The Circumflex: Improving Spelling and Identifying Cognates

Cognate recognition is one of the best ways to recognize new vocabulary, but because of the way French has changed over time, sometimes they can be difficult to spot. By understanding the meaning of the circumflex, it becomes a lot easier to spot them -- and it can help your spelling.

The circumflex (l'accent circonflexe en français) is one of the diacritical marks used on French vowels: the one that looks like a little "hat." When used on a, e, and o, it alters the sound, but when used on i and u the pronunciation remains the same. (For information on accents in general, check out [this guide] ( by Remy.)

(A note from cadilhac on the pronunciation in Quebec:

The circumflex accent is usually pronounced in Québec as a diphthong. Maître becomes maètre, plâtre becomes plaotre, bête becomes baète, so on so forth. HTH!)

When you see a circumflex, it often means that in the past, there was a letter that has now been dropped. Usually, that letter is an s, although there are situations where it is another. For the purposes of finding cognates, assuming it is an s is the best idea.

Some Examples:

  • forêt = forest
  • côte = coast
  • pâte/pâtes = paste or pastry/pasta
  • croûte = crust
  • île = isle

By recognizing the circumflex, pronouncing it with an added s, and looking at the context, you can sometimes identify a word you've never seen. If you've never seen the word "quête," it may seem completely unknown. But once you add in that "s," it's easy to see that it means "quest."

This is not true 100% of the time.

Sometimes, the circumflex notes another letter that was used historically. Sûr was originally seur, mûr was originally meur, and âge was originally aage. When you see a circumflex, do a bit of research and find out what the word was originally; in some cases this can help remember it. For example, the past participle of devoir is , as the e is dropped from deu in order to distinguish it from the contraction du.

When you see î followed by a t, that t is likely the culprit. Apparaître and connaître (to appear and to know) are some of the verbs that have a circumflex because an i is followed by a t. There are no historical dropped letters. (Note: You may or may not see this, as The French Academy recommends no longer using the circumflex in these instances.)

"Fancy" words with a circumflex like trône and suprême have absolutely no reason for their diacritical marks. Some linguists believe that it was to give them an air of prestige. It does look nice.

I've found that identifying cognates with circumflexes has greatly helped my spelling. Vêtement was very difficult for me to remember until I realized that it was a cognate to vestment, a slightly antiquated English word for clothes. If I have a cognate to compare to, the word becomes easier to recall and spell!

...of course, you may be wondering: what about dîner? Nothing in English sounds similar to disner, there's no t after the î, and there's nothing particularly prestigious about dining. Well, this may look like a keysmash, but here's the answer:


It's Latin, and literally means "to break one's fast." The French felt that this was far too cumbersome-- hence dîner. jrikhal pointed out that "déjeûner" also comes from this root.

Now that you know this, think about hotel. The word comes from the French hôtel -- what similar English word do we have? Funnily enough, we borrowed hotel from French, even though we already had hostel!

Try Translating These Without Looking Them Up!

  • hôte/hôtesse
  • hâte
  • bête
  • fête
  • tempête
  • conquête
  • maître
  • intérêt
  • plâtre

These Ones Are Tricky

December 25, 2013


An additional note on pronunciation: The circumflex accent is usually pronounced in Québec as a diphthong. Maître becomes maètre, plâtre becomes plaotre, bête becomes baète, so on so forth. HTH!

December 26, 2013

Thanks for the info! If I could give lingots, I would. :P I'll add it to the post.

December 26, 2013

Please correct the sentence: ".of course, you may be wondering: what about dînet?" it should be DINER and not DINET, although you maybe thought of "Dinette"? a child's word for a dinner with dolls!

December 27, 2013

Or it could be that r and t are right next to each other on the keyboard. ;)

December 28, 2013

I think you meant fetre.

Note that déjeûner comes from the same disjejunare... ;)

December 29, 2013

Ah, yes, thank you. :) I was too lazy to go and look up and memorize all of the alt-codes, so there was a lot of letter copypasta going on.

December 29, 2013

Oh, I've always wondered about the purpose of those circonflexes. Merci!

December 29, 2013

Very helpful and interesting, thank you for the post!

December 26, 2013
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