The French spelling reform: circumflex accent

The French spelling reform proposes a change to the use of the circumflex accent over the letters i and u. When written over these letters, the circumflex is simply a historical artefact, generally representing an s that was present at a previous stage of the language; it does not signal any difference in pronunciation over the unaccented i and u letters. (Conversely, over the e and o vowels, it can signal— though not consistently— whether an "open" or "close" vowel is pronounced.)

The proposal is as follows:

  • in cases where the circumflex disambiguates two words, e.g. ("due") vs du ("some/of the"), the circumflex remains1;
  • where the circumflex is part of a verb ending it is also retained (in forms such as eût it is also considered to be a "verb ending");
  • in other cases, the circumflex is not required over i or u: connaitre, il connait, croute.

Note that:

  • this rule actually introduces some inconsistency: e.g. "mature, ripe" retains its accent to disambiguate it from mur "wall", but mûre (the feminine form of ) loses the circumflex;
  • a further cause of inconsistency is that for deciding if there is an ambiguity, compounds are considered words in their own right: so whilst il croît ("he grows") and il croit ("he believes") retain the distinction, the verb accroître loses the circumflex in all cases, since there is no corresponding verb accroitre to cause ambiguity;
  • in mûre ("blackberry") and mûre ("mature, ripe"), where the circumflex occurs on both words and doesn't disambiguate them, the circumflex is removed from both words and the ambiguity remains.

Removing the circumflex does not appear to be a popular move. In our survey, only 10% of respondents were in favour of writing cout instead of coût and only 20% in favour of writing il parait instead of il paraît. Interestingly, enthusiasm for removing the circumflex does not appear to be dependent on whether doing so introduces ambiguity: similar percentages (17% and 20% respectively) favour writing sur (et certain) and (il est très) mur instead of sûr and mûr respectively.


On the next page, we look at proposed reforms to the use of the hyphen.

 French grammar index
 French-English dictionary
 English-French dictionary

This page written by Neil Coffey. Copyright © Javamex UK 2017. All rights reserved.