Des mots dans des mots. Words within words. Inspired by design, French, and the 2010 film, Inception, I decided to create the Vocab Inception Series. Using photos within photos, let’s take a multilayered approach to French vocabulary! Learn a single word and boost your vocabulary exponentially! Today’s word is especially relevant. As of this writing, the wildfires in Australia continue to devastate the country. The choice for the inaugural lesson was therefore an obvious one: la forêt.

La forêt Forest

La forêt. It’s a curious little word. Feminine, with an accent circonflexe on the E. It’s also one of my favourites for teaching the importance of accents and how anglophones can harness their English to fast-track their French!


L’Amuïssement de la lettre S — The Disappearance of the letter S


Let’s consider the word in English: forest. It’s basically forêt with an S!


How did that happen? For some words, that little ˆ represents an S that used to follow the accented vowel. Over time, this S disappeared from the ancient Latin form of the word, as well as the pronunciation, and was replaced by un diacritique. (À noter : In other cases, the circumflex has to do with vowel sounds or distinguishing between words with the same spelling, like sur and sûr.)


Now, why some words lost the S and why others didn’t remains unclear. (La question is a notable example that resisted this linguistic phenomenon.) However, for the anglophone, especially anyone who struggles with l’orthographe française (French spelling), this background knowledge of the missing S can be very useful. It’s also a reminder of how closely linked and symbiotic the two languages are!




  1. If you consider spelling the stuff of nightmares, toss and turn no more! Instead, use this information to remember which words and which vowels have the accent! Remember, it often replaces an S that used to come after the marked vowel.
  2. Similarly, if you encounter a new word with an accent circonflexe, try adding the S back in to see if it makes sense. It’s not foolproof, but as a student, I was always delighted when it worked!


Reversing Evolution


Here are some French words that will look and sound even more familiar once you return the S disparu:


Key: Masculine Noun / Feminine Noun


l’ancêtre  = ancestor
la bête  = beast
le baptême  = baptism
la côte  = coast
la crête  = crest
l’enquête  = inquiry, inquest, survey
la fête  = festival, feast, “fest”
la hâte  = haste
l’honnêteté  = honesty
l’hôpital  = hospital
l’hôte / l’hôtesse  = host, hostess
l’île  = isle, island
l’intérêt  = interest
le maître / la maîtresse  = master, mistress
la quête  = quest
la tempête  = tempest, storm


Though it requires more mental gymnastics and word power, you can also apply this knowledge to the following:


le château (formerly castel)  = castle
la fenêtre  = window > Think: “defenestrate” in English
le goût  = taste > Think: “gustative” or “gustatory” in English


Variations on la forêt


As for la forêt, here’s some related vocabulary and applications:


le feu de forêt (pl: des feux)  = forest fire
l’incendie de fôret  = forest fire
la forêt amazonienne  = the Amazon rainforest
une forêt pluviale  = a rainforest
la Forêt-Noire  = Black Forest (in Germany)
la forêt-noire (no capital letters)  = Black Forest cake


⚠️ Curiously, though la forêt evolved, many derivative words retained the S.
la foresterie  = forestry
un forestier / une forestière  = a forester
forestier / forestière (adj.)  = forest (as an adjective)
un garde forestier / une garde forestière  = a park ranger


⚠️ Finally, here’s an example of why gender and accents matter:
Le foret (masculine, no accent)  = drill bit


• • •


Looking for MORE French vocabulary lessons?

Find all my posts on le vocabulaire right here! Packed with memorable graphics and designed to help you master those tricky noun genders, my lessons will make learning easier and show you the FUN in French!


© 2020 French à la folie.

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