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Why so few diacritics in English?

Why does written English use so few diacritic marks compared with many other languages?

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English doesn't use ANY diacritics. Any that you may see are on words taken recently from other languages. When fully assimilated into English, such words lose their diacritics.

As far as WHY this is so... oh, Christ on a stick, I don't have the slightest vestige of an idea. Just reading the question left me in a state of mental paralysis for a few minutes, because I've always taken this so for granted. :) I'll see what I can dig up; in the meantime, anyone else have a theory handy?

speedwell2 November 15, 2004, 2:07pm

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What an intriguing thought!

Let's take 'hut' and 'hat'. Yes, why indeed don't we write hat (=hut) and hät (=hat)? :D :D :D

The two dots above a, o and u (ä, ö, ü) change the pronunciation of the vowel. The letters without the dots are pronounced back in the mouth, the letters with dots in front.

Perenna November 15, 2004, 3:17pm

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Preliminary research suggests that English does not use diacritics because the written language was heavily dependent on Latin. The basic Latin alphabet used no diacritics. The macron, or long sign, that is frequently seen in Latin textbooks (and was, if I remember correctly, borrowed from Greek), is only used to help out students of Latin.

The natural next question is why Latin did not use diacritics. Well... uh....

speedwell2 November 15, 2004, 5:31pm

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I am a Swede and in our alphabet we have three "extra" vowels -- å, ä, ö.
These are in fact short forms for aa, ae and oe, a 16th century printing invention where the second letter was put on top of the first, and made smaller. (This still prevails to some extent in hand-written texts, where the dots are instead a squiggle to imitate the e.) In Danish and Norwegian, another solution was implemented instead of the diacritical dots, that of either writing the two letters very close or on overlapping. In Swedish we don't speak about diacritics, these three are completely different letters with specific pronounciation attached to them. (In Finnish it is extremely important because the spelling and pronounciation are completely in unison. I can read out a text loud to a Finn who will understand it all even if I haven't a clue of what I have said!) Thus, we cannot omit the diacritics and only write a and o, because this would change the pronounciation and the meaning. We have nine different vowels to use and form the sounds that we need, and there is on the other hand no need whatsoever to make vowel combinations like in English, combination that do not even tell you how to pronounce them. Therefore, it is also very annoying (in a way) that our webworld is so devoid of these diacritics; omitting these "extras" makes our words look ridiculous at best (and provoking at worst). You cannot say that an R is a P with a diacritic (an extra leg added), can you?

Language structure has probably decided. We should, I think, in the Scandinavian context consider how words are related, for instance how you make a plural of a noun. In English it's very simple, some kind of pigeon style (because of all the peoples having invaded Albion). In Swedish there are six different so-called declinations, five of which using suffices. In this process, Umlaut may also occur (as in German). I think that this is a very strong reason why diacritics are not needed in English.
And, oh yes, a Welshman at our job insists that there should be a diacritic sign in "role", whatever role it may play; at least it does not change the pronounciation.

rberger November 17, 2004, 7:51am

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Wow, Berger, terrific post.

Tell your Welsh friend that if he is writing in French, he may use the "hat" over the O in role. In English it is dead as the dodo.

English as a pidgin... Hahahaha...hah...ah... you may have a point there ;) Or you may just be discussing the general way in which most languages get started in populations in which individual speakers come from widely different linguistic backgrouds. Or I could be repeating myself. :)

Finnish is in the same "language family" as Hungarian, the "Finno-Ugric" group. English is part of a different family, "Indo-European." In Hungarian as well as in Finnish, every vowel has its own individual letter. I'm not familiar with the way to type them out, but I know that the O vowels can have either one or two accent marks, or an umlaut, or nothing at all. The U's, I think, are the same. Other vowels have their own sets. In any event, when writing the Hungarian alphabet, you write all the different vowels. In the French dictionary on my desk, by contrast, the basic alphabet is given and diacritics are added to words as a sort of afterthought.

I wonder if we don't use diacritics in English because we just spell out the letter combinations that are made into a single symbol in other languages. You know the German symbol that looks like a big fancy B and is pronounced with an S sound? Actually I know that it comes from the old calligraphic way to write a ligature (connected letters) SS. In English we are forced to always write SS. (Interestingly, I see German words that also use SS without using the special symbol; what's up with that?)

speedwell2 November 17, 2004, 8:30am

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As to why some German words use the written out double s and others use the ß (pronounces "es-tset"), the explanation also harkens back to the days of Fraktur (German caligraphy). Basically, and I admittedly don't know the particulars, sometimes in Fraktur, you wrote a double s as a thing that looks like an f without the hash mark plus a regular s. These two then became contracted into one letter. However, the rules of Fraktur were unnecessarily complicated and sometimes it wasn't correct to write the weird f-looking-s and instead you just wrote two normals S's together. This is usually when the double s is in the middle of a word. Hope that's sufficiently enlightening.

Clarissa November 17, 2004, 1:15pm

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Clarissa, that works for me! Thanks!

speedwell2 November 17, 2004, 1:55pm

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I think this is a bit of a moot point. English is far from phonetic and that's why. We have 13-14 vowel sounds (depending on who you ask) and only 5 letters for them. If we're ever able to phoneticize the spelling system then maybe we should think about it. (Or we could just use combinations of the letters we have.)

IngisKahn December 2, 2004, 1:36pm

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To add to Clarissa's point, the Germans use the Eszett but are phasing it out, the Swiss and Austrians (German speaking Swiss anyways) always use the 'ss' form, and the old soft s is now only used in calculus for the integral sign.

As for fixing the obvious problem of English spelling, there are two problems: a lot of people (particularly those who write dictionaries) like English spelling just the way it is thank-you-very-much (I am not one of them, however), and getting Texans, Scots, Aussies, Canucks, etc. to agree on pronunciation is not entirely unlike herding cats.

Cyano December 4, 2004, 4:32am

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Re "Why didn't latin use diacritics"

This may be just me thinking simplistically, but (even though there were of course many root alphabets they based it on) the Romans basically created a set of letters that suited their language - thus, the LATIN alphabet. If they had needed more than 5 (6 including Y) different vowel-sounds, they would have added symbols rather than modifying the ones they had.
Any "non-standard" variations of latin letters in the languages that utilise it today are there in order to ADAPT an alphabet to a language that it wasn't originally intended for.

Actually, thinking about it more, latin does use combinations of vowels which are pronounced differently than just one vowel followed by another, doesn't it? "Caesar"? On the other hand, how much do we actually know about Latin pronunciation? Maybe someone who actually knows some latin should continue this, before I comletely embarass myself :)

MM December 4, 2004, 5:06am

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A question true to my own heart! Why does English have no diacritics? At one time, English spelling was pretty much phonetic, although spelling tended to be inconsistent because of regional varieties in pronunciation in England.

Each vowel letter could be one of two sounds: short or long. A short vowel occurred in a closed syllable, and a long vowel occurred in an open syllable. But the difference between a short vowel and a long vowel were minimal. At this point in history the sounds represented by vowels in English mirrored the sounds the vowels represent in just about every other language on earth that uses the Roman alphabet, i.e. ‘a’ as in father, ‘e’ in bet (short) or fiance (long), ‘i’ in bit (short) or the French word frite (long), etc.

There were dipthongs, but they seemed to be pronounced like they were spelled - just all at once. Consonant combinations existed too…’sc’ was pronounced like ‘sh’ is now (‘scip’ is now ‘ship’); ‘cg’ like ‘dg’ is now (‘bricge’ is now ‘bridge’), to give some examples.

Then the printing press arrived in England, and all spelling was virtually frozen in time. There have been some changes in spelling since then, but most of the words we write out now are essentially a recording of how the words were actually pronounced at the time their spelling was set. (New words borrowed into the language since this time don’t count.)

There have been major changes in pronunciation, however. The Great Vowel Shift is the biggest change (see for more info).

So the answer to why English has no diacritics is: diacritics were not needed. Since there is no standard setting organization to maintain English spelling and language usage, the written word has stayed pretty stable for the last 500 - 600 years.

To tie up some other loose ends in this string….

English uses the umlaut also, just not a diacritic to mark it. Compare German Mann/Männer and English man/men - the sound following the ‘m’ is the same in the singular and the same in the plural.

The “hat” over the O does have a purpose, at least as far as the Académie Française is concerned. Usually the circumflex accent in French indicates a missing letter, most often an ‘s’ (although I’m baffled as to what the missing letter in ‘role’ would be). And, according to the A.F., the vowel is much more ‘open’ than an un-hatted vowel. In 1990, the A.F. relented after years of pressure and allowed the ‘hat’ to disappear from some words.

The ‘ß’ vs ‘ss’ - ß is used after a long vowel, ‘ss’ is used after a short vowel.

The Latin Alphabet - Well, the Romans did not create their alphabet. They borrowed it from the Etruscans, who borrowed it from the Greeks, who borrowed it from the Phoenicians, who borrowed it from the Semites, who supposedly were inspired by the hieroglyphics of their masters (before they escaped). All with modifications to letters and sounds they represented at each step. Latin too had short and long vowels, which were not indicated by diacritics in their writing, like Speedwell says. How did they know which were which? They just did. In Latin though, the length of a vowel was all-important in poetry and songs. And how do people today know how Latin was pronounced? Latin never really ceased being spoken - it’s still the official language of the Vatican City. OK, so the pronunciation’s changed a little bit…

Did you know the German word “Kaiser” is a direct borrowing of the Latin “Caesar”?

Patrick December 9, 2004, 11:12pm

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Cool, another big topic. I only have one or two things to add and I hope you will all forgive me if I survey the posts so far and throw out responses piecemeal.

English doesn't use diacritics, but the umlaut (we call it the dieresis) is occasionally still used to indicate that two adjacent vowels are to be pronounced separately. At least, it's used in the New Yorker (and possibly nowhere else today). For example, "coöperation".

Just to confuse the issue further, I will suggest to Perenna that "hut", "hat" and "hät" are actually all pronounced differently (at least according to the way I learned German) with "hät" being pretty much like English "het". Similarly "role" and "rôle" are, as I understand it, pronounced quite differently. Speedwell is correct that the diacritical marks vanish once the word is assimilated, but fails to explicitly point out that the pronunciation is also typically changed in this process.

For the Germans on this thread, my question regards the "ess-tzed" or however that is correctly spelled out. It's called "ess TZED" and, as pointed out by Clarissa, was written in Fraktur with a character that looked like an "s" (the old-style "s", like an "f" without the crossbar) followed by "z" (the old-style "z", kinda curly with a tail). So why is it now being spelled "ss"? It isn't even pronounced "sz", which also seems strange to me.

joachim December 15, 2004, 8:46am

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Joachim, could the ess-tzed be part of the explanation for why Hungarian uses "sz" for the sound English writes simply as "s"?

speedwell2 December 15, 2004, 11:20am

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How odd! I don't know whether there's a connection, though there certainly could be. What do they use the "s" character for in Hungarian?

joachim December 15, 2004, 1:25pm

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It's used to represent the sound that "sh" represents in English.

speedwell2 December 16, 2004, 8:00am

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Do you know how to pronounce the German name Joachim. Do you have any other information about this name. Thanks

John December 31, 2004, 10:54pm

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think of the expression "yo!" and add "keem", but the ch in the middle is similar to the name Bach

James January 16, 2009, 1:16am

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French words were not just 'borrowed' and changed. Real French was spoken in England by French natives. The diacritics were abandoned over time / over generations.

Pablo September 26, 2012, 2:22am

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