C17th Clermont Château or should that be Chasteau? What’s in a circumflex?

At the end of this blog are two C17th images of the southern aspect of Clermont Château in the Loire Valley. One is by an unknown artist while the other is attributed to Louis Bourdan whose work appears in a number of my blogging entries.  Both artists naïvely capture different aspects of the Château and I think it is useful to compare them against each other as well as with the modern image that I’ve included below.

For this blog entry it is interesting to note that in both titles of the paintings the  word  ‘Chasteau’ is used rather than the modern ‘Château’; with its circumflex accent above the letter ’a’.

The historical reasons for this are of interest:

During the 16th and 17th Centuries French speakers started to drop the ‘s’ in chasteau (although it still exists in the English ‘castle’, the Spanish ‘castillo’ and the Italian ‘castello’). When the spoken word was written down writers adopted the circumflex above the ‘a’ to show they knew an ‘s’ used to be there. As well as indicating the loss of an ‘s’ in ‘Château’ the circumflex is used in the same way in other words where oral contraction had taken place.

When Old French was introduced in England by the concurring Normans in the 11th Century the word used for ‘hospital was ‘hospital’ and the word for ‘forest’ was ‘forest’ and so it remains today. But, later, back in France, the French, in their everyday speech, started contracting certain words that contained the letter ‘s’ and eventually dropped the ‘s’ altogether. Thus, in France ‘hospital’ became ‘hopital’, ‘forest’ became ‘foret’ and ‘host’ became ‘hote’…. For a while the written form of these words continued with the old spelling. Eventually the writers had to get ‘up to date’ and acknowledge the general oral trend of dropping the ‘s’. Writers, i.e. monks, decided to still indicate the original presence of these lost letters and put a circumflex over the preceding vowel to indicate that there had previously been an ‘s’ (or other letter) present. So, in France the word hospital became hôpital, forest became forêt, host became hôte, coast became côte, fenester (a church window) became fenêtre (window), paste became pâte or pâté, beast became bête, feast became fête, master became maître, hostel became hotel, isle became île, vestments (clothes) became vêtements, etc. The French word dîner, to dine, comes from the Latin disjejunare, meaning to ‘discontinue the fast’, so here the circumflex represents a whole lot more is missing than just a single ‘s’!

Sometimes a letter other than ‘s’ was dropped in spoken French, and later replaced in written form by a circumflex including: aage (age) became âge, meur (wall) became mûr, seur (sure) became sûr.

Just to throw a spanner in the works the disappeared letter often reappears in derivative words, like adjectives, that have come from the root word. For example, the French have hôpital, but the adjective is hospitalier, vêtement, (clothes) but vestimentaire is used, forêt, but forestier (woodman) and chemin forestier is a forest path.

Another use is in verbs ending in aître like and oître, e.g. disparaître – to disappear and apparaître – to appear.

The circumflex was officially introduced in the 1740 edition of the dictionary of the Académie Française and is actually a combination of the grave and the acute accents.

I was talking with my friend, Colin Dyson, as I was writing this blog entry. He made the observation, “Oh, so a circumflex’s like an apostrophe then.”  If I’d used this definition I have a feeling this blog would have been a lot shorter!
P.S: If you ever want to type a letter with a circumflex when you in Word or other Microsoft programs, then you can do so by: 1. Holding down the keys: CTL, SHIFT and the key with the ^ symbol (usually the number 6 on English keyboards). 2. Releasing all the three keys and pressing either an a, e, i, o, u… or an A, E, I, O, U. and â, ê, î, ô, û or Â, Ê, Î, Ô, Û should appear.

And so, finally, to the old images of Clermont Château  http://gallica.bnf.fr/

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About Jim McNeill

I am a blogger on 'The Social History of the Touraine region of France (37)' and also 'The Colonial History of Pennsylvania and the life & Family of William Penn'. I am a Director of Fresh Ground Group Ltd.
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One Response to C17th Clermont Château or should that be Chasteau? What’s in a circumflex?

  1. Ricky Myles says:

    It’s not often I’ve encountered another circumflex spotter! It might sound somewhat anorakish but my interest in this was revived some years after my father who was a modern languages teacher and who, in his wisdom, alerted me to this quirk when I read Graham Robb’s ‘The History of France’. Before it falls into desuetude, since it has been permissible to write it as ‘huitre’ since 1990, ‘huître’ is another example worthy of highlighting. If the ‘s’ is re-instated to provide ‘huistre’, and pronounced, then it ceases to be alien and just sounds like oyster (in a different dialect).

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