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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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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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Clarissa, that works for me! Thanks!

speedwell2 November 17, 2004 @ 1:55PM

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

speedwell2 December 16, 2004 @ 8:00AM

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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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