The Thinking of Speaking
Issue #18 November / December 2015
The Secret Life of Diacritics
by Erik Zidowecki
November / December 2015 | 

For those of us who have grown up with English as our native language, we are very comfortable with our Latin alphabet. It is composed of 26 letters, 5 of which are vowels and the rest of which are consonants. Nothing tricky about it.

Well, at least when dealing with most of our English words. However, languages quite often "borrow" vocabulary from other languages, and those foreign words sometimes introduce strange spellings or even new characters.

For example, most of us have probably eaten at a small food and beverage shop called a "café". This little restaurant gets its name from the French word "café", meaning "coffee" or "coffeehouse". According to English pronunciation, "cafe" should probably sound similar to "cape" or "cage", with the "a" being an "ay" sound and the "e" being silent.

But instead, the word is pronounced "cah-FAY" (/ˈkæf.eɪ/), due to a little mark above the "e" which you probably mistook for a printing error the first time you saw it.

Another French word we have adopted with this strange, altered letter is "fiancée" (or "fiancé", depending on if the person is male or female). This term is used to refer to a person who is engaged to the other, replacing the old fashioned "betrothed" for something more exotic sounding.

French people, or anyone who has studied French, will of course recognise the acute mark. It changes the normal Latin "e" into a new sound without creating an entirely new letter. It is found in several languages using the Latin alphabet, including French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Catalan, Norwegian, Swedish, Danish, Irish, Hungarian, Galician, Czech, Icelandic, Kashubian, Luxembourgish, Occitan, and Slovak. Oh, and in English, as we have seen, in certain adopted words or names, like Beyoncé.

A Street café in Berlin

Some other English words you might have seen the acute mark used in are "cliché" and "risqué", both from French and both having their final silent letter converted into something new. This acute sign is part of a larger group of added markings called diacritics.

A few of these words have been fully integrated with English and had their diacritics removed. One of those is "naive", which also comes from French where it is spelled "naïve". We have learned how to pronounce the word and, in order to keep spelling simple, removed the diacritic. "Café" is also in this process of naturalization, and you can often see it spelled just "cafe".

This is what has happened to other words that were actually completely English but at one time were given diacritics to help in pronunciation.

Words like hiätus, coöperative, daïs, and reëlect have dropped their markings to become hiatus, cooperative, dais, and reelect. Sometimes, hyphens are added (co-operative, re-elect) to make pronunciation clearer.

Essentially, they can be seen as "patches" to software which is being upgraded. Each change introduces some problem which can be fixed by adding something else and establishing a new rule to cover it.

In the word "naïve" and the words listed above is a different diacritic, called a diaeresis. Its function is also different from the acute. While the acute mark changed the sound of the vowel, the diaeresis is used to prevent a pair of vowels from being pronounced as a diphthong (a combination of vowels with a specific, single pronunciation). Normally in English, "ai" is likely to be pronounced as "ay", as in "afraid" or "fair". With the diaeresis, the vowels instead keep their own sounds and split the word into two syllables ("nah-EEV" /nɑˈiv/).

French isn't the only language to give English words with diacritics. If you are into spicy food, you have probably tasted a jalapeño pepper, or maybe as a kid you attended a party with a piñata. Both these words come from Spanish and have a cute little squiggle over the "n" called a tilde. This modifies the sound of the "n" to have an extra nasalized component, like there was a "y" after it, similar to the way "n" is pronounced in "onion" and "dominion".


First, it should be noted that having diacritics is not actually related to a language, since they denote sound in a writing system. Diacritics are part of the orthography, and for each language, it is possible to devise a writing system that includes all the sounds without the need for extra marks.

But changing the writing system might not even be necessary, since the spelling of the words could simply be modified most of the time. Looking back at some of the words we introduced (café, fiancée, naïve, piñata) these could be spelled to show the correct sounds as cafay, fiansay, nigheve, and pinyata. These might look awkward to our brains, but remember that Old English had a very similar look.

Second, sometimes the term "accent" is used instead of "diacritic", but it is important to realize that diacritics are used to denote many pronunciation changes, not just accent.


Children swinging at a piñata, a word and tradition taken from the Spanish

The word "diacritic" comes from the Greek word "διακριτικός" (diakritikós), meaning "distinguishing". These marks are used to show that a letter should be treated differently from the normal usage. That change can affect stress, short and long sound, or create an entirely new sound.

So why do some languages have them and some don't? English only has them from adopted words or specific names, while many other languages which also use the Latin alphabet use many of these notations.

Unfortunately, that is not an easy answer. Languages based upon Latin and using the Latin alphabet added in these modifiers as their spoken language developed. Latin itself uses no diacritics.

The very first diacritics were introduced in Ancient Greece and Rome. They evolved and spread to later European languages for two main purposes.

First, they helped define the pronunciations of letters and words, expanding the existing writing system without the need to add more letters. They also saved space when writing, which became very important as, during the early middle ages, when writing became more popular, ink and paper were expensive.

We have already seen an example of this in the word "piñata". It was originally spelled "pinnata", but to save space (and thus money), Spanish scholars invented the tilde to indicate the letter was doubled.

Looking at French, we know that the spelling of words is mostly based on the way they were pronounced in Old French (1100-1200 AD). However, since then the spoken language has continued to evolve, so that the spellings no longer match. Some of these changes have led to letters becoming silent in many words (ballet, faux) and multiple homophones (air, aire, ère, erre, ers, haire, hère). To accommodate for the changing sounds, diacritics were introduced.

Essentially, they can be seen as "patches" to software which is being upgraded. Each change introduces some problem which can be fixed by adding something else and establishing a new rule to cover it.

France has a particularly interesting history regarding the accent (`), or grave, mark. It is the same as the acute (´) mark, but it faces the other direction.

In 1653, L’academie Francaise was established to protect and promote the French language, and one of the decisions they made was to introduce the usage of grave marks. What makes that so interesting is that they did this not to make spelling simpler, but to actually make it more complex.

The reason was that they wished to distinguish between the educated and the ignorant. The elite would use the spellings with the extra markings to set themselves above others. This is similar to the practice of using calligraphy or very formal writing for documents of high importance.

12All pages
The Secret Life of Diacritics
Writer: Erik Zidowecki
Kikos: Street café in Berlin
JR Goleno: Pinata party
京市: Popular diacritics
Arbor: Typewriter keys
Mulder1982: Faroese sign
Tomasz Sienicki: Laptop keyboard with Scandinavian characters
-)~commonswiki: Arabic keyboard layout
Petey: Keyboard (title)
• "Diacritic" Wikipedia <>

All images are Copyright - CC BY-SA (Creative Commons Share Alike) by their respective owners, except for Petey, which is Public Domain (PD) or unless otherwise noted.


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