Diacritical Marks – What the Glyph?!

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Ever wondered why you might come across a cafe, a café and a caffè? Why do English speakers call it a hotel but French speakers call it a hôtel? And what do you do with something like bây giờ?!

Many languages use the Roman or Latin alphabet in order to produce a written version of the spoken language. Sometimes it’s the primary system of writing, such as English, French, Swedish, Estonian, Hungarian, Slovenian… (the list goes on!) or it can be used in tandem with another system, for instance, in Japanese where kana (かな) and kanji (漢字) are the main written elements, and rōmaji is used to write from A to Z.

When reading English, you rarely see anything different to the 26 letters are taught in school, perhaps except for a few words such as the previously-mentioned “café” and other borrowed words, like “naïve” and “passé.” But what do these extra markings mean, and why are they required?

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As the title of the post suggests, these additional dots, circles, squiggles and lines are called diacritical marks. Often they will be referred to as accents, whereas in reality accents are a subset of these marks. Wikipedia has a remarkably accurate and even more remarkably lengthy post here, but my aim here is to summarise some the key points*.

Diacritical marks are arranged into different subgroups. Be aware that for demonstration of each of these, there will be a letter attached to them but these are not the diacritical marks themselves! There are accents, such as acute (é), grave (à) and circumflex (î). These, alongside curves like the tilde (ñ), and rings (å), all appear over the top of the character, but there are some that can appear below or even within the characters, for example, the subscript curls called a cedilla (ç) or an ogonek (ę), and overlays such as a slash (ł). This list is by no means exhaustive, but it’s  a good start!

So why bother having them? Sure, they make the text look interesting, but why else do they exist?

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One important reason is the pronunciation of the words. As mentioned above, we don’t really see many diacritical marks appearing in English, yet think of all the different possible sound combinations we have. To take two lines from one of my favourite poems available in full here:

Refer does not rhyme with deafer.
Feffer does, and zephyr, heifer.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: English is weird, and its pronunciation ‘rules’ leaves many learners of the language bemused at these irregularities. But I digress…

Other languages can be much, much easier to pronounce thanks to these marks. If we see “u” and “ü” in German, there will be a difference in how much we round our lips in its pronunciation. In French, an “e” and an “é” will differ in how much we open our mouths, and in Polish, an “a” and an “ą” will cause a more nasal noise in the latter. These marks guide us to make the right noises so that those who can hear us know what we’re talking about.

Sometimes, the subgroup of accents can be used for other functions, such as marking stress and grammatical information:

  • In Spanish, the ‘o’s in the word “meteorológico” are all pronounced with the same mouth shape, so there isn’t a huge difference in the sound, but the acute indicates that the stress of the word falls on this letter, which is often spoken by extending the sound of the ‘o’ for an extra beat
  • In French, the words “a” and “à” do not differ in pronunciation at all, but the former means “he/she/it has” and the latter is the preposition “to,” meaning that grave accent plays a big part!

Diacritical marks can do many other things, such as marking prosody and vowel omission, but possibly one of the most complex sets of diacritical marks occur in Vietnamese. Despite being an Austroasiatic language, it bucks the trend in writing systems, and has done since the 17th Century, in using the latin alphabet with the addition of singular and compound diacritical marks to identify pronunciation and, importantly, tone. An excellent explanation of these tones can be found at the ever-helpful Omniglot, and if you’re interested, the pronunciation of the Vietnamese words at the beginning of the article can be found here.

What do diacritical marks do in your language? Would your language be able to function without them? Let me know in the comments =]

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*I focus solely on diacritical marks the roman/latin script in this post, but be aware that such markings are also present in many other scripts, such as Devanagari and Hangul.

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