(n.) a diacritic marker resembling an upturned letter V, ^
You might have spotted this tweet over on HH the other day, about how the circumflex accent in French often indicates a long-lost letter S that has been retained in English:
So, as many of you requested in the comments and emails, here’s a bit more about what’s going on.
YOUR FLEXIBLE FRIEND
First, a bit of history. Relatively speaking, the circumflex is a fairly recent addition to French, but it’s by no means a new idea. The ( ^ ) accent marker is actually more than 2,000 years old, and was first written above words in Ancient Greek back in the third century BC.
It’s popularly said to have been the brainchild of Aristophanes of Byzantium (the librarian of the Great Library at Alexandria, no less) who used a novel up-and-down shaped symbol in his writing ( ^ ) to indicate a rising-and-falling pitch needed to pronounce certain Greek words. Aristophanes called this symbol the perispomene, a name literally meaning “drawn around” in Greek; the word circumflex (from the Latin circum, “around”, and flecere, “to bend”) is its literal translation.
A TALE OF TWO CITIES
So the ( ^ ) symbol itself is ancient. Its use in French, less so.
It was only around 500 years ago, in the early sixteenth century, that the circumflex made its début appearance in French, thanks to a Parisian scholar and polymath named Jacques Dubois.
Around that time, French had recently undergone a series of phonological changes, and Dubois noticed that as a consequence many French words once pronounced with a diphthong (i.e. two separate consecutive vowel sounds), were now being pronounced with a single vowel sound (i.e. a monophthong). The spellings of these words remained unchanged, however, leaving French speakers with a number of words spelled with two vowels, but pronounced with only one.
Dubois’ solution to this inconsistency was to resurrect the circumflex as a bracket, linking the two vowels together as a single character to show that they should be pronounced as a single sound.
Oddly, in Dubois’ writing, the circumflex wasn’t written over a single letter, but above the gap between the two vowels in question, like this:
But that proved a problem.
In the early days of mechanical printing, placing an accent marker between two individual pieces of type would have proved time-consuming and costly—if not entirely unworkable. (Even in the days of twenty-first century desktop publishing it’s a tricky enough thing to do, because honestly guys, that graphic took FOREVER to lay out.)
So. Utilising the circumflex in this way was a clever idea certainly, but not a particularly practical one. Elsewhere in France, though, another sixteenth-century scholar was having more luck.
400 miles south of Paris in Toulouse lived a well-known French translator and printer named Étienne Dolet. (In his native France, Dolet is also well known for falling foul of the French Inquisition and eventually being imprisoned, sentenced to death, and burned atop a pile of his own books—but hey, let’s not dwell on that right now...)
Dolet too noticed that the French language had changed, and just like Dubois began advocating the use of a circumflex to highlight some of the words that had been affected. Yet Dolet’s idea wasn’t to use the circumflex to link sounds and letters together, but rather show where they were being missed out.
Take a word like vraiment. Meaning ‘truly’ or ‘really’, vraiment was originally spelled vraiement in French, with that extra E (a consequence of the word’s etymological development) hinting that it was once pronounced with an additional central syllable, “vray-uh-moñ”. Over time that extra syllable proved far too arduous to maintain, so by the time of Dolet’s writing in the early 1540s, it was already beginning to die out. As a result, he suggested spelling vraiment “vrai^ment”—with a floating circumflex highlighting where this extra syllable was now being omitted.
Dolet made several more suggestions along these lines, all concerned not just with language change, but with language simplification too. Admittedly, not all of them caught on (a fact no doubt exacerbated by his eventual trial and execution...) but Dolet’s use of the circumflex to show omission specifically would nevertheless prove influential.
From this point in the story, we can jump ahead a few centuries to 1740, when the Académie Française—the organization charged with overseeing all matters concerning the French language—published the third edition of its landmark French dictionary.
This was the most progressive edition of their dictionary the Académie had yet overseen, with countless old-fashioned words and conventions ditched, and newer ones brought in in their place. And back with a vengeance, came the circumflex.
The Académie noticed that one of the main changes that had taken place in French over the centuries was the loss of a silent letter S in the middle of certain words. Originally, these Ss (many of which had their etymological roots in French’s Latin ancestors) were pronounced, but as things had simplified they had all fallen silent.
Many French writers and printers had already recognized this change and had started omitting these Ss from their texts, but for its part the Académie was not as keen to see this link with the origins of its language severed entirely. So, as a compromise, the Académie instead began liberally dropping circumflexes into French words where these silent Ss were on their way out.
Ancestre, ultimately, became ancêtre. Isle became île. Hospital became hôpital. Forest became forêt. In fact, besides all the examples HH featured on Twitter, a whole host of French words underwent precisely this change:
conqueste → conquête
hoste → hôte
paste → pâte
aoust → août
tasche → tâche
tempeste → tempête
haste → hâte
maistre → maître
couste → coûte
interest → intérêt
vestements → vêtements
But all of this had two knock-on effects.
The first is the obvious one. With the histories of French and English being so closely intertwined (shoutout to the Norman Conquest), many English words were identical to their older, unchanged French cousins. But while French decided to abandon its Ss, English retained them—and so restoring the S in some circumflexed French words can give you a rough idea of what their English meaning might be. Case in point, in the list above we have the French words for ‘conquest’, ‘host’, ‘paste’, ‘August’, ‘task’, ‘tempest’, ‘haste’, ‘master’, ‘cost’, ‘interest’, and ‘clothing’.
Even in cases where the spelling or meaning is not absolutely identical when the S is replaced, often we’re still clearly in the same ballpark. Hence côte (‘coast’) becomes “coste”. Bête (‘beast’) becomes “beste”. The French word for roasted meat is rôt. Bûche is the French word for a log, but derives from the same ancient root as the English word ‘bush’. The French verb arrêter becomes “arrester” when its S is added, and means ‘stop’ in English. And tôt, the French for ‘soon’, essentially means ‘toasted’—its reference to time is actually a witty allusive application, meaning ‘hotly’, or ‘promptly’.
Elsewhere, some S-connections become obvious given a little info from other languages. So while English prefers to use the Anglo-Saxonism window, the French fenêtre comes from the Latin fenestra (which is the origin of defenestration). The French for ‘ready’, prêt, comes from the same Latin root as words like the Italian presto. Âne, the French word for a donkey, comes from the same Latin root as asinine. And likewise, the etymological connection between the French verb être, ‘to be’, and its Spanish cousin estar only becomes apparent when its missing S is restored.
The second consequence of all this change concerns the circumflexed vowels themselves.
The loss of the silent S in a lot of these French words caused the length or quality of the vowel in front of it to be slightly altered. And as the circumflex began to fall into use across the board in French, other words whose vowels were lengthening or changing in some way—regardless of whether or not that change was being driven by a disappearing S—also started to pick up circumflexes, merely as a means of flagging that alteration.
As a result, not all French words bearing a circumflex magically morph into their English equivalents when an S is added to them. Some just have a different vowel sound than they used to.
Bâiller, for instance, is a French word meaning ‘yawn’. The circumflex in mûr, meaning ‘ripe’, actually points to missing an E not an S as it was originally spelled muer (and it also helps to differentiate it from mur, the French word for a wall). Likewise, there are no Ss missing from pâle (‘pale’), grâce (‘grace’), trône (‘throne’), fût (‘barrel’), âgé (‘elderly’), flâneur (‘wanderer’), sûr (‘sure’), or infâme (‘infamous’).
So alas, you can’t employ this S-rule across the board. Nor, for that matter, will you be able to apply it for very much longer, if the Académie gets its way.
The propensity of languages to become less complex over time has continued unabated in French, and the Académie have recently begun removing circumflexes from words it now feels don’t need them. This, perhaps understandably, has not gone down well with everyone, and in 2016 even led to a Twitter storm of solidarity in the form of the rabble-rousing hashtag, #JeSuisCirconflexe.
So for those of you have only just learned this S-rule this week, the time to use it may well be running out.