Circumflex: â, ê, î, ô, û

Accent circonflexe

The circumflex, aka "little hat," is the only French accent that may be found on each 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 homophones

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

Pronunciation

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

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 homophones

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.

  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.

    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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