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A hospital is l’hôpital and I know that a centre hospitalier is a place where there is more than just a hospital. However, why is there an s in hospitalier? I have asked many French friends and they have all struggled to find the answer. Any ideas anyone?

  • 5
    It's “hôpital”. A very important detail for this particular question. – Stéphane Gimenez Oct 23 '17 at 13:59
  • Hi, yes thanks I know but unfortunately i can't seem to be able to find out how to insert these characters such as e, a with accents. Bit of a technophobe in that regard. Is that why there is a difference between the spelling of hopital and hospitalier because the o is accented? – Mrs Miff Oct 23 '17 at 14:23
  • Thank you everyone for the time you have taken to give me such a comprehensive answer. I can now tell my French friends who will be as interested as me. This is the first time I have used this site but I am sure that it will not be the last. – Mrs Miff Oct 26 '17 at 20:18
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As you can see from the "disappearance of s" section in Circumflex in French, the ^ indicates (in this case) that the word hôpital used to have a "silent" S. It indeed comes from the word "hospitalia" in Latin, which gave "ospital" in old French. The "s" became silent in the 11th century and was replaced with ^. Some words of the same family, such as "hospitalisation", came after the 11th century and took the original Latin word as a template.

Note that there are other examples with adjectives

fête -> festif

forêt -> forestier

bête -> bestial

but there is no general rule as it depends on the date of "creation" of the word

côte -> côtier

hôtel -> hôtelier

  • 1
    Another example where etymology sheds some light: "châtaigne" and "castagne" (a slang word for a brawl, where you are likely to give and take a couple of "châtaignes", ie punches) both come from the Latin "castanea", but "castagne" came to French via occitan dialects and therefore kept its "s". – Greg Oct 24 '17 at 7:03
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There is an S in hospitalier because the word comes from the latin hospitalia. So the question is rather why hôpital lost its S, while other words in the same family such as hospitalier didn't.

There is a very common phenomenon in French where certain words in a family are close to their Latin original, while a few have changed more. This is known as formation savante vs. formation populaire (or dérivation savante vs. dérivation populaire), i.e. scholarly vs. popular derivation. Scholarly derivations have retained a form that is close to the Latin original, while popular derivations have evolved over a long period of time. Often, the main noun or verb in a family has undergone continuous popular derivation since Late Latin, whereas other “highbrow” words were introduced later by scholars. Usually the popular derivation is a simplification, with some sounds removed and possibly other sounds changed.

In the case of hôpital, the “basic” noun lost its S sound during the Middle Ages. French spelling was standardized in the 16th and 17th centuries based on a compromise between pronunciation and etymology. The circumflex accent was added in this and many other words to indicate that a letter (usually S) had been removed during the word's history. The “fancy” adjective hospitalier and the “fancy” noun hospitalité kept a more complicated form (with one more sound).

By the way, in modern French, the spelling and pronunciation hôpitalier are gaining ground for the meaning “related to hospitals”. The spelling and pronunciation hospitalier are the only possible ones for the meaning “hospitable”.

Scholarly/popular pairs distinguished by S/circumflex are fairly common. Here are a few other examples, including some with further evolution of the popular form:

  • pastoral vs. pâtre, pâturage (pastoral vs. pastor/shepherd, pasture/meadow). Note how there is a similar phenomenon in English where the “fancy” adjective has a Latin origin but there are more “day-to-day” nouns with a German origin)
  • mâcher, mâchonner vs. mastication, mastiquer (chew, “chew negligently” vs. “action of chewing”, “chew carefully”)
  • fête, fêter vs. festif, festival (party/festival/celebration, celebrate vs. festive, (a fancier kind of) festival)
  • côté vs. accoster (side vs. “to get alongside”)
  • goût, goûter vs. gustatif (taste (noun), taste (verb) vs. gustative). Here the popular derivation acquired an extra letter to indicate the shifted pronunciation (ou or is pronounced [u], a mere u or û would be pronounced [y]).
  • août, auguste (August (the month), august)

Scholarly/popular pairs don't have to involve circumflex accents, that's just one of many possibilities. Here are a few other examples.

  • chien vs. canin (dog vs. “related to dogs”)
  • cheval, chevalier vs. cavalier, cavaler (horse, knight vs. “horse rider”, “ride fast”)
  • poisson, poissonnier vs. pêche, pêcher vs. pisciculture, piscine (fish (noun), fishmonger vs. fishing, to fish vs. “fish farming”, “swimming pool”)
  • domaine vs. dominer (domain vs. dominate)
  • main vs. manuel (hand vs. “by hand”)
  • été vs. estival (summer vs. “related to summer”), école vs. scolaire (school vs. “related to schooling”), ... The transformation of the initial es- into é is a process that had already started in Latin, where words beginning with S and certain other consonants had acquired a leading E. This leading E was pronounced [e] in French, and became spelled é, rather than ê which would have been pronounced [ɛ].
  • voir, vue vs. vision, visuel (see, sight vs. vision, visual). Here the words had already started to diverge in classical Latin: vid- for some tenses including the “basic” present indicative form vs. vis- in more complex tenses.

By the way, you can spot a similar duality in English with German basic words and Latin fancy words. The historical mechanism for that is rather different (and off-topic here), but both languages ended up with a large number of popular/scholarly pairs.

Note that while the scholarly/popular duality is widespread enough to be a recognizable feature of the language, it is by no means universal. There are many word families that have only a single root. Some examples of families where an S has been replaced by a circumflex accent in all modern French words are île (island, from Lat. insula), pâte (pasta, from It. pasta), âne (donkey, from Lat. asinus), hâte (haste, from an ancestor language of German) …

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