Why does French have circumflex letters?

French is probably one of the more well-known languages with diacritics, although it does not get as elaborate as languages like Vietnamese today. This language has five different types of diacritics, also known as accents — the accent aigu (é), accent grave (Eg. è), accent circonflexe (Eg. û), accent tréma (Eg. ë), and cédille (ç). Each of these diacritics have their own orthographical rules, and can affect the pronunciation of the letters they are attached to. But to many learners, these do not quite seem to make sense. So today, we will take a look at one of these types of diacritics in French, starting off with its accent circonflexe, also known as the circumflex.

While you may have seen the letters with this “^” on top of them in mathematics and statistics, this chevron-shaped diacritic are also found in written languages, including in some loanwords in English (think crème brûlée, of, well, French origin). In French, this diacritic does not seem to affect the pronunciations when attached to “i” or “u”, except in some cases, the diphthong “eû”. But here are the ways it can affect the pronunciation of the other vowels:

  • â → /ɑ/ (“velar” or back a) — pâte vs. pattetâche vs. tache
  • ê → /ɛ/ (open e; equivalent of è or e followed by two consonants) — prêt vs. pré
  • ô → /o/ (equivalent to au or o at the end of a syllable) — hôte vs. hottecôte vs. cote

Of course, there are other exceptions where certain changes apply, and those that do not apply, complicating this situation altogether. For those who are already pulling their hair out at this point over how complicated French pronunciation feels, it is time to address the elephant in the room.


Missing letters

The circumflex was officially introduced to French orthography back in 1740. But the way people wrote French before then was different. Many words were derived from Latin, and for some of these words, the letter “s” just stopped getting pronounced in some words over time. This silent “s” was still written, however, prompting the need to distinguish cases where the written “s” is pronounced, and where it is silent. And hence, it was later favoured that the silent “s” be dropped, with the circumflex taking its place.

This may be the reason why you would see a missing “s” in words like:

l’hôpital – hospital

la côte – coast

l’île – isle

la forêt – forest

So it does really seem that the circumflex is used as a “vestigial structure” in a word, paying homage to its written and spoken history. Of course, there are other letters that just disappeared when French evolved over time, and sometimes, the circumflex is also used to denote those disappearances too.

The former medieval diphthong “eu”, pronounced /y/, is one of the more prominent examples that was modified to take a circumflex to tell apart homophones. So medieval seur became sûr, and medieval creu became crû.

Additionally, when two vowels have been contracted to form one sound, a circumflex could also be carried. Consider the word aage, which became âge.

However, like many rules, there are exceptions to the norm. Some words that entered French after the 1740 spelling reform kept the pronunciation of the letter /s/ and its presence from its Latin roots. Thus, while you write fenêtre to mean “window”, to say “to throw something out of the window, to defenestrate”, you would write défenestrer.

The Greek omega

There are some French words of Ancient Greek origin, a circumflex over o would indicate the presence of the Greek letter omega (ω) which carries the sound /o/ in French. Such words include diplôme (diploma), but yet, words that fulfill these conditions may not always carry this circumflex. Axiome and zone are both words of Ancient Greek origin with the letter omega, and carry the vowel sound /o/ in French, but yet lack the circumflex o.

But yet, words ending in -ole, -ome, and -one that do not necessarily derive from Ancient Greek origin or omega could adopt the circumflex diacritic, as well as the /o/ pronunciation much akin to that in diplôme, such as the word binôme (binomial, from Latin binomium).

Distinguishing words that otherwise share identical spellings

Compare the words sur and sûr. They share identical pronunciations, but yet, have totally different meanings. The former is a preposition with various literal translations in English, but typically meaning “on”. The latter, on the other hand, means “sure”. While vowel sounds have historically differed between these two words, the circumflex is retained to prevent ambiguities between the two words. Similar examples could be found in the word pairs du, and murmûr. So it is quite cool that certain orthographical rules facilitate telling apart words that otherwise would sound and look the same (think English tear and tear).

They just are written that way

Here comes a more, well, ridiculous (?) bit. Sometimes, circumflexes just appear for no known or agreed-upon reasons. They just exist. Some propose that adding a circumflex gives it an “air of superiority”, much akin to a crown (like suprême). For other words, linguistic inference may be needed. There is no real pattern in distinguishing which words should have a circumflex here, unfortunately.

Francophone experts are aware of how inconsistent the employment of the circumflex is, and in 1990, proposed a spelling reform to “abolish the use of the circumflex over letters u and i unless its absence would create ambiguities and homographs”. While receiving criticism at first, and adoption slow, the Académie française did manage to set the standard for use in French schoolbooks in 2016. Of course, this move still was controversial, even prompting a Twitter backlash carrying the hashtag #JeSuisCirconflexe, some remarking that this move served to “simplify the language” and “glorify the mediocrity”. But for now, this is why the circumflex has come to be in written French. Perhaps we would cover the other diacritics in future posts, but yes, this was a sticking point for me when I was studying French.

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