Diacritical Allergy

One of my hobbies is the English language, in all its myriad aspects. One such aspect is orthography, which includes more than just spelling for those wondering why I am using an expensive word.  I’ve touched on the subject of orthography previously but it is a large subject area. One aspect of orthography that has recently caught my attention is that of diacritical marks, to which English seems to be allergic.I’ve wondered about this diacritical allergy for a while. What brought it fully into my awareness, however, was seeing a few unusual things like “rôle” and “coöp”. In the former, the diacritical was just jarring. But upon seeing the latter, I was beset by a revelation. I no longer had to guess which word I was looking at. It was obviously not referring to a common verb or a domicile for chickens. I then began to notice other useful diacriticals, not just the diaeresis, and realized that English orthography would truly benefit from more extensive use of such marks.

I have seen various assertions about the lack of diacriticals in English, many completely absurd. For instance, one commentator on the Internet asserts that English “goes out of its way to make things unclear”, or words to that effect. That is patently absurd. English itself has no motivations. Rather, the current state of the language, in all aspects, is the result of its history. I will not delve into the details of that history but it seems much of the mess with orthography in general can be laid squarely at the feet of medieval scribes and early printing press operators followed by largely clueless scholars later.

But lets set aside ancient history and consider more recent technological innovations, starting with the typewriter. Having extra characters on a typewriter necessarily makes the machine more complex, especially if the mechanism is entirely mechanical. Thus, it is not surprising that with the advent of such machines, the already light use of diacritical marks waned further through the twentieth century. Then, with the advent of computers and text encoding schemes, the choice was made not to encode diacriticals, their usage being relatively infrequent and keeping code sets smaller was a very important goal at the time.

As computers have become more powerful, however, the technological limitations that made use of diacritical marks impossible in many contexts have largely disappeared, particularly with the advent of Unicode. It seems now that the major limiting factor for widespread English use of diacriticals is the venerable qwerty keyboard which has, alas, not been expanded to include an obvious means of composing characters with diacritical marks. That said, I have observed increased use of diacritical marks, particularly when representing names, of late, so there is hope that that final barrier will soon disappear. (Personally, I have the “Menu” key on my keyboard remapped as a “Compose” key which allows me to easily composing marked characters. On a standard keyboard, it is only slightly less convenient than the shift key and does not require holding it down while the composition sequence is typed. Thus the sequence of “<compose> <‘> <e>” yields é.)

So now the question becomes whether the allergy to diacritical marks will persist with improving computer technology. This will depend on the people who write and publish English text. If they remain ultra conservative, then the allergy will remain. However, if they take a progressive stance, the allergy could easily dissipate. But is such a change even desirable?

Let’s return to the first example I include above: “rôle”. At least in my dialect of English, the “ô” is simply a long “o”, just like in “rote” or “tote” or “tome”, none of which require a circumflex. Indeed, the standard rules of spelling say that the final “e” makes the “o” long anyway. Thus, the circumflex in “rôle” is superfluous. Simply writing “role” is sufficiently unambiguous.

On the other hand, let’s examine the use of the diaeresis in “coöp”. It serves to indicate that the second “o” is pronounced independently of the first “o”, thus preventing it from being interpreted as the diphthong “oo”. This is useful because a coop is a domicile for fowl and one is often cooped up during the cold of winter. Thus “coöp”, which is short for “coöperation” (usually spelled “cooperation”), is different from “coop” and the distinction is useful. Even when there is no chance of confusion, it is useful. For instance, someone not familiar with the word “naive” might read the “ai” as a long “a”, which makes it sound like a totally different word. By writing “naïve”, on the other hand, it becomes clear that the “a” and “i” are separate sounds.

There is another solid example of a diacritical being useful. That is in the case of a final “e” in a word which happens not to be silent. In English, the final “e” is almost always silent but there are some cases, usually words coming from other languages, where the final “e” is not silent. Take, for instance, “sake” and “sake”. The former is a Japanese drink with two syllables while the latter is a noun with a single syllable. Wait, you see no difference? Trust me, there is one. Perhaps if I write “sakë” and “sake”. Clearer? (It is more typical to see “saké” which is also clearer but the “é” suggests stress on the second syllable which is incorrect but “sakë” is entirely consistent with English use of the diaeresis.)

Then there are words such as protégé or résumé or café which are much clearer with the acute marks. “Protégé” comes from the French and respelling it without the diacriticals would require something like “protayzhay” (with “zh” being a voiced “sh” sound). “Café” would end up being something like “caffay” and “résumé” would be “rayzoomay”. (Often “résumé” is written as “resumé” which does reflect a common pronunciation of the word in which case only the final “é” would turn into “ay”).

There are many more cases where diacritical marks would be or are beneficial. There are also other cases like “rôle” where the diacritical is pointless. I will avoid delving into the finer points of diacritical usage but instead point you at an excellent web page on English diacritical usage.

Let me close with the following suggestion. For all of you writers out there, do not be afraid of diacritical marks. Use them where they serve a real purpose (like the diaeresis) but avoid them when they add nothing of value (like “rôle”). And when you do use them, use them consistently. After all, the only way to eliminate inconsistent usage is to start using another method consistently. I know I intend to start using diacritical marks more extensively.

Now if only we had a system where we could indicate the length (or value) of a vowel to disambiguate such things as “wind” vs. “wind”.

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