Disclaimer: I’m not a linguist (yet) so, if you are one, please be gentle in your reactions if I’ve gotten something completely wrong …
As English speakers, one of the first things we notice about French is the widespread use of diacritical marks — or “accents” to be less linguistic about it. For students of the language (native speakers and non-native speakers alike) they can sometimes be the bane our existence. Accents obviously aren’t necessary — we don’t really use them in English, after all* — but they serve important functions in the languages that do use them. Sometimes, they denote a change in the pronunciation of the underlying letter. In French, for example, ça and ca don’t sound the same. Sometimes, though, accents don’t change the pronunciation at all; instead, they serve an orthographic (spelling) function to distinguish homophones. For example, la and là sound exactly the same in French but have entirely different meanings. Even though modern French is full of accents (the accent aigu, the accent grave, the tréma, etc.), they were introduced relatively late to the language. In fact, you’d be hard pressed to find many diacritical marks in a text from the Middle Ages. So what explains their introduction? Well, a comprehensive account of the evolution of French accents is
thankfully far too complex to go into here, but I do want to talk about one in particular that has an interesting story and implications for English-speaking students of French:
le petit chapeau … the little hat … the circumflex
The cool thing about the circumflex (le circonflexe) is that it serves several functions in French. A circumflex can denote a difference (even a slight one) in the pronunciation of the vowel, like grâce /gʁɑs/ (grace) versus gracieux /gʁasjø/ (gracious). It can also be used to distinguish homophones that sound exactly the same, like mur (wall) and mûr (ripe). There are even words in French where there is no clear reason for the circumflex. One theory is that they represent an aesthetic “coronation” to add prestige to the word: trône (throne), prône (prone), suprême (supreme). Most interestingly for me, though — and here’s where the Anglo-French history comes in — the circumflex can also denote the disappearance of a letter from an old, old spelling of the word.**
As a Romance language, French is chock full of words that come from Latin. Like all languages, however, French evolved along its own complex trajectory and, by the time the 13th century rolled around, many of those words of Latin origin still contained a “post-vowel s” that was no longer pronounced. For example, the word mesme still had an “s” in it but no one pronounced it anymore. Early in the 16th century, King Francis I undertook a massive project to standardize the French language, including its spelling. A group of reformist poets known as the Pléiade (including most notably Joachim du Bellay and Pierre de Ronsard) campaigned for the suppression the now superfluous “post-vowel s” and its replacement with a circumflex on the preceding vowel. They argued for this on aesthetic grounds (correspondence between sound and spelling) and ideological grounds (the maturity of French as a language independent of its Latin roots). Conservatives (notably Michel de Montaigne) were opposed; they wanted to preserve orthographic evidence of the French language’s Latin origins. They also supported orthographic consistency with other words from the same Latin root that still contained a vocalized “s” (hospitalité, for example).
French printers concurred with the conservatives largely out of financial considerations: the official sanction of the circumflex would entail an expensive investment in new type pieces for the presses: â, î, ê, ô, and û. The debate raged on for two centuries, during wich time there were even competing dictionaries of the French language. (One edition was banned in France because it included the circumflex.) It was not until 1740 that the Académie Française finally accepted this upstart accent as a replacement for the “post-vowel s” in certain cases.***
But what makes any of this particularly
interesting to an English speaker?
Well, you might recall that some 30% of Modern English can trace its roots to French, and the great majority of those words come from the Norman French dialect brought to England in 1066 by William the Conqueror. At the time of the Conquest, the phonetic evolution of no longer pronouncing the “post-vowel s” had not yet occurred. As a result, many words written with a circumflex in modern French have an English equivalent with a “post-vowel s” — and we still pronounce it (usually). Here’s a list of a few of my favorites, but there are many more. What others can you add to the list?
bête ← beste → beast
hâte ← haste → haste
hôte ← hoste → host
hôpital ← hospital → hospital
fête ← feste → feast
vêtement ← vestment → vestment
honnête ← honeste → honest
bâtard ← bastard → bastard
pâte ← paste → paste
arrêt ← arester → arrest
maître ← maistre → master
forêt ← forest → forest
tempête ← tempeste → tempest
croûte ← crouste → crust
côte ← coste → coast
huître ← oistre → oyster
Of course, this is only one part of a very complex linguistic story. For those of you who are really interested in it, you can find a few precisions below …
* We do sometimes use accents in English, especially for unassimilated foreign loanwords, like soufflé, résumé, and naïveté. In addition, the diaeresis ( ¨ ) is sometimes used to denote a hiatus (where two adjacent vowels are pronounced separately rather than as a diphthong — what the French call an enchaînement vocalique). For example, some publications (most notably The New Yorker) still use this older convention for words like coöperation. Here’s a Wikipedia article on the use of diacritical marks in English.
** The circumflex is sometimes called the “accent of memory” because it most often denotes the disappearance of a letter, even where it simultaneously serves other functions like marking a difference in vowel pronunciation or distinguishing homophones. Sometimes, the circumflex denotes the disappearance of a previously doubled vowel. For example, âge (age) was previously spelled aage and rôle (role) was previously spelled roole. The use of a circumflex to distinguish homophones often denotes the disappearance of a letter from an older spelling as well. For example, the word fût (the third person singular imperfect tense of “to be” in the subjunctive mood — that’s a mouthful, I know) sounds exactly like fut (the third person singular simple tense of the same verb). The circumflex distinguishes them but also denotes the disappearance of a “pre-vowel s” that always appeared in the third person form in Old French. It’s not just the missing “post-vowel s” that created homophones in need of a circumflex, though. The accent can also denote a disappeared “pre-vowel e.” For example, sûr (sure) comes from the old spelling seur and dû (past participle of devoir) comes from the older spelling deu.
*** To complicate things even more, the “post-vowel s” was not always replaced with a circumflex. In certain cases, it was replaced with an acute accent. Michelet’s 1680 dictionary (the one banned in France for using the circumflex) proposed a circumflex for all cases where disappearance of the “post-vowel s” produced an open “e” /ɛ/ (as in même) — what we’d call a “short e” — and an acute accent when it produced a closed “e” /e/ (as in établir) — what we’d call a “long a.” This eventually became the French standard.
Principal sources: “Accent circonflexe en français” (Wikipedia), “Devoirs et déboires du circonflexe: Histoire succincte d’un accent” (La Francofonía y el mondo francófono), countless lessons given by Professor Alain Carlier at Cours de Civilisation Française de la Sorbonne.
© 2013 Samuel Michael Bell, all rights reserved