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Circumflex (ˆ)

The circumflex is a diacritic in the Latin, Greek and Cyrillic scripts that is used in the written forms of many languages and in various romanization and transcription schemes. 

Introduction to the term's Latin and Greek roots

A circumflex (ˆ) is a chevron-shaped diacritic glyph in Latin script. In Greek script, the symbol appears in the shape of a tilde (~). The diacritic also appears in mathematics under the monikers "hat," "house," and "roof." 

In its earliest usage, the circumflex indicated sustained vowels with dynamic pitch in Ancient Greek polytonic orthography. Similarly, modern use of the diacritic indicates the contour of tone in international alphabets.

The circumflex made its way into French texts during the 1500s. During the 1700s, the diacritic came into use for a time in England, where the ough suffix was shortened to ô for words in which the gh remain silent, such as in the words "though" (thô) and bought (bôt).

Today, the circumflex isn't used in English, though it does appear in loanwords that have fallen into common use throughout Great Britain, North America, and Oceania.

Using circumflex in French

In the French language, the presence of a circumflex usually indicates the deletion of a consonant. Many of these words have English equivalents that keep the consonant intact, such as in the following examples:

  • ancêtre = ancestor
  • août = August
  • côte = coast
  • forêt = forest
  • hôpital = hospital
  • hôtel = hostel
  • pâte = paste
  • rôtir = roast

The circumflex is used over the letter m as a shortcut for the word même (same) in French handwriting.

In Italian, some words that end with "io" in singular form use î in plural form, such as the word vario (various), which is often spelt varî in plural usage.

The circumflex has been phased out in favor of the acute accent in modern Greek monotonic orthography, due to the emphasis of stress over pitch in that language.

History of the circumflex

The chevron shape of the circumflex was first derived from a melding of the acute and grave accent shapes. This was due to the sound being designated by the diacritic: a contraction of two vowels into one syllable, which made the circumflex function as a combination of the accented and non-accented symbols.

In the orthography of various languages, the circumflex is used to indicate long vowel sounds; examples include the following:

French – Several variations of this language, including Belgian French and Swiss French, have long vowels when the circumflex appears because it marks the deletion of consonants.

Serbo-Croatian – In this language, the circumflex is known as the "length sign." When the diacritic is placed over the a in sam, the word's meaning changes from "am" to "alone." As such, one way to say "I am alone" is Ja sam sâ.

Turkish – In early Turkish orthography, the circumflex was used to disambiguate different meanings for the same spelling, such as ama "but" and âmâ "blind." Since the dawn of the millennium, however, the diacritic has fallen out of use in Turkish texts. 

Welsh – Referred to locally as the "long sign," the circumflex is used in this language to elongate vowels—which include the letters w and y in the Welsh alphabet—and differentiate heteronyms such as ffon and ffôn, cyn and cŷn, and gwn and gŵn.

The fictional languages of J. R. R. Tolkien—Adûnaic, Khuzdul, Sindarin—also use the circumflex to denote long vowel sounds.

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