short textual discourse.

        Orthographic researches, which are dedicated to the short textual correspondence are less in number. Therefore, our review will refer to the researches about the “speech” of an internet chat. Anglophone works are especially numerous [Herring, 1996; Crystal, 2001] and the researchers describe the main groups from the point of view of the speaker’s competence. The use of the latter helps to determine the facts (which form a variation or are the variation themselves) and classify them according to the empiric categories.  A lot is said about orthographic mistakes, onomatopies, abbreviations and others.

 Anis’ recent researches acquire importance in the study of electronic French. They refer to “neography”, which means: „Sans jugement de valeur, ni positif, ni négative, des graphies qui s’écartent délibérément de la norme orthographique. Ce caractère délibéré se manifeste par la saillance de procédés tells que l’abréviation, la simplification phonétisante, la transcription de prononciations s’écartant du français soutenue, etc.: il atteint son paroxysme avec le verlan » [Anis, 1999: 86].

         Relying on the given empiric list, the author differentiates seven neographic categories:

a. Phonetic graphies (Alographies of standard forms):

  • Replacement of qu with k in interjections, relative pronouns, interrogative-exclamatory              pronouns and adjectives (for example: ki);
  • Phonetic crossing of the digram “oi” for an expressive (not for abbreviation) purpose (for example: moua, toa).

b. Phonetic graphies, which are the forms of everyday or familiar register of speaking language and create an effect of the oral speech.  

  • Traditional methods of replacing silent e with an apostrophe (for example: j’peux);
  • Insertion of different phonetic variants (for example: ben ui, po);
  • Insertion of a phonetic contraction (for example: chou);
  • abbreviation  (abbreviation of the beginning or the end of the word) (for example: d’hab);

c. Consonantal “skeleton” (for example: tjrs);

d. Syllabogram (for example: c instead of c’est);

e. The use of logograms (for example: l, +);

f. Graphic expansion. This is an expressive method, which is based on the repetition of letters (for example: grognonnnnnn, naaaaan);

g. Verlan (for example: seul-tout) [Anis, 1999:86-90].

          According to Delope’s point of view Anis’ term “neography” is less adequate:

 „Lorsqu’on examine en détail les candidats à l’innovation langagière trouvées dans les “chats” d’internet, on s’aperçoit qu’il s’agit seulement de graphies non normative. Loin d’être des « néographies », comme le prétend l’auteur [J. Anis], ces graphies sont des variantes graphiques existant depuis longtemps dans l’écrit familier des scripteurs malhabiles avec le statut de fautes contre l’orthographe (paske), ou des emprunts aux techniques graphiques de la bande dessinée (mouiiii). Quant aux constructions candidates au titre d’innovation syntaxiques, elles se révèlent à l’analyse soit comme des variantes non standard de longue date, soit comme des reprises de trucages stylistiques visant à donner une caricature écrite de la langue orale populaire. L’origine de ces trucages littéraires remonte au moins aux écrivains burlesques du XVIII siècles on sait avec quelle délectation destructrice ils ont été illustrés par Céline. Dans tous les cas, il n s’agit donc pas de modification du système de la langue, mais de changement d’attitude face à la norme qui amènent les locuteurs à faire des « fautes » là où on ne les attendrait pas. » [Carton. 2001:19].

       Delope’s criticism is not groundless, but only in relation to the form or linguistic production. The ending of the citation is very interesting, because the author refers to the main point of the debates - a new usage of discovered forms. The prefix “neo” used by Anis can be “justified” as a new usage, which diverges the sphere of “ignorance”. Therefore, a standardized graphy (or writing, because its codification is socially justified) “stands” on the same level as a nonstandard or regulated graphy (usually stigmatized or purposed for private usage or codified like the connections characterizing commixes or onomatopies and others). If we consume, that such graphy is minimally regulated, why cannot it be considered as a rule? Therefore, Delope’s criticism seems acceptable in the conditions of narrow statistic synchrony (from genuinely factual (not procedural) point of view).

        From the methodological point of view, among the facts, which deviate from the orthographic norm, Anis chooses the derived variants and “orthographic mistakes” or “printing mistakes”. Hence, the author specifies, that in the neographic perspective such mistakes can be discussed even partially.

      Gathering short textual messages is a difficult task, because in contrast to internet chats, they are of a private confidential character and without customers permeation their “getting” or using is impossible. The method of gathering the data depends on the goals of the research. There are two major directions of creating a corpus in the researches of sms correspondence. On the one hand, there are comparatively less-numbered corpuses created from the sms-s sent to (or received from) relatives, friends or the members of the family [Hard af Segersteg, 2002; Grinter and Eldridge, 2003; Kasesniemi and Rautianen, o2002]. On the other hand, there are big corpuses intended for quantitative researches. They are mainly created by means of internet-sites [Fairon, Paumier, 2006].

        The given research does not aim at quantitative analysis (it will be used partially). It is concentrated on a qualitative side of the lingual data. Hence, we decided to gather messages by means of an anonymous method, which is oriented on a web-site.  We think, that the customers will feel themselves more “defended” and therefore, there will be less chance to “correct” the mistakes or “hide” some messages.

          The corpus of the given research is presented by 200 French short textual messages. The messages were gathered by means of a special anonymous questionnaire. Besides minimal social data (age, gender), each respondent was asked to write full texts of three last messages, which were sent and received by their mobile phones. The questionnaire with an “attached” letter of explanation was sent to the addresses taken from social sites. The letter explained our purposes and asked for help. The age of participants of the project varied from 14 to 35.

           In the orthographic variants we discussed the methods of contraction discovered in the corpus and their functions (The word “contraction” is used as a neutral term, which comprises all the forms of contractions met in the sms speech. It also consists of less sings than the full form of a word or a group of words).

           Generally, three kinds of orthography can be singled out in the short textual messages:

  • Standard orthography – in the messages, where the methods of contraction or phoneticizing are not used.
  • Mixed orthography – in the messages, where only several words are contracted or phoneticized.
  • Sms orthography – in the messages, where all words are contracted or phoneticized.

The methods of contraction, which are presented in the corpus will be divided into six main categories:

1. Acronymy or initialism - an abbreviation, which consists of the first letters of the word. In the sms speech the most distinguished example of acronymy is the abbreviation lol (derived from the English phrase laughing out loud), which is spread in all languages and denotes loud laughter or mocking. The examples of the French sms acronyms are: rstp = répond s’il te plait, stp – s’il te plait and others.

2. Sillabograms - their usage is based on the following phonetic principle: the word is divided into syllables and each of them is denoted by one graphic unit – a letter, which has a corresponding name in the alphabet. For example: c = c’est or ces. Finally, the mark c is not pronounced as [s]. It is pronounced as an alphabetic name [se]. A syllabogram may denote a whole word. Hence, it may occupy initial, middle or final position of the word. A syllabogram, which denotes a part of a word, is often written with a capital letter. An author tries to single out a syllabogram from the letters, which are used according to the norms. For example: DciD – decidé, penC – pensais, tRmine – terminer.

3. The usage of logograms is based on the following phonetic principle: the whole syllable of the word is replaced by the logogram, which has the same pronunciation. For example: 2main – demain; vi1 – viens, ojourd‘8 - aujourd’hui; re100 – ressens; qoi29 - quoi de neuf.

        Sometimes syllabograms and logograms are unified under the common name – letter-numeral homophones. It consists of all those variants, where numbers or letters replace words or a group of words, which are pronounced identically. Crystal calls this phenomenon “rebus possibilities” of letters and numerals [Crystal, 2001: 229].

 4. Phoneticizing – presents the pronunciation of a given word in a written form and is shorter than a standard word. There are several forms of phonetization:

  • Presentation of a digram by the monogram: que-ke; qui-ki;
  • Phoneticized  division of a digram: toi-toa;
  • Replacement of unvoiced consonants by the stress: tu es belle – tu é belle ; demander – demandè; et – é; choisirais – choisiré;
  • Omission of  silent letters: dire – dir; nouvelles – nouvel;
  • Phoneticized “confluence”, which mainly refers to:
  1. Clitic elements (clitique): jatend son cou 2fil [J’attends son coup de fil]; gspère qtu va bien [J’espère que tu vas bien];
  2. Modifiers: c le foot ki te mé ds 7eta ? [C’est le foot qui te met dans cet état ?]; moi g lepermi [Moi j’ai le permis];
  3. Prepositions: g ésayé 2tapele pl 1 2foi [J’ai essayé de t’appeler plein de fois]; jti1 bcp  tro àtoi [je tiens beaucoup trop à toi]
  4. Compound lexical forms: Keske tu deviens et kestufé ojurdhui ? [Qu’est-ce que tu deviens et qu’est-ce que tu fais aujourd’hui?].
  5. Clipping is a form of contraction, in which a part of a word is omitted: d’hab – d’habitude; tt – tout; ti – petit; probl – problemas; ds – dans.
  6. consonantal skeleton is created by omitting vowels in a word. The omission does not prevent from understanding the meaning of the word. For example: msg = message, dsl = desolé(e), pr=pour, Je t’aime = jtm an gtm.

        For describing the above mentioned forms of contraction, we created four formal criteria and presented the results in the form of a table. The criteria can be described in the following way:

  • A criterion, which is related to the type of a grapheme - Punctographic topogram or alphagram? In case of a topogram there will be the mark “+” in the table (in case of an alphagram there will be the mark “-“ );
  • A criterion of the deviation from the form - Has the given variant a tendency to stay as a deviated variant despite a linguistic context (the starting-point is an orthographic norm)? If the answer is positive, there will be “+” and vice versa;
  • Quantitative criterion - The reduction of the number of graphemes (“-“), stability (“=”) and addition (“=”);
  • A criterion of oralization (when it is possible) – Is it possible (“+”) or impossible (“-“) to perceive the prominence of the variant during the utterance?


Type of graphemes

Deviation from the norm

Quantitative criterion

















Consonantal skeleton





Phonetic writing










        It seems, that the isolation of the categories given in the table is difficult. Despite having different characterizing features, these groups overlap one another.

         Besides a formal criterion, a subjunctive one must be considered in case of the above mentioned categorization. Let’s discuss an example of “fai”, which is often used in the corpus of our research. On the one hand, it can be considered as a mistake. In this case, we have to deal with a printing or an “ignorance” mistake. On the other hand, it can be considered as a phonetic writing (as orthographic variations). Therefore, it’s difficult to differentiate orthographic mistakes and some variants. Perhaps, an orthographic mistake is made for the purpose of fast writing. In this case, we automatically move to the variation. Therefore, everything depends on the author’s intention. Accordingly, addressee’s probable intentionality “takes place”.

          It seems, that the categorization of the sms contractions by means of formal criteria is almost impossible, because an insoluble problem of “overlap” emerges. Therefore, subjunctive criteria must be considered.

          According to the data of the corpus, frequently used variants have a stereotyped character (for example: ke – que, ki – qui, c – c’est, d – de and others), while comparatively rare variants are presented by one and the same customer (for example: 2pui, 2main, an penC, pouV, tRminé, DciD). Therefore, it can be supposed, that such usage of sms contractions plays the role of identification of a customer as a “lingual being”. Hence, such “identifiable” variants are met only in that case, when an addressee is a temporary sms customer and it is used to such kind of “speech”. In other cases, when an addressee is a “stranger” or a comparatively “distant” person, a message is more standard. For the clarification, the following three messages written by one and the same customer can be discussed:


  1. Je penC pa ke l'amitié pouV se tRminé en haine...mé pourtan là c le K...oui je te hais Sophie    
  2. A toi ki fu importante ds ma vi je sui dsl mé ojourd'8 g DciD ke tu nen feré + parti.    
  3. Bonjour, j’ai laissé le livre chez votre voisine. Merci. Jean.

The third message is addressed to the “distant” addressee and in contrast to the others, presents a standard written norm. Therefore, a membership of “lingual society” acquires a decisive importance.

In addition, the aim and the mood of an author acquire a particular significance:


  1. tu fai coi c soir ?                              
  2. tu  pren la ru a droit du ron poin c just en face dla bibliotek 
  3. coucou jespere que tu vas bien car moi ne sais pas comment te le dire car tu es une fille si belle et si intelligente mais je peux pas continuer a te mentir, je n'éprouve plus de sentiments pour toi mais sache que tu resteras ma meilleure amie quoiqu'il arrive.gros bisous 


These messages are written by one and the same customer. The first and the second sentences present a typical sms speech, while the third one is written in a comparatively standard form and only the omition of capital letters is noticable (that can be explained by the “restriction” of the apparatus). The third message is addressed to the author’s sweetheart and informs about separation, which hurts the customer’s heart. In this case, the author preferes a standard writing, that makes  the message more serious. On the one hand, the customer tries to underline his(her) “identity” by means of sms contractions. On the other hand, he has to limit their usage according to the context. Therefore, a customer as a “lingual being” becomes a linguistic cameleon, which changes colors according to the sociolinguistic data and at the same time, maintains its identifiable form.

 The anlysis of the data enables us to conclude, that the orthography used in short textual messages is :

  • Heterogenic – one and the same word can be written differently by one customer and by different customers as well.
  • Polivalent and polysemic – one and the same element can be read differently.

         The aim of the orthography is :

  • Economy of time and space;
  • Lingual identification.

           It’s easily noticable, that an orthography, which is used in short textual messages         differs from standard written speech. New technologies of information and communication become the reason of weakening of the lingual norms, that can be vividly seen on the example of the French language. By a spontaneous transcription of everyday oral speech, the sms speech shows the most “sensitive places” of  standard orthography and liberates it from academic frames of the French language. The concept of lingual variant, which has previusly been under a shadow of monolit “the only” standardized orthography, becomes more significant in this context.

[1] Ø :  non-existed criterion of the given category.


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Internet communication et langue française, Paris, Hermès Science Publications
Carton F.
Oral: variabilite et apprentissages, Le francais dans le monde, n. special janvier
Crystal D.
Language and the Internet, Cambridge, CUP
Fairon C. Klein, J.R., Paumier, S.
Le Langage SMS, Louvain University Press (PUL)
Grinter, R. E., Eldridge, M. A.
Wan2tlk?: Everyday text messaging. Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (pp. 441-448). New York: ACM Press
Hard af Segerstag, Y.
Use and Adaptation of the Written Language to the Conditions of Computer- Mediated Communication, PhD thesis, University of Goteborg
Kasesniemi, E.-L., Rautianinen, P.
Mobile culture of children and teenagers in Finland. In J. E. Katz & M. Aakhus (Eds.), Perpetual Contact: Mobile Communication, Private Talk, Public Performance (pp. 170-192). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.