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I'm studying old baptism records where I frequently see the phrase, "qui n'ont su signer."

Sometimes it looks like this was spelled, "qui n'ont sû signer."

Is the circumflex just a variation of savoir? Or more like a typo?

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  • How old? It's possible that at that time, accents weren't standardized yet Nov 22, 2023 at 8:54

2 Answers 2

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It is not a typo. Before being written su, this past participle was written as or to remind the older spelling seu (along with sçu, sceu and other).

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Jean Le Jeune, Le missionnaire de l'oratoire, 1689

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Jean de la Fontaine, Le Magnifique, 1685

It is similar to mouvoir that gave meu then and stayed that way until the 1990 recommendations allow to drop the circumflex and fix the inconsistency.

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    @ovide It is "l'esse longue" or ſ which was the original form of "s". Nov 22, 2023 at 15:05
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    Thank you for the extra details. I will add a follow up question soon, because I'm realizing a few instances that looked like "pu signer" might have been something more like "ſçu signer". Surprise! Nov 22, 2023 at 15:07
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    @ovide french.stackexchange.com/questions/17593/…
    – jlliagre
    Nov 22, 2023 at 15:30
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    @ovide, the same long s was used in English, as can be seen in the calligraphy in the file copy of the United States Bill of Rights recorded in 1789. Its first line is written “Congreſs of the United States.” Our modern lower-case s was used only as the final letter of words. Nov 26, 2023 at 19:01
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    @ovide, when I was a kid, I thought that the Bill of Rights started with some word Congrels, that rhymed with mongrels. Nov 28, 2023 at 15:51
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It depends on how old is the text, but it's more of a typography than anything else. Nowadays, circumflex accents tend to disappear.

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  • They tend to desappear only when they are not mandatory. For example it is needed for côte to distinguish from cote, <> du, tâche <> tache, pêcher <> pécher...
    – Toto
    Nov 22, 2023 at 11:40
  • @Toto Somehow French does manage to cope with pairs of words written the same with different meanings (with or without the same pronunciation): fils, est, hélas, bus, car, or, son, as, plus, etc. Given that, it's interesting that for a few pairs, disambiguation via a circumflex is still "mandatory" even when the circumflex is tending to disappear elsewhere. Nov 22, 2023 at 16:31

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