[History of words] That annoying French ^ !

Are you sure where to place the ^ on the word chateau? Which is the correct form: hônnete or honnête? Is a window a fenêtre or a fênetre?

Confound that circumflex!

If this diacrytical mark has been ambushing you on your road to a good French spelling — well, fair reader, you have now alighted at the right gate. Enter and you shall hear such a tale as will help you choose the safe paths.

Portrait of a lady

I myself heard it from her. Victoria. The unjudgemental friend. The perfect host. The most objective, energetic and competent woman. She is a Professor of Spanish Language and Literature; but she might as well have been a queen.

This is the tale she told me.

The tale of the vanished “S”

Once upon the Middle Ages, French words were much closer to their Latin origins. Château, for instance, was spelled and pronounced chasteau — not that far from the Latin castellum. Similarly, honnête was honneste — from honestus — and fenêtre, fenestre (from fenestra). And so on, for most of the French circumflexed words.

Do you notice the pattern? The ^ is always on the vowel that used to precede the S.

What happened is that, for greater ease of pronunciation, the S gradually stopped being pronounced. Then it stopped being written — but for that mark on the preceding vowel. (I believe this served to ensure people would still recognize the word in its new spelling.)

Very well. So that circumflex exists because there is a vanished S in those words. But how does this help us?

English comes to our aid

English is not a Latin language. But, thanks to William the Conqueror, it does have an enormous number of Latin words: most of those French words have similar counterparts in English. But — to our chance — in English, they kept their S.

Now you see it all. Whenever you are in doubt about the place of that ^ on a French word, find the English equivalent, which will tell you where the vanished S used to be. Then accent the French vowel before it. Here are some examples:

  • castle – (chasteau) – château
  • honest – (honneste) – honnête
  • host – (hoste) – hôte
  • roast – (rosti) – rôti
  • priest – (prestre) – prêtre
  • oyster – (huistre) – huître
  • master – (maistre) – maître

And so on, for most of them.

But not for all. You will have noticed I cheated. I left fenêtre out — precisely because in English window is window: there is no fenester. Or is there?

Using cognates

No, the dictionary does not list fenester as a synonym of window. But it does give us related words – cognates.

  • fenestrated means “having windows”
  • to defenestrate means “to throw out of the window”
  • fenestration is an architectural term meaning “placement of windows”

So when there is no Latin equivalent to the French word, other English words can come to our aid.

What about traitre? Neither traitor, treason, nor treachery are much help here. But if we think of trahison, there we have it! The vanished S has shown itself, and we know where the treacherous circumflex must be. Traître!

When English cognates are not at hand, we can look for French ones. It is all a matter of the breadth of our vocabulary – and of our imagination.

Other languages

Besides English equivalentes and English and French cognates, we can seek for help from another quarter. If you know some Spanish, Italian or Portuguese, you will find that they too have kept their S. For instance:

  • être (to be). In Spanish: estar.
  • prêter (to lend). In Italian: prestare. In Spanish: prestar. In Portuguese: emprestar.
  • fenêtre (window). In Italian: finestra.

In short

Before ending this tale with a flourish and sending you again on your French roamings, let us recall the four safe paths that will hopefully help you avoid the circumflex’s ambushes:

  • find the English equivalent to the French word. Huître = oyster
  • find an English cognate of the French word. Fenêtre – fenestrated
  • find a French cognate. Traître – trahison
  • find a cognate in another Latin language. Prêter = (Portuguese) emprestar

That being done, let me sadly warn you that there are still a few words to which the tale of the vanished S does not seem to apply. Rêve (dream), grêle (hail), hêtre (beech)… I don’t know what is the story of these words, nor why the ^ is there.

It looks like I need to see Victoria again.


Reader, reader, tell me true:
Do you know the rule for these last words?
Are there any French circumflexed words that have been a problem for you?

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