What is a Circumflex in French? All About the Hat on French Letters â, ê, î, ô, û

Le Circonflexe ou l'Accent Circonflexe

The circumflex in French is the little Chinese hat on the top of certain French vowels. The most common reason for its presence is that it usually represents a letter that has been dropped over the centuries. Usually this is the letter 's'. Knowing this will help you figure out quite a number of French words when you read them.

When the Normans from Normandy, Northern France invaded Blighty (England) back in 1066 under the command of Big Bill (a.k.a William the Conqueror ... or Guillaume to his mother and friends ...) they brought the French language with them. And for the next 400 years the language of the English aristocracy (i.e. the Normans) was Norman French. They brought with them many, many thousands of words which then blended into the Anglo-Saxon language of the commmoners (English).

The Old French word for hospital was hospital. Forest was forest... as it remains to this day in English. These words were imported (free of charge) from French.

But back in the motherland, la Belle France, the French themselves started slanging a bit with the letter 's' in their day to day conversation.

Over time, back in France, no doubt to the consternation of their mothers and teachers, they stopped pronouncing the letter 's' in many words (in the same way as contemporary East Londoners drop the letter 't' in many English words) so that in French...

... hospital became hopital,
forest became foret and
host became hote ... in spoken French back in France.

For a long while the monks who did all the writing and recording in those dim dark days, continued to include the 's' while spelling. However they eventually succumbed to the power of spoken speech, and dropped the silent letters in written French. They decided however to 'pay tribute' to those lost letters and put a circumflex over the preceding vowel to indicate that there had previously been an 's' (or other letter).

So the French hospital became hôpital with a circumflex ^ over the o

Likwise many other words followed suit:
  • forest became forêt.
  • host became hôte.
  • hostesse became hôtesse.
  • haste became hâte.
  • coast became côte.
  • fenester (church window) became fenêtre = window.
  • paste (or pastry) became pâte and pâté.
  • beast became bête.
  • feast became fête.
  • master became maître.
  • tempest became tempête.
  • arrest (stop) became arrêter.
  • conquest became conquête.
  • inquest became enquête.
  • to cost became coûter.
  • crust became croûte.
  • hostel became hôtel.
  • isle became île.
  • interest became intérêt.
  • plaster became plâtre.
  • quest became quête.
  • vestments (clothes) became vêtements.
and so on.

Other letters replaced by the circumflex

Sometimes a letter other than 's' was dropped in French, and later replaced by a circumflex in French words such as:
  • aage (age) became âge where the preceding a was dropped.
  • baailler (to yawn or gape) became bâiller where the preceding a was dropped.
  • baaillon (gag) became bâillon where the preceding a was dropped.
  • creu (from the verb croître) became crû where the preceding e was dropped. Crû is different to cru which is from the verb croire (to think, believe).
  • deu (from the verb devoir) became where the preceding e was dropped.
  • meur (wall) became mûr where the preceding e was dropped.
  • seur (sure as in safe, sound, reliable) became sûr where the e was dropped.

Over the centuries the Norman French of England blended into English, and retained the 's' in many of the imported French words while the French in France developed down a different track to become ... well ... French as in the modern French language in its various forms.

So you can often figure out the meaning of a French word with a circumflex by knowing that the circumflex indicates a missing letter after the vowel ... usually the letter 's'.

Remembering that the Circumflex in French represents a Missing 's'...

Of course here at 200 Words a Day! headquarters we don't like to just leave a little fact as a fact. We have to create a Memory Trigger©. Because we believe that this is the key to long term rememberability (what a word!).

So we have an animated cartoon of:
  • a Chinese snake in the word hospital wearing a Chinese hat (to represent the circumflex).
  • The snake says, "SSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSS" ( to represent the letter 's' which gets dropped...)
  • ... but then is told to be SILENT in the hospital so he disappears .... leaving just the hat (circumflex in French ) and the 's' in the hospital is now silent....

Yet the Missing Letter - represented by the Circumflex - reappears in some Derivative Words

Despite the disappearing letter, it often reappears in derivative words, like adjectives etc that have derived from the root word. (Or should we say - never disappeared from derivative words). Examples are:
  • hôpital, but the adjective is hospitalier retaining the defunct s.
  • vêtement, (vest - clothes) but vestimentaire (way of dressing, sartorial).
  • forêt, but forestier (woodman, ranger; and the adjective forested, as in chemin forestier a forest path, or exploitation forestière; foresterie (forestry).

Other Facts about the Circumflex in French Language

  • The formation of the circumflex in French is a combination of the grave and the acute.
  • The circumflex is often called 'le petit chapeau' (little hat) in French.
  • The presence of the circumflex indicates a change in pronunciation in the cases of â, ê, and ô. It does not affect the pronunciation in the cases of î and û.
  • The French circumflex is a diacritic. A diacritic is a little mark on a letter that usually changes the pronunciation of a word in a language. (Also called a diactrical mark)
  • French language has five diacritics including the circumflex. The others are the grave, acute, cedilla and the diaeresis (for example ö)(what the Germans call an umlaut).
  • The word circumflex comes from the Latin circumflexus meaning bend, bent.

Some Words have a Circumflex in French for no Apparent Reason

Some words have circumflexes for which language experts can track no historical reason. Some chroniclers argue that it gave an image of respectability, worn like a crown. Such words in this category are:
  • trône, throne).
  • trôner , to throne, put on the throne.
  • prône, sermon.
  • prôner to advocate.
  • suprême, supreme.
  • voûte, vault, but it could be the dropping of the letter l.

The Disappearing French Circumflex

When the letter 'i' is followed by the letter 't', a circumflex accent is sometimes added. This happens with French verbs ending in aître like and oître . Examples are:
  • disparaître - to disappear.
  • apparaître - to appear.
  • connaître - French for 'to know'.
  • comparaître - to appear (as in law/legal terms).
  • croître - to grow.
  • accroître - to increase.
which become il disparaît, il apparaît, elle connaît, il croît... etc ...

However the French Academy now recommends omitting the circumflex on such words so they are now more likely as not to appear as:

apparaitre, il apparait, comparaitre, connaitre, il connait, croitre, il croit...

So there is one problem out of the way for some words (remembering where French circumflexes go...)

... although it just does not 'look' as French without those cool little diacritics.

The Circumflex in French word dîner

The French word dîner, to dine, comes from the Latin disjejunare. This means to 'discontinue the fast.' Hence the 's' and a bit more was dropped off in this case!

How to Type a Circumflex in Microsoft Programmes and in your 200 Words a Day! French Language Courses

Typing a circumflex in French writing is fairly standard across most Microsoft programs.
  1. Press CTL-SHIFT together and while STILL the two keys down together simultaneously, contemporaneously, at the same time ... i.e don't let them go... then...
  2. Press the ^ key once, the caret or Chinese hat, usually above the number 6 on a standard English speaker's keyboard. You should therefore have 3 keys down at the same time. 1. CTL 2. Shift 3. ^.
  3. Release all keys.
  4. Press the vowel you want a, e, i, o, u... or A, E, I, O, U. (It also works with a y.)
  5. That's it. â, ê, î, ô, û or Â, Ê, Î, Ô, Û should have appeared.
Easy! Now you can type a circumflex in French!
There it is - brief overview of the uses of the circumflex in French language.

French Learning with Cartoon Images like the snake and circumflex in French above.

Readers' comments on the French Circumflex - le Circonflexe ou l'Accent Circonflexe

Hello - I loved this page. As a life-long language-learner, (approaching 66 - years, not languages) I have always tried to have enough words to be polite in all the countries I have visited (still quite a lot!) and have bought a number of Michel Thomas courses to further this aim. I was recently having a chat with a maths teacher who is similarly interested and when we got onto the subject of the circumflex, I explained, as you have here, that it normally replaces a letter that has been dropped over time and I was fairly certain that there were other letters than 's' that had suffered this fate. I can now report back to my pal with this brilliant explanation.

Richard Claydon-Park

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Cap that! Not rated yet
It was very interesting to learn about le petit chapeau and heaven help anybody who asks about it in the future as this sixty eight- I have two years on …

no title other than Mr. Not rated yet
Our French teachers, many who were native Frenchmen, told us that l'accent circonflexe was also referred to as "chapeau chinois", Chinese hat.

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What is a Circumflex in French and what does it do?

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The Circumflex in French - l'accent circonflexe.

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