A Multilingual Guide To Accents and Diacritics In Translated Documents

What are Diacritics? And Why Are They Important in International Communication?

The experts at Rennert Translation Group fill you in on diacritics, which are a key component in European and Asian languages and in the international desktop publishing process.

Diacritics are marks placed above, below, or to the side of a character to alter its pronunciation, or to differentiate between two words that are spelled the same but have different meanings. Accent marks are only one type of diacritic, though the terms are often used interchangeably. Diacritics are rare in the English language, but appear in most European (and some Asian) languages. The most commonly used marks include acute, cedilla, grave, circumflex, and tilde. Here are some examples of commonly used diacritics.

Diacritics are rare in the English language, but appear in most European (and some Asian) languages. The most commonly used marks include acute, cedilla, grave, circumflex, and tilde.

Here are some examples of commonly used diacritics.

á  the acute accent
à  the grave accent
â  the circumflex accent
?  the breve
å  the bolle or ring
ç  the cedilla
ñ  the tilde
ø  the slash or solidus
ü  the umlaut

The History of Diacritics

The first diacritics appeared in Ancient Greece and Rome, and evolved and spread in subsequent European languages. While they were created to help in the pronunciation of letters and words, there were some secondary benefits as well Diacritics saved space and money. For example, beginning in the early middle ages, Spanish scholars invented the tilde to indicate that a letter was doubled (ñ replaced nn). This may not seem like much of a difference, but in an era when ink and paper were rare and everything had to be written by hand, every modest effort to economize helped.

Languages are always evolving, and digital typography and word processing have only accelerated the changes. Some languages have recently dropped diacritics, while others have added more:

  • In the early 1980's, the Greek government abolished a number of lesser-used diacritics.

  • A few years ago, Germany's Spelling Council, as part of a series of controversial reforms, decreed that the ß should be replaced with the ss that it originally replaced. This change was quite unpopular; a number of newspapers have refused to implement it.

  • In France, people did not put accents on capital letters while French Canadians always did. With the advent of word processing, Parisians realized that they had to be very careful when changing the case of diacritics-if an accented character was changed from upper case to lower case, the accent did not appear and the spelling was wrong. Now, in France, upper case accents have become officially correct, but many people refuse to use them. This is an issue that may come up during translation projects. Ask your translation company project manager about how to handle it.

Importing Accents and Diacritics into English

English uses accent marks only in words of foreign origin. Currently, there are a very few words containing accents that are used in English (among them divorcé, exposé, résumé, and communiqué). The accent is usually omitted once the foreign word has been fully assimilated into standard English usage.

The lack of diacritics means that students new to English must learn proper pronunciation through trial and error. Consider the two English words cut and put. Each contains the vowel u, but they are pronounced very differently. The words in their written form offer no clue as to how each word should be pronounced.

By contrast, in Spanish, words are spelled just like they sound. For example, the words esta and está are pronounced differently and have different meanings. The reader's clue is the accent mark. Since English offers no such help, many new students of the language find it more difficult to learn than other European languages.

Next, get more tips on how to work with accents and diacritics on computers in the next installment, A Multilingual Guide to Accents and Diacritics in Translated Documents, Part II