Montesquieu

Rica to ***


The University of Paris is the eldest daugh­ter of the kings of France, and very elderly, for she is over nine hun­dred years old1 ; indeed her mind some­ti­mes wan­ders.

Ï was told that some time ago she had a great quar­rel with some doc­tors over the let­ter q, which she wan­ted to have peo­ple pro­nounce like a k.2 The dis­pute hea­ted up so that some of them were dives­ted of their pro­perty. The par­le­ment had to put an end to the fuss, and it gran­ted per­mis­sion by solemn decree for all sub­jects of the king of France to pro­nounce that let­ter howe­ver they wished. It was some­thing to see the two most res­pec­ta­ble ins­ti­tu­tions of Europe busy deci­ding the fate of a let­ter of the alpha­bet.

I seems, my dear ***, that the heads of the grea­test men shrink when they are assem­bled, and the where more sages are found, there also is less wis­dom. The great ins­ti­tu­tions cling so tightly to minu­tiae, for­ma­li­ties, and vain cus­toms, that what is essen­tial always comes later. I have heard it said that the when a king of Aragon had assem­bled the sta­tes of Aragon and Catalonia, the first ses­sions were devo­ted to deci­ding in what lan­guage the deli­be­ra­tions would be for­mu­la­ted. There was a lively dis­pute, and the sta­tes would a thou­sand times have bro­ken up if someone had not thought of an expe­dient, which was that the ques­tion would be asked in the Catalan lan­guage, and the reply in Aragonese.

Paris this 25th day of the moon of Zilhagé 1718

According to Moreri, who notes in passing, “some authors pretend that it was established by Charlemagne about 800” (1707, art. “Université”).

Pierre Ramus (1515-1572), philosopher and grammarian, raised this quarrel in 1559 in his Scholae grammaticae. Bayle talks about it in DHC (art. “Ramus”, remark G).