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I am reading League of Dragons, by Naomi Novik, as an e-book. Based on the cover art I have the first edition. In Chapter 15, there is what looks like an "o" with a hat:

image of e-book paragraph, see transcription below

Laurence sighed privately. He would have been glad for a different ground-crew master, if he had dared ask for a replacement: O'Dea was clever enough, but untrained, and given to excess of both drink and poetic lamentations. In his case, Laurence would have had no compunction in removing him from the rôle and keeping him on as a personal secretary instead. But the Admiralty would surely...

Looking up the character on Wiktionary reveals that the hat is a circumflex and that this is an "Obsolete spelling of O". However, I'm not sure that this applies, since the examples given are for "ô" as a word by itself, while in the book it is just a letter in a larger word. Additionally, the narration restrains itself from too much period-speak, reserving that for in-world letters and the like. I got my hands on another e-book which allows searching; it seems that all instances of "rôle" have the hat.

Why does the "ô" in this "rôle" have a little hat?

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5 Answers 5

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In many contexts it has been traditional to render (recent) loanwords exactly as spelt in the source language (especially if that language is French), including diacritics not used in native English words (sometimes these letter-diacritic combinations may be considered separate letters in that source language, e.g. Spanish considers ñ a separate letter from n, rather than an n with a diacritic).

This is one such example, with role/rôle being a borrowing of French rôle.

Other examples include café & façade (both from French), and jalapeño (from Spanish).

In all such cases the use of the diacritic is entirely optional with no difference in meaning. Use of the diacritic generally seems a little old-fashioned, and is less unusual in British English than American English.

Cf N-gram results for role/rôle in both British & American English. In both cases the diacriticless spelling is far more common, and has been since the word first enters widespread use, but in American English the diacriticful spelling all but disappears around 1940, whilst in British English it remains until nearer 1980, explaining why it seems merely old-fashioned in British English, rather than entirely foreign. Interestingly, in both British & American English the other examples I gave show a marked trend towards increased use of diacritics since the turn of the millennium.

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  • Upvoted for including actual stats to support some of the claims I made in my answer. (I didn't think Ngrams would distinguish between the diacritical and diacriticless forms.)
    – Rand al'Thor
    Aug 22, 2022 at 12:30
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The term “role” as an actor’s part comes from the French “rôle.” It originally came to English as a loan word at a time when Paris was the center of innovation in the modern theater —- the time of Moliere, Racine, and Corneille. (In the prior generation, London had been the center of theatrical innovation, but Shakespeare invariably refers to actors’ “parts.”)

Some writers in English today retain the accent over the “o” as an affectation.

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    I'm English, are both "rôle" and "role" pronounced the same? Or if one were being technical, is the former a little more accented?
    – BruceWayne
    Aug 22, 2022 at 0:06
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    @BruceWayne: Within an English-language context, there’s no difference in pronunciation — they’re just two different spellings of exactly the same word. Aug 22, 2022 at 8:51
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    While a modern novel, League of Dragons is set contemporaneously to the Napoleonic Wars. It might be illuminative for your answer to indicate if the circumflex was common/appropriate for that time period, or if it had already transitioned to being an "affectation" by then.
    – R.M.
    Aug 22, 2022 at 12:23
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    Re "I'm English, are both "rôle" and "role" pronounced the same?" Yes. If anything, it's closer to "rôle", where the circomflex indicates a long sound.
    – ikegami
    Aug 22, 2022 at 15:01
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The etymology of "role" is easy to find out, but when and why is the circumflex retained in modern English?

Numerous (unofficial) sources on the internet confirm my impression that the usage of "rôle" is somewhat old-fashioned, and perhaps also a specifically British English phenomenon, but it's not as old-fashioned as, for example, "surprize" as an alternative spelling of "surprise" (which one finds in 19th-century or early 20th-century literature). Perhaps more like spelling "oh" as "o": it's still correct in modern English but may give a feel of archaism.

Unlike "o", though, the feel of archaism is not universally recognised and not always intended. Another thing that the "rôle" spelling might suggest is someone who's very particular about spelling and knowledgeable about etymology. Some people may feel that "rôle" is the correct spelling and "role" has only become more common because many people are too lazy to use circumflexes. Some people may simply enjoy using diacritics where possible; I'd imagine "rôle" being used by the people on English Language & Usage SE and its chat who also say "coördinate" and "reöpen".

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  • As a side note, French too is beginning to remove the circumflex, apparently influenced by English.
    – Rand al'Thor
    Aug 21, 2022 at 8:17
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    I don't think English has anything to do with the 1990 French spelling reform.
    – jlliagre
    Aug 21, 2022 at 20:58
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    @Randal'Thor: I also don't think rôle is one of the circumflexes the French want to get rid of. They're only getting rid of useless circumflexes, and this one still serves a purpose—reminding readers that rôle rhymes with saule and not sole (of course, native French speakers probably don't need this reminder, but it's very useful for non-native speakers.
    – Peter Shor
    Aug 22, 2022 at 0:25
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    I'm French and I don't feel at all like removing the circumflex accent in rôle. A more interesting question to which I could not find an answer is where does the circumflex accent come from in French? I found «rolle» and «roule» as ancestor words for «rôle» but I don't think these forms explain the circumflex in a natural way. Aug 22, 2022 at 12:33
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    Sorry, there is also « rosle » in 1285, see cnrtl.fr/definition/r%C3%B4le This form with a vowel followed by « sl » becomes naturally a circumflex accent in many french words (eg isle -> île, masle -> mâle). Aug 22, 2022 at 13:48
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As has been mentioned, rôle is the retained French spelling of the original word and not terribly common (although it got a bit of a renaissance in my own writing thanks to the influence of Donald Knuth’s The TeXbook and the ease of typing r\^ole in an era when most people had to manually draw any desired diacriticals on their word-processed output.

To dig a bit deeper, the circumflex in French words represents a letter (usually s, although in this case it was a u) which was once present but is no longer written (so when you and your friends jokingly called l'Hôpital’s rule the hospital rule in your calculus class, you weren’t completely wrong). We can see this in other English words, e.g., hotel (hôtel) and hostel.

Your seeing ô in wiktionary is a different usage of the circumflex that was common in New Latin (i.e., Latin as written post-1500) where it was the preferred spelling of the interjection o, as in ô salutaris hostiæ, which indicates a direct address (in English, e.g., “With how sad steps, O Moon, thou climb'st the skies!”

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The ô is an elision between old French, middle French, and modern French from where a missing letter used to be...

  • meür => mûr
  • hostel => hôtel
  • hospital => hôpital
  • rolle => rôle

...the origin is the Latin "rotulus", to do with wheels and rolls of paper, as in the script or algorithm a human runs as their career "software".

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    This doesn't appear to address why the "ô" would have appeared in the text quoted
    – bobble
    Aug 22, 2022 at 16:46
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    well, some people (usually in the UK) regard "rôle" as the correct spelling, rather than a stylistic affectation; and some people (usually not in the UK) regard it as obsolete, but it isn't. The same is true for "whilst" and "while". Similarly, there are words used in America like "oftentimes"; or word usages, such as "different than" instead of "different from/to", that look/sound strange to non-Americans. Aug 22, 2022 at 17:39

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