top of page
  • Bailin Pollard

The Troublesome Circumflex

Updated: Jan 8, 2021

The French Language as we know it is less than 300 years old. Devised in 1888 by the French minister of education, the dialect of French that is spoken today in most of the world is not what was spoken historically. Modern French is a language that has gone through various changes to streamline and unify itself. This issue of modernization clashes with cultural preservation, and has come to light again in recent times due to a debate over the use of an old diacritic, the circumflex (fr. circomflexe).

First notably used by the french philosopher and anatomist, Jacques Dubois Sylvius, the circumflex denoted false diphthongs. The symbol joined two vowel sounds into a single phoneme'. This idea was further developed by the philosopher Etienne Dolet, who used the circumflex to contract identical phonemes and to denote the disappearance of a syllable consonant within a word. The latter usage is an early form of how the accent is used today. As French has evolved over time, being a non-phonetic language, certain uses of the letter "s" have become silent within words and eventually dropped. In the vein of Dolet's writing, we use the circumflex to denote this missing consonant.

The modern circumflex has a variety of employments in the language. Though only one accent, the (A) symbol when placed over a vowel can denote three main significances. Primarily, it is used over vowels where the following consonant is weak. In previous varieties of French, there was a consonant after the vowel on which the circumflex is to be placed.

Here, the circumflex preserves the sound of the soft/silent "s" that has evolved out of the language. Secondly, this accent shifts vowels/phonemes, slightly changing the sound of a vowel, usually to a softer, more open mouthed pronunciation. The third main use of circumflex in modern French is to distinguish homophones. As in all languages, French has many words spelled and pronounced similarly. In writing, the circumflex distinguishes two words that are otherwise spelled the same. The accent does not necessarily change the pronunciation, but makes the distinction which might not be easily visible through context.

Despite the accent's apparent utility, there is significant controversy surrounding its usage and necessity in modem French. Just as the language has changed drastically since it was adapted in 1888, the language has changed drastically even from the late twentieth century to today. With the advent of cellphones and texting in combination with the general colloquialization of language among the young generation worldwide, the utility of the circumflex has come into question. The French Academy of Language, l'Academie Francaise, has recently made over 2,000 small changes to the orthography of common words. Many of these changes remove the circumflex and reduce the spelling to simpler, more phonetic versions, but additional changes have been made that include the removal of certain hyphens from compound words and even some direct spelling changes.

Interestingly enough, it seems that much change in today's French is pushed forward by anglophones. Nearly all literature about these current changes to the language are English articles from English sources. The Anglican disagreement' with diacritics has seemed to cause more change than the actual opinion of the Francophone population. A brief search on the internet finds very few articles written by French sources, which seems to indicate a lack of public interest in this topic. This supports the common theme of apathy towards formal language, as many native speakers in french, and in all languages make frequent errors without a care.

Though this will not be the last major modification to the french language, this change is significant because of the controversy it had garnered. In its widespread coverage, it has brought the discussion of French orthography and diacritics back to light, something which will continue to provide learning opportunities for the younger generations.

Works Cited

Revolvy, LLC. "'Jacques+Dubois' on"Revolvy, wl,vw.revolvy.cornimainiindex.plip'?s-Jacques`!,`02BDubois&itein type-topic. Dubois, Jacques. "Orthographies in Early Modem Europe." Google Books, Google, -5ge.


bottom of page