Circumflex: â, ê, î, ô, û

Accent circonflexe

French circumflexThe circumflex, aka "little hat," is the only French accent that may be found on any of the five vowels. In any given word, the circumflex may serve one or more purposes:

  1. Indicate a spelling change from Latin
  2. Change the pronunciation of a, e, o
  3. Distinguish between words that would otherwise be homographs

Spelling change

In most words, the circumflex is a linguistic reference to Latin, indicating that the accented vowel used to be followed by one or more now-disappeared letters, often s or a doubled letter. (Incidentally, the English equivalent often still has an s.)

Par exemple…

French   Latin   Translation
une forêt   forestis   forest
un hôpital   hospitalis   hospital
pâle   pallidus   pale


The circumflex changes the pronunciation of the vowels a, e, and o – click the letters for more detailed info or learn about IPA symbols.

â pronounced [ɑ] rather than [a]
ê pronounced [ɛ] rather than [e] or [ə]
ô pronounced [o] rather than [ɔ]

 The circumflex has no effect on the pronunciation of i or u.

Distinguish homographs

The circumflex distinguishes between a few words that would otherwise be identical.

une acre acre   âcre acrid
du some (partitive article)   past participle of devoir
jeune young   le jeûne fast (diet, religion)
un mur wall   mûr ripe (masculine)
sur on (preposition)   sûr sure

Accent on grammar

1) The circumflex is found in the nous and vous passé simple conjugations of all verbs.

Par exemple…

    donner   choisir
nous   donnâmes   choisîmes
vous   donnâtes   choisîtes

2) In the imperfect subjunctive, the circumflex is found in the il conjugation of all verbs. For ir and re verbs, this allows one to distinguish the imperfect subjunctive from the passé simple.

Par exemple…

        avoir   prendre
Passé simple   il   eut   prit
Imperfect subjunctive   il   eût   prît

3) Verbs like connaître lose the circumflex in all conjugations where the i is not followed by t. So the only conjugations that keep î are these:

Present tense   only il connaît
Future   all conjugations: je connaîtrai, tu connaîtras, etc
Conditional   all conjugations: je connaîtrais, tu connaîtrais, etc


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