As a teacher of French, I should not have a favourite accent. It is almost like confessing to having a favourite child, it is not socially acceptable. But I do have a favourite.
Let me celebrate accents in general. One of the main barriers when learning French as a foreign language is the seemingly tenuous link between its spelling and its pronunciation. Coming from English learners, who put me through tough coughs and hiccoughs as I ploughed on, this complaint was an easy one to bat away.
French pronunciation rules are complex, and hard to master, I grant you, but they are mostly consistent, once you know them all. And accents are there to help you along the way, like little winged puttis fluttering above the letters. The accent on é turns a mute letter “e” into a dynamic vowel ready to, for example, finish a word with a bang. It’s the difference between “passe” (one syllable, pronounce “pass”) and “passé” (two syllables, pronounce… well… “passé“). As a side note, do you know how to translate “passé” into French? “Has been” (pronounce it à la française, ignore there’s a h. “azbean”). Isn’t it funny? But I digress, back to my accents.
Other accents don’t change the pronunciation, but help with recognising homonyms when reading. The grave accent helpfully differentiates là (“there”) and la (“the”), où (“where”) and ou (“or”). The circumflex separates jeûne (“fast”) and jeune (“young”), sûr (“sure”) and sur (“on”), etc. Do you see my point? Altogether, accents are trying to be helpful.
But my favourite amongst them all is the circumflex accent â, ê, ô or î. First, it looks like a little hat, which is cute. Second, and this is where it really touches my heart, it is a window onto the past of French. It is tangible sign of what French language used to be like. Bernard Cerquiglini, who wrote a whole book on the circumflex accent, calls it l’accent du souvenir, “memory’s accent”.
Indeed, in many words like hostel, hospital, forest, cost, isle and castel, the s stopped being pronounced in the eleventh century (just when the French beat the English on their own soil, at Hastings. Just saying). It carried on existing as a letter in the spelling of words. Printing came in in the sixteenth century, and every character had to fight for their place on the page. The “s” was replaced by the graceful circumflex accent, which gave us hôtel, hôpital, forêt, fête, île, and château. Only in less common words, such as forestier and festif did the s remain. The English language, in a fascinating turn of events, has preserved the archaic forms of “hostel”, “hospital”, “forest”, “cost”, “isle” and “castle”.
The circumflex accent doesn’t – or hardly – change the pronunciation. So much so that the latest réforme orthographique (spelling reform) allows its disappearance from words like chaîne, boîte, maîtresse, where it plays no obvious role. This reform was decided in 1990 by the Conseil supérieur de la langue française (where other French-speaking countries have a say) to make to French language easier to learn. Since then, the new spelling has slowly spread through Quebec, Switzerland, and Belgium. In France, such was the outrage from linguistic purists and, more crucially, the reticence of textbook publishers, backed-up by the Académie Française, the old spellings are still the most commonly used.
I can see both sides of this 30-year-old debate. I am very open-minded when it comes to language evolution. If the reform means fewer barriers to the integration of immigrants and their children, and to learning of French as a foreign language throughout the world, then I should, rationally, be all for it. But with my soft spot for the circumflex accent, I am deeply saddened to see its retreat.
May the circumflex accent find a place in your heart as it found one in mine.