33

One of our users, Stan Rogers, mentioned there was such a distinction, I think, when he answered a question and talked about how the orthography of foreign loan-words typically changes to conform with the usual rules of English spelling. In passing he used the word rôle as an example and said something to the effect that implied that artists made a distinction between the two spellings. Anyway, if I’m remembering the episode correctly, can someone make that distinction clear to me?

6
  • 7
    As a native English speaker, the only distinction I'm aware of is that people who speak French are more likely to use the circumflex. Mar 8, 2011 at 7:10
  • Just read Henry Seton Merriman aka Hugh Stowell Scott's wonderful The Last Hope and noticed 'rôle' used throughout - published posthumously, it seems, in 1904. Glad to read the etymology as I couldn't work out which letter/s would be missing.
    – user11554
    Aug 2, 2011 at 5:19
  • Or one could say that if the circumflex is good enough for John le Carré, then it's probably good enough for the rest of us.
    – user28423
    Oct 14, 2012 at 14:46
  • 2
    there is another factor; once upon a time, to work in three languages, for example English, French, and German one needed three typewriters, one for each language. IBM created the Selectric typewriter, however, one still might need three interchangeable "typeballs". The PC eliminated the need for duplication through its design. The US "international" keyboard layout makes typing words like français, rôle, über, et cetera so simple that there is little reason to avoid diacritics; personally my preference is rôle.
    – gerryLowry
    Nov 25, 2015 at 16:49
  • I too am English and despite spell-checkers trying to correct me, ALWAYS use the circumflex over the "O" in "role" where available (not here) AND say "an hotel" with a soft "H".
    – user198888
    Oct 1, 2016 at 16:03

3 Answers 3

17

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language gives four definitions of role, the first of which is

  1. also rôle A character or part played by a performer.

while the other three definitions (related to functions or characteristic behaviour) do not offer rôle. So for some people the circumflex indicates a particular meaning. Not for me.

5
  • 12
    The other three definitions are extensions of the original meaning (a character of part played by a performer). Once a word has been sufficiently well-adopted to undergo semantic broadening, it's probably time to stop using funny foreign squiggles to write it. (The circumflex, by the way, indicates that one or more letters had been given the old heave-ho in the original French. It had been rolle -- literally, the roll of paper or parchment upon which the part had been written.)
    – bye
    Mar 8, 2011 at 8:47
  • 1
    @Stan Rogers Since you're so clear on the etymology and evolution of this word, mind giving me a sentence where using "rôle" over "role" would be particularly apt?
    – Uticensis
    Mar 9, 2011 at 1:44
  • 10
    @Billare: There is no good reason to use rôle anymore. My comment in the previous thread sums it up: the rôle of rôle is now being played by role. The plain English spelling has entirely supplanted the old spelling in modern usage; I wouldn't be at all surprised if more than ninety percent of the occurrences of rôle in the past fifty years were in discussions of whether to use rôle or role when writing.
    – bye
    Mar 9, 2011 at 5:52
  • 8
    As an example: The casting director's role is mainly to find persons suitable for the rôle each is required to play.
    – Kris
    Oct 14, 2012 at 15:03
  • @bye quote: "funny foreign squiggles" Am I the only one who thinks that's not appropriate? May 21, 2023 at 22:32
15

As an Englishman, I always use rôle, despite Microsoft's disapproval! I think there may be something of a US/UK difference on this one. The OED lists both spellings without distinction.

The evolution of language is somewhat quirky. One never sees the word "hotel" written with a circumflex in English, as it is in French; but some people still insist on writing "an hotel" despite the fact that we, unlike the French, do voice the "h". It sounds particularly silly when someone says "an hotel", pronouncing the "h".

I expect the circumflex in rôle will eventually be completely dropped, but it is still generally considered more proper in the UK.

6
  • 21
    In general, Microsoft’s disapproval is usually a strong indication that you’re doing something right.
    – tchrist
    Feb 4, 2014 at 14:41
  • 16
    In case anyone thinks that using "rôle" is a "British thing", I'm British and I don't know anyone who would do this - it would seem quite pretentious to me, and definitely unnecessary. May 23, 2016 at 12:08
  • @MaxWilliams, pretentious of what?
    – Toothrot
    Jul 16, 2019 at 13:13
  • "generally considered more proper" - I'd like to see a reference for that. As a Brit I'm unused to seeing it. The Cambridge dictionary doesn't even list it as an alternative spelling. Jul 26, 2021 at 7:20
  • 1
    @Toothrot "pretentious", adjective: "Marked by an unwarranted claim to importance or distinction.". It is related etymologically to "having a pretension of (something)", but is not used the same way in current English.
    – IMSoP
    Aug 22, 2022 at 12:00
6

Rôle was the standardised spelling used in the UK parliament until a few decades ago, see Google: "rôle" site:theyworkforyou.com and is still used on The Public Whip for column headers. The circumflex was simply to denote the removed letter 'L', and held no semantic meaning.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.