The difference between 'I am sure your sister is doing fine' and the clearly raunchier 'I am on your sister, she is doing fine' in French? A circumflex accent – commonly known as a 'little hat'.

French fury over new spelling

This is just one of the many viral memes and hashtags that have emerged following the French Education Ministry's decision on Thursday (4 February) to change 2,400 spellings and ditch the circumflex accent in French-language textbooks.

The changes, which have caused fury on French-language Twitter after being described as a 'dumbing down' of French language, are made to fine-tune spelling anomalies and inconsistencies by deleting the circumflex accent (ˆ), which sits on vowels and hyphens in some words (see below for more on the spelling changes that are angering grammar purists).

France's education minister, Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, has insisted that the changes would not culminate in the end of the circumflex, and that old and new spellings would both remain correct.

#JeSuisCirconflexe: a Twitter fury

Known by many schoolchildren as the 'little hat', the use of the circumflex accent can change a word's pronunciation or be used to distinguish homonyms – words that are spelled and pronounced like another word but are different in meaning. Under the recommended spelling, it would be dropped from 'i' and 'u' (or î and û), with some exceptions – but would remain on 'a', 'o' and 'e'.

The hashtag #JeSuisCirconflexe – which translates as 'I am circumflex' – has gone viral in France, along with #ReformeOrthographe, meaning 'orthographic reform'. The former is a reference to the #JeSuisCharlie hashtag that emerged on Twitter after the terrorist attack on the offices of satirical publication Charlie Hebdo on 7 January last year.

Twitter user @olivier0584 said on the social network (in an English translation): "All that is left for me to do now is to vigorously protest with a 'Je suis Circonflexe'".

A graphic designer with the Twitter handle @Choupioule posted a humorous illustration depicting an angry black circumflex accent looking down at three colourful letters, telling them: "You don't deserve me any more, you 'd**kheads!"

Other users whose first names contain a circumflex also joked about the reform. A young man named Benoît posted a tweet in reference to a recent political scandal over the French president's controversial plans to strip convicted French-born terrorists of their citizenship: "Wait a minute, I have a circumflex accent in my name. Is my preominality revoked then?"

A correspondent for the Quartz news outlet posted a satirical cartoon depicting French President Francois Hollande throwing the circumflex accent from the 'o' of the word chômage ('unemployment'), with him saying: "I had promised you I would alleviate unemployment: it's done!"

Changes approved by the guardians of the French language

The proposed changes follow a review of the French language to simplify learning, but they are not binding. They were first proposed by the 'guardians of the French language', the Academie Française, in 1990, including the deletion of the circumflex accent (ˆ) and hyphens in some words, but they remained optional.

At the time, French novelist and member of the Académie française, of which he served as 'Perpetual Secretary', Maurice Druon wrote that "language is a living thing". Now, publishers say the 1990 changes are to be the benchmark for spellings in schoolbooks. The changes are expected to come into effect in new primary-school textbooks released for the start of the next school year in September 2016.

"There were strange spelling anomalies linked to historic shifts, so the Academie really made sure these changes were understandable," Michel Lussault, president of the school curriculum board, said following the uproar. A website dedicated to the new spelling suggested that the circumflex was "one of the main causes of errors, and its usage is random".

The French spelling changes that are angering grammar purists

- The circumflex accent is to become optional for many words, and removed over the 'i' and 'u' (or 'î' and 'û'). This affects words such as août (August), goûter (to taste) and huître (oyster). Other words such as s'entraîner (to train), maîtresse (mistress or female teacher) and coût (cost) would also lose their accent

- Silent letters will now be dropped, as is the case for the word oignon (onion), which will become ognon

- English word leader will be 'Frenchisised' and spelled leadeur

- Hyphens are also to be dropped for week-end (which becomes weekend, as in English), Mille-pattes (centipedes) and porte-monnaie (wallet)

- Other simplifications include dropping 'ph' with a 'f' sound, as is the case for nénuphar (waterlily), which becomes nénufar