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Diacritics? They’re just passé!

Dogs Dinner

There is a moment in the life of every British 12-year-old in the first year of secondary school (that’s high school, for non-Brits), when, sitting down in front of their French teacher for the first time, they are introduced to the mysteries of accented letters. The twenty-six letters that have served them so well for the past six years of primary school are no longer enough and they must learn to supplement the alphabet with the acute, grave, circumflex and cedilla. It’s OK, they are told; you don’t need to worry about these little marks in English.

But as any halfway observant child would tell you, what about the café down the road? Or the jalapeño peppers you and your fiancée enjoyed on your à la carte pizza, brought to you by a garçon? Washed down with a refreshing pint of Löwenbräu while reading a Brontë novel, no doubt. Or perhaps you’re not as naïve as all that, dreaming as you were of a ménage à trois. No, that’s probably a bit risqué, not to mention too much of a cliché. For somewhere so supposedly devoid of diacritic marks on our letters, we do seem to see an awful lot of them.

Of course, the English language has appropriated so many words from other languages that it would be extremely surprising were some of them to manage the transition unscathed. Most words gradually lose their accents on Anglicization; cafe is a perfect example of this as its occurrence without the accent is slowly overtaking that of café. Our lexicographers use the Oxford English Corpus to track the relative use of diacritic marks when deciding upon the preferred form of an imported word. Other words have left their diacritics behind completely, such as muesli (which has lost its umlaut on the u) or canyon (which is an Anglicization of the Spanish word cañon). Sometimes a word will retain its accent to preserve the pronunciation thus bestowed or to settle any ambiguity between the imported word and a similarly spelled existing English word. Thus we find maté and mate or the three outwardly similar but completely different words pâté, pâte, and pate. Occasionally we even encounter the same word entering English by two completely different routes, such as rosé and rose or the unexpected souffle and soufflé. Who knew that omitting that final e-acute could put you in hospital!

Some of our most familiar diacritics appear in brand names. Most of us will have eaten Nestlé chocolate (or perhaps even drunk Nescafé coffee) or imbibed copious quantities of umlaut-bespeckled German beers, but not I hope before driving away in a Škoda or a Citroën. As an aside, given the treatment his surname receives from most Brits, it should be stressed that the pronunciation of that last trema on the ‘e’ is important: cars from the company founded by André Citroën are not lemons.

All the accented words mentioned thus far could be described as real words that have entered the language through years of popular usage. There is another class of words featuring diacritical marks: products or brand names to which the marks have been added for no other reason than for the cultural resonance they carry with them (who would have thought that a couple of little dots would have such significance?). Shoppers with a sweet tooth may be familiar with Häagen-Dazs ice-cream or Gü puddings, both of which are invented brand names with non-English spellings and diacritic marks intended to convey to English speakers the exotic sense of consuming a premium imported product. Judging by the success of both brands this tactic seems to work!

Motorhead logo

Ice cream and puddings are not the finest hour of the decorative accent though. That honour is reserved for the theatre of heavy metal rock music, whose performers have raised the art of superfluous diacritics to the excess for which they are famous with the creation of the ‘metal umlaut’. Gothic typefaces and other Germanic cues are combined in the imagery of the genre to convey a dark, almost horrific feel, as personified by bands such as Motörhead, Blue Öyster Cult, Queensrÿche, and Mötley Crüe. The British space rock band Hawkwind scoop the prize for the most gratuitous use of metal diacritics though, for proclaiming “TECHNICIÄNS ÖF SPÅCE SHIP EÅRTH THIS IS YÖÜR CÄPTÅIN SPEÄKING YÖÜR ØÅPTÅIN IS DEA̋D on the inside cover of their second album. We’re not worthy!

Of course, such superfluous diacritics in our supermarkets and record stores are ripe for parody.  In an episode of The Simpsons, bartender Moe Szyslak addresses Homer’s desire for a more exotic beer than his usual Duff draught by attacking a bottle of Duff with a marker pen, creating “Düff”, a brew which satisfies Homer’s thirst perfectly. Probably more famous though is the movie This is Spın̈al Tap, a spoof documentary about a fictitious British heavy metal band. Spın̈al Tap, whose dotless letter i and improbable umlaut on the consonant n take the metal umlaut into new territory, started as a merciless send-up of heavy metal culture but later formed and toured as a band in the real world. I wouldn’t want to be their drummer though – one of them spontaneously combusted mid-performance.

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