Diacritics  

What are diacritics?

A diacritic (or diacritical mark) is a mark added to a letter, usually to indicate a specific pronunciation of that letter.
Of the various languages using the Latin alphabet, English is one of the few that generally does not use diacritical marks. Those words that do contain them are typically foreign loanwords whose diacritics have been retained in English. The most common of these that appear in English are known as accents (either acute, as in café, or grave, as in vis-à-vis).
There are, however, a few diacritics that are used in native English words.

Diacritics in Native English Words

Tittle

The only diacritical mark that is used natively in English words is the tittle (also called a superscript dot). It is the small dot that appears above lowercase i and j.
Unlike the majority of other diacritic marks, the tittle does not indicate a specific way to pronounce the letters. (At least not in English; in other languages, such as Turkish, the tittle distinguishes two different vowel sounds that I can represent.) Instead, it originated as a means of distinguishing i and j from other letters in writing, as older lettering styles (especially Gothic writing) gave letters curves and widths that led them to blend into one another.
Because it does not influence pronunciation, instead being a part of the letter itself, the tittle is usually not considered among the diacritical marks one might encounter in English, but it’s still worth knowing about.

Dieresis

The dieresis (diaeresis in British English; also called a tréma or an umlaut) is a pair of dots that appears over certain vowels to indicate a hiatus—that is, a pause between two adjacent vowel sounds, especially when they are the same letter. The dieresis indicates that the two vowels are pronounced separately, as opposed to forming a digraph or diphthong.
While there are a few words that are still commonly spelled with a dieresis, the majority have abandoned it altogether.
For example:
  • Chloë (more commonly Chloe)
  • coöperate (more commonly cooperate or, especially in British English, co-operate)
  • deäctivate (more commonly deactivate)
  • Eloïse (more commonly Eloise)
  • naïve (originally from French, often simplified as naive)
  • noöne (more commonly no one, sometimes no-one)
  • preëmpt (more commonly preempt or, especially in British English, pre-empt)
  • reëlect (more commonly reelect or, especially in British English, re-elect)
  • reënter (more commonly reenter or, especially in British English, re-enter)
  • Zoë (more commonly Zoe)
  • zoölogy (more commonly zoology)
In a few words, the dieresis is used to indicate that an E at the end of a word is not silent, most famously the name Brontë.

Grave Accent

An accent is a short, diagonal mark written above a letter to indicate that it is pronounced a certain way. The grave accent slants from the left down to the right, as in à, è, ì, etc. (This is in contrast to the acute accent, which slopes the opposite way: á, é, í, etc.)
In English, the grave accent is almost only used in poetry or song lyrics (and even then, only rarely) to indicate additional syllables at the end of words that would otherwise be silent (especially past participles ending in “-ed”). This is generally done to maintain meter, the basic rhythmic structure created by stress on alternating syllables. For example:
  • Oh, on this blessèd day,
  • An old friend walkèd up to me,
  • He longèd for a world in which,
  • He would forever lovèd be.
While mostly reserved for poetry, the grave accent can be useful in other instances. For example, the past participles learned (pronounced ˈlɜrnd/) can be used as an adjective to describe someone who has a profound amount of knowledge, in which case it is pronounced /ˈlɜrnɪd/. To distinguish this pronunciation, the word is sometimes written as learnèd, as in:
  • “She is a renowned and learnèd professor.”
  • “This truly is a blessèd occasion!”
However, this is not common in everyday writing, and the acute grave is essentially unused in modern English. (When an accent is used, it is also not uncommon to use an acute accent instead, as it is more commonly encountered in foreign loanwords than the grave accent.)

Diacritics in Foreign Loanwords

By far, the majority of the diacritics we encounter in English are carried over from other languages in foreign loanwords (words that are used in English without translation). The most common of these are acute or grave accents used in French words, but other diacritics are sometimes used as well. However, because diacritics are not standard in English (and are not easily produced on most English keyboards), it is more common for English writers to simply omit them.
Because the pronunciation shifts indicated by these diacritical marks are specific to the languages in which they are used, we won’t go over their functions or patterns here; instead, this section will simply list some common examples of the different diacritics one might encounter in English writing.

Acute Accent

The acute accent is the most commonly used diacritic in English. It almost always appears in loanwords taken from French, though there are a few terms from other languages that feature the acute accent as well.
For example:
  • apéritif (French; usually aperitif)
  • adiós (Spanish; usually adios)
  • blasé (French; usually spelled with the accent)
  • café (French; often simply cafe)
  • cliché (French; usually spelled with the accent, but also commonly spelled without it)
  • communiqué (French; usually spelled with the accent)
  • coup d’état (French; usually spelled with the accent)
  • canapé (French; usually spelled with the accent)
  • divorcé(e) (French; divorcé refers to a man who has divorced, while divorcée is a woman who has divorced; divorcee, with no accent, is often used in English to refer to either a man or a woman)
  • décor (French; often simply décor)
  • éclair (French; often simply eclair)
  • exposé (French; usually spelled with the accent to distinguish it from the verb expose)
  • fiancé(e) (French; fiancé refers to a man engaged to be married, while fiancée refers to a woman; both terms are usually spelled with the accent in English)
  • maté (Spanish; the accent mark is usually added in English to distinguish from the English word mate)
  • matinée (French; often simply matinee)
  • née (French; often simply nee)
  • Pokémon (Japanese; the accent is often added in English to indicate the correct pronunciation of the word, but it is just as often left out)
  • purée (French; often simply puree)
  • résumé (French; often resumé or simply resume)
  • saké (Japanese; the accent is sometimes added in English to indicate the correct pronunciation of the word, but it is more often left out)
  • soirée (French; often simply soiree)
  • touché (French; usually spelled with the accent)

Grave Accent

Other than the rare instances we looked at previously, the grave accent (a reverse of the acute accent above) only appears in English in loanwords taken from French.
For example:
  • à la carte (French; often simply a la carte)
  • chèvre (French; usually spelled with the accent)
  • crèche (French; usually spelled with the accent)
  • crème brûlée (French; can be spelled crème brulée, creme brulée, or simply creme brulee)
  • déjà vu (French; often simply deja vu)
  • discothèque (French; often simply discotheque)
  • bric-à-brac (French; usually simply bric-a-brac)
  • vis-à-vis (French; usually simply vis-a-vis)
  • voilà (French; usually simply voila)

Circumflex

The circumflex is a combination of both the acute and grave accent, forming a single pointed mark that appears above vowels. It only appears in English in loanwords taken from French, above the letters E and A. For instance:
  • château (French; often simply chateau)
  • coup de grâce (French; often simply coup de grace)
  • crème brûlée (French; can be spelled crème brulée, creme brulée, or simply creme brulee)
  • crêpe (French; often simply crepe)
  • mêlée (French; usually simply melee)
  • papier-mâché (French; often simplified as paper mache or maché)
  • pâté (French; often written with just the acute accent, paté)
  • tête-à-tête (French; often simply tete-a-tete)

Cedilla

The cedilla is a tail-like mark that appears under certain consonants, usually the letter C. Only a few French loanwords that feature a cedilla are used in English, and those that do usually have the cedilla dropped by English writers due to its rarity and unfamiliarity. For example:
  • façade (formally written with the cedilla, but often simplified as facade)
  • garçon (formally written with the cedilla, but often simplified as garcon)
  • soupçon (formally written with the cedilla, but often simplified as soupcon)

Tilde

The tilde is a wavy line that is placed over certain letters to indicate a nasal pronunciation. In English, it only appears in loanwords from Spanish, in which case it is only used over the letter N. For instance:
  • El Niño (usually spelled with the tilde)
  • español (not common in English, but usually spelled with the tilde when it is used)
  • jalapeño (usually spelled with the tilde, but often simplified as jalapeno)
  • La Niña (usually spelled with the tilde)
  • mañana (not common in English, but usually spelled with the tilde when it is used)
  • piñata (usually spelled with the tilde, but sometimes simplified as pinata)
  • piñon (usually spelled with the tilde, but sometimes written as pinyon or pinon)
  • quinceañera (not common in English, but usually spelled with the tilde when it is used)
  • señor (usually spelled with the tilde, but sometimes simplified as senor)
  • señora (usually spelled with the tilde, but sometimes simplified as senora)

Dieresis

Other than the rare (and now mostly obsolete) instances we looked at earlier, the dieresis is only used in a few words taken from another language. The dieresis is most associated with German words, though it does occur in French as well. (We included naïve in our previous section because it has become a standard word in English.) In German, it is known as an umlaut, and it indicates a shift in the way a vowel is produced, rather than a pause between two vowel sounds. For example:
  • doppelgänger (formally written with the dieresis, but usually written without it)
  • Fräulein (formally written with the dieresis, but usually written without it)
  • Möbius (most often used in the phrase Möbius strip or Möbius band; usually spelled without the dieresis)
  • Noël (French; often simplified as Noel)
  • Schrödinger (most often used in the phrase Schrödinger’s cat; commonly spelled without the dieresis)
  • über (formally written with the dieresis, but usually written without it)

1. True or False: Diacritics are commonly used in English.



2. Which of the following diacritical marks is never used in native English words?




3. What type of diacritical mark most commonly appears in foreign loanwords?





4. Foreign loanwords from which language most often have diacritics in English?





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