John Sturrock

  • L’Accent du souvenir by Bernard Cerquiglini
    Minuit, 165 pp, frs 99.00, September 1995, ISBN 2 7073 1536 2

Gustave Flaubert, in a letter to his publisher of October 1862, and after two other grumbles about the typesetting on the page-proofs of his new book: ‘3º The circumflex accent on Salammbô has no profile. Nothing could be less Punic. I demand a more open one.’ To demand with Flaubert was to get: within a few days he had an accent that straddled its underlying vowel in the comprehensive way that he wanted, and gave the name of the heroine of his Carthaginian novel a suitably Punic appearance on the title-page. Or it would be truer to say that it gave her a suitably alien appearance, because to a French reader Salammbô’s terminal chapeau comes as a shock, occurring as it does in a position where no circumflex has any business being.

A circumflex looks strange on a vowel coming right at the end of a word, since, characteristically, this accent marks the spot from which a consonant once present in the spelling before another consonant has been dropped. We were taught in school that where now there is a circumflex in a French word there was generally in the old days a pre-consonantal s, and that when this s was suppressed it was replaced by an accent set to the left over the preceding vowel. Whence such familiar modern French words as bête, île or croûte, which were at one time written as beste, isle or crouste. And whence, also, the title of Bernard Cerquiglini’s thoroughly enjoyable little book, in which he traces the history of the circumflex and the mysteriously strong feelings it has aroused, for and against, over the past 450 years.

It is tempting to say, after reading Cerquiglini, that there is more to the circumflex than meets the eye, except that meeting the eye is so very much part of this assertive signifier’s function. As Flaubert well knew: the circumflex that he gave to Salammbô is conspicuous, a puzzle, because it clearly can’t be there for the usual reason – set up, that is, in memory of the loss of an s. It could hardly be there either out of any wish on Flaubert’s part to imitate the eccentric use of the circumflex over the passionately vocative O in French – as in the tragic hero’s ‘ô ciel’ or ‘ô dieux’ – since that would make his character’s name look as if it was ending too soon, its invocation suspended.

The circumflex is there in fact for quite a simple reason: to make a strange name look stranger still. Whoever or whatever Salammbô may turn out to be, whether place or person, he, she or it cannot be French. There is a first evidence of that in the unnatural combination of a double m followed by a b; and the final circumflexed ô clinches it. Salammbô is a Punic name, and some measure at least of its Punicity is conveyed in that barbaric accent. It seems that the Punic language itself didn’t know the circumflex, which was a Greek, not a Phoenician, invention, but the Romans had it and Cerquiglini cites its use among their grammarians in the accenting of such alien, not to say Punic, names as Hannibal and Hadsrubal. Salammbô’s circumflex would have been at home in Latin, which is where the obsessively well-prepared Flaubert no doubt took it from when he was reading up for his novel.

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