Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Diacritic - Mark My Words


Adjective & noun. Late 17th century.
[Greek diakritikos, from diakrinein distinguish, from krinein separate.]

A adj. Of a mark or sign: serving to distinguish different values or sounds of the same letter,
as in ë, ê, é, è, etc. L17

B noun. A diacritic mark. M19

We don't really use diacritics in English, but perhaps we should. An example is my five-year-old daughter, who has learnt that the letter E makes the eh sound that one finds at the start of, say, Eddie. However, she is often tripped up by the word she, which behaves perfectly well until it gets to E, at which point that familiar letter transforms itself into a strange elongated ee sound that's usually the domain of a double-E, as in sheep, keep, weep, etc.

To avoid such unnecessary confusion, other languages use a system of diacritics, which are marks above a letter that indicate which pronunciation is to be used if that letter has more than one. For example, in Romanian, you have the letter A (without a diacritic) and the letter Ă (with diacritic); the first is pronounced ah as in map, and the second is pronounced uh as in mum. This never changes, and is incredibly useful for slow-learning foreigners like me who are clumsily trying to get to grips with the language.

However, the bizarre thing about diacritics is that English speakers often hate them! The amount of times I've heard in language classes: "Oh I can't be dealing with all those little ticks and marks and accents and things!" Guys, they're there to help us! If, when learning a language, we just take the time to learn them and what they mean, it will help us immeasurably in our pronunciation. Of course, if you really don't like diacritics, then consider Spanish, which very sensibly has five vowels with five vowel sounds, one for each, always the same. How simple is that?

Does your language have diacritics?

If you're learning a language, do you find them useful?

Do please leave your most (dia)critical comments in the box below. 


  1. Maybe it's because we rarely get the chance to use diacritics in English is the reason why I enjoy the opportunity when it presents itself of doing so? Granted there aren't that many, virtually all, borrowed words in varying states of naturalisation in English we have to choose from eg. naïve, naïveté, mêlée, pâté, façade, jalapeño, omertà, smörgåsbords etc. even as I type these words the auto-correct is instantly deleting all the diacritics which just goes to show how diacritics in English are deemed as 'foreign', unnecessary and dare I say it, a tad pretentious

    When I'm writing in Welsh the circumflex is probably the most used diacritic in the language to disambiguate long vowels and in Welsh the letters 'w' and 'y' are vowels which can cause a few problems with some computer fonts that don't accommodate for the characters /ŵ/ (eg. gwdihŵ - "owl") or /ŷ/ (eg. tŷ - "house"). Welsh also uses to a lesser extent the acute (casáu - "to hate") and the grave accent which you hardly ever see (I had to say that as I honestly can't think of an example!) as well as the diaeresis (¨) to indicate that two adjoining vowels are to be pronounced separately (eg. mwncïod - "monkeys").
    Finally, I don't know if this is attributed to anyone but there's a Hungarian pithy phrase which demonstrates that in some languages and in some instances attention should be made to a word's actual diacritics:
    "Bár szárnyalás és szarnyalás közt A különbség csak egy ékezet" - The difference between licking shit and soaring, is just an acute accent.

    1. So there! Püt thåt iñ yőùr pîpĕ änd şmôkę ït Ed.

    2. You're right about the autocorrect, Mwncïod. As a general rule, for foreign words in English, I like to use the various accents and diacritics, and my autocorrect doesn't approve. And, yes, it is also partly because I can be a tad pretentious in my writing.

      And I'm glad to see A.N is enjoying the discovery that his keyboard can do diacritics too ...

  2. We have it in Portuguese. Over Vowels, only and not all goes with all. e, for example, can't have a tilde. Even if you try at computer you get: ~e
    So we have (some examples) ã, â, á, à, ê, î, í, ô, õ, û... I believe all these are letters with diacritic, used in Portuguese, according to your explanation. I was taught they're accents.
    When learning languages - as you put brilliantly in your daughter's example - it's very difficult for me the non existence of diacritic.

    1. Spanish has those too, Teresa, but they tell the reader where to put the stress on a word if it doesn't follow the regular pattern. There is one diacritic in Spanish, which is the N and the Ñ, the diacritical tilde converting the usual N sound to the one as found in the middle of 'onion'. However, I think there is a difference between accents and diacritic marks, in that one changes stress and one modifies pronunciation.

    2. Spanish Ñ sound is our (in Portuguese) NH

  3. And I thought the word simply described someone who was not very good at finding fault!!

    1. This might have made me chuckle. It might have. Don't let it go to your head.

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