The national dictee contest, organized by [Bernard Pivot] three years ago, generates enormous excitement in France. In 1987, there were 36,414 entrants in the contest. After a series of quarter- and semifinals, the field was narrowed to 122 finalists who sat aboard the river boat Gabarre and listened to Pivot dictate as they steamed along the Seine in Paris. Celebrities like [Francoise Giroud], bicycle racing star Laurent Fignon, and Chanel model Ines de la Fressange also took the test. So did most of the French journalists covering the event.
The dictee has became a tool of teaching in France because spelling and grammar are so intertwined in the language. Words often sound alike but are spelled much differently depending on whether they are masculine or feminine, singular or plural, first, second or third person. On top of this, the various words of a sentence must agree with one another. A feminine noun, for example, requires adjectives with feminine endings and may even require a past participle to have a feminine ending as well. The dictee, in French eyes, seems to be a shrewd way of testing all these elements at once.
The most famous dictee in French history was written in 1868 by Prosper Merimee, the author of the story "Carmen" on which Georges Bizet based his opera. Merimee, a favorite of Emperor Napoleon III, prepared a dictee full of grammatical and spelling traps to amuse the emperor's court. But not everyone was amused.