I’m a word-y person. I love a play on words, words that rhyme (especially in funny poems or jokes), words with unusual spelling or pronunciation (I like a good challenge), even words that make me giggle (like ‘kerfuffle’). All part of being a writer, I suppose. Writers must love words of all kinds to build their stories, don’t you think?
The words that got me thinking about this post are those with accent marks still used in our modern English. Many have been dropped as we modernize even more in this Digital Age and I wonder what will happen to our language as we know it. Will it, too, adapt to a point of unrecognizability? I hope not. I enjoy it too much.
Are Diacritical Marks All That Critical Anymore? I Say YES!
Accent marks are called diacritical marks. And in our modern English they are being used less and less. The accent mark, or diaeresis (omg, I had to add this word to my computer dictionary) indicates, according to Wikipedia, “the modification of a vowel’s sound when spoken.” In modern English the only two that are used consistently are the grave accent (è) and acute accent (é). Even these tend to disappear in certain types of publications, such as an online blog (but not mine, ok?).
Take Your Pick
The list of diacritical marks is longer than I expected (you can view it here) so I’ll cover the accents most relevant to the English language and currently in use.
From Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/English_terms_with_diacritical_marks:
- the acute accent and grave accent
- as in née, frappé, soufflé, résumé (e.g., I shall resume writing my work resume – just doesn’t look right to me without the accents; neither does drinking a glass of rose… or rosé?)
- the circumflex (entrepôt), borrowed from French
- the diaeresis (Zoë), indicating a second syllable in two consecutive vowels (similar to, but not same as, the German umlaut)
- the tittle, the dot found on the regular small i and small j, is removed when another diacritic is required (poor little tittle goes away…)
- the macron, lengthening vowels, as in Māori; or indicating omitted n or m (in pre-Modern English, both in print and in handwriting).
- the breve (ă)
- the umlaut (über), altering Germanic vowels
- written now as (ü) ue, (ö) oe, (ä) ae
- the cedilla (soupçon), in French, Portuguese and in Catalan it is a softening c, indicating ‘s-‘ not ‘k-‘ pronunciation
- So garçon (waiter) doesn’t sound like ‘garkōn’ (something from a Lord of the Rings movie, maybe?)
- the tilde (Señor, João), in Spanish indicating palatalized n, and Portuguese indicating nasal a and o (although in Spanish and most source languages, the tilde is not considered a diacritic over the letter n but rather as an integral part of the distinct letter ñ; in Portuguese the sound is represented by “nh”)
- as in piñon (mmm…my favorite when they’re fresh picked) instead of pinyon/pine nut
There are also digraphs…but I digress…
There are a few English words that actually don’t borrow diacritics from another language, we made them up just for us! It’s called a hiatus – two separate vowel sounds in adjacent syllables – and you thought it was just a break from school… As in words like coöperative, daïs and reëlect – now they’re replaced by use of a hyphen (re-elect) or made into a whole word (cooperative, dais). (Note: certain publications still use the hiatus, it’s not just for breaks anymore!)
When one breaks down a language, it’s amazing what can be found. Sure, we learn English language in schools – nouns, verbs, adjectives and such – but no one teaches the history of our language unless you major in it in college.
If the history of language or words were taught in grade schools, perhaps there would be more word nerds like you and me, then. Get your word on!
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