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A diacritic mark or accent mark is an additional mark added to a basic letter. The word derives from Greek διακρητικός, distinguishing and diacritical is used to mean distinguishing or distinctive.
The mark can be added over, under, or through the letter. But not all marks are diacritical. For example, a tittle, the dot on the letters i and j, is just a part of the letter. Also, many marks considered diacritical in one language are parts of a unique letter in another, for example the diaeresis/umlaut.
The main usage of a diacritic is to change the phonetic meaning of the letter, but the term is also used in a more general sense of changing the meaning of the letter or even the whole word. Examples are writing numerals in numeral systems, such as early Greek numerals and marking abbreviations with the titlo in old Slavic texts.
Types of diacritic
Marks that are sometimes diacritics, but also have other uses, are:
- ( - ) hyphen - in English, hyphens can be used to break words between syllables, to resolve ambiguities in pronunciation:
- repair (fix) compared to re-pair (pair again).
- Kuringgai becomes Ku-ring-gai.
Catalan has grave, acute, cedilla and diaeresis.
Czech has acute, caron and ring.
Dutch uses diaeresis. For example in ruïne it means that the u and i are separately pronounced in their usual way, and not in the way that the combination ui is normally pronounced. Thus it works as a separation sign and not as an indication for an alternative version of the i. Diacritics can be used for emphasis (érg koud for very cold) or for disambiguation between the numeral one (één appel, one apple) and the indefinite article (een appel, an apple).
French uses grave, acute, circumflex, cedilla and diaeresis. However, not all diacritics occur on all vowels in French:
- Acute (accent aigu) only occurs on e (é, pronounced /e/)
- Grave (accent grave) occurs on e (è, pronounced /ε/), a (à), and u (ù)
- Circumflex (accent circonflexe) occurs on all vowels: e (ê, pronounced /ε/), a (â, pronounced /α/), i (î), o (ô, pronounced /o/), and u (û; if occurring in the combination eû, pronounced /ø/)
- Cedilla (cédille) is used only under the c (ç, pronounced /s/). It is used in cases in which a c is soft before a, o, or u, such as ça (pronounced /sa/, not /ka/).
- Diaeresis (tréma) occurs on e (ë), i (ï), u (ü) and y (ÿ) The last named is only used in some proper names like Louÿs or placenames like L'Haÿ-Les-Roses, and ü is used in only one noun, capharnaüm ("mess, shambles"), and a few proper names like Saül or Esaü. The mark's function is to indicate that the vowel is pronounced separately from the one just before it.
- Diactritics are sometimes omitted from capitalized letters, especially in some countries like France.
- Not all French diacritics affect pronunciation. However, all cases in which they do have been noted in the foregoing.
German has the Umlaut (¨). This can be used over a, o, or u to indicate vowel modification. For instance: Ofen (/'o:fən/); Öfen (/'ø:fən/), which in this case makes the difference between singular and plural (“oven”/“ovens”). The sign originated in a superscript e; a handwritten Sütterlin e resembles two parallel vertical lines, like an umlaut.
Italian uses acute and grave to indicate irregular stress patterns (as in più, which would otherwise be stressed on the i) and to distinguish words that would otherwise be homographs (such as te ["you"] and tè ["tea"]). In many words, acute and grave are interchangeable.
Lithuanian uses the acute, grave and tilde in dictionaries to indicate stress types in the language's pitch stress system. In general usage, where letters appear with the caron (č, š and ž) they are considered as separate letters from c, s or z and collated separately; letters with the ogonek (ą, ę, į and ų), the macron (ū) and the superdot (ė) are considered as separate letters as well, but not given a unique collation order.
Portuguese uses acute (to mark stressed vowels), grave (to mark the assimiliation of two identical vowels into one, now used only on A), circumflex (marks both the stress and the roundness, being deprecated in this second use), cedilla (to mark the pronunciation of C as /s/ instead of /k/ before A, O and U and tilde (to mark the nasalisation of A and O). In Brazil diaeresis is also used to differ the pronunciation of groups like qüe, and güi (respetively /kwe/ and /gwi/) from que and gui (/ke/ and /gi/).
Romanian uses a breve on the letter a (ă) to indicate the sound schwa (/ə/).
- Many Slavic languages that use the Latin alphabet have ogonek and bar.
Spanish uses acute, diaeresis and tilde. Acute is used on a vowel in a stressed syllable in words with irregular stress patterns. It can also be used to "break" a diphthong as in tío (pronounced /'tio/, and not /tjo/ as it would be without the accent). Moreover, the acute can be used to distinguish words that otherwise are spelt alike, such as mas ( = "but"} and más ( = "more"), and also to distinguish interrogative and relative words otherwise spelt alike, such as donde/¿dónde? ( = "where") or como/¿cómo? ( = "as"/"how?"). Tilde is used on n, forming a separate letter (ñ) in the Spanish alphabet. Diaeresis is used only over u (ü) so that it is pronounced /w/ in the combinations gue and gui (where u is normally silent), for example ambigüedad. In poetry, diaeresis may be used on i and u as a way to force hiatus.
Turkish uses a G-breve (Ğ), a diaeresis on two vowels (Ö and Ü) to represent rounding, a cedilla on two consonants (Ç and Ş, to represent the affricates /tS/ and /S/) and also possesses a dotted capital İ (and a dotless lowercase ı). Turkish considers each of these a separate letter, rather than a modification of existing characters, however; see Turkish alphabet for more details.
Vietnamese uses acute (Sắc), grave (Huyền), tilde (Ngã), dot below (Nặng) and Hỏi on vowels as tone indicators.
Welsh uses the circumflex, diaeresis, acute and grave accents on its seven vowels a, e, i, o, u, w, y. The most common is the circumflex (which it calls to bach, meaning "little roof") to denote a long vowel, usually to disambiguate it from a similar word with a short vowel. The rarer grave accent has the opposite effect, shortening vowel sounds which would usually be pronounced long. The acute accent and diaeresis are also occasionally used, to denote stress and vowel separation respectively. The w-circumflex and y-circumflex are among the most common accented characters in Welsh, but unusual in languages generally, and were until recently very hard to obtain in word-processed and HTML documents.
- Modern English does not usually have diacritics, which appear only in foreign and loanwords. The letter è is an exception, used to modify the pronunciation of words ending in -ed within poetry and songs, though this is considered, by some, to be archaic. Occasionally, especially in older literature, and notably in The New Yorker's house style, the diaeresis is used (as in Dutch) to indicate a syllable break. For instance, in "coördinate" it indicates that the second "o" starts a new syllable.
Belarusian has a letter ў.
Russian has the letter ё, usually replaced in print by е, although it has a different pronunciation. Ё is still used in children's books and in handwriting. A minimal pair is все (vse, "all" pl.) and всё (vsio, "everything" n. sg.).
- Russian and Ukrainian have the letter й.
- Ukrainian also has the letter ï.
- Acute accents are also used in Slavic language dictionaries and textbooks to indicate lexical stress, placed over the vowel of the stressed syllable. This can also serve to disambiguate meaning (e.g., in Russian писа́ть (pisát) means "to write", but пи́сать (písat) means "to piss").
- Among the Scandinavian languages, Danish and Norwegian have long used ash (æ, actually a ligature) and o-slash (ø), but have more recently incorporated a-ring (å) after Swedish example. Historically the å has developed from a ligature by writing a small a on top of the letter a; if an å character is unavailable, some Scandinavian languages allow the substitution of a doubled a. The Scandinavian languages collate these letters after z, but have different collation standards. In Swedish, the order å, ä, ö is used, while Danish and Norwegian follow the order æ, ø, å instead.
Swedish uses characters identical to a-diaeresis (ä) and o-diaeresis (ö) in the place of ash and o-slash in addition to the a-circle (å). Historically the diaresis for the Swedish letters ä and ö, like the German umlaut, has developed from a small gothic e written on top of the letters.
Faroese and Icelandic use acute accents, digraphs, and other special letters. All are considered separate letters, and have their own place in the alphabet:
- Faroese: á, ð, í, ó, ú, ý, æ and ø
- Icelandic: á, ð, é, í, ó, ú, ý, æ, ö and þ
Finnish uses dotted vowels (ä and ö) similar to in Swedish, and "Å", "Š" and "Ž" in foreign names and loanwords; they are considered distinct letters and collate after "z". Finnish uses a colon to decline loan words and abbreviations; e.g., "USA:han" for the illative case of "USA".
Esperanto has a separate letter which is a u with a breve over it, and letters which are c, g, h, j and s with the circumflex over them. These are not diacritic marks, but necessary parts of entirely separate letters.
Hungarian uses the acute and double acute accent (unique to Hungarian): áéíóú and őű. The diacritic marks over the letters ö and ü are not umlauts. The acute accent indicates the long form of a vowel, while the double acute performs the same function for ö and ü. Both long and short forms of the vowels are listed separately in the Hungarian alphabet.
In all these cases they are not seen as additional marks over the vowel, but are actually a necessary part of these characters, as they represent entirely different sounds to the basic forms, like also for instance the Estonian "õ".
Some non-alphabetic scripts also employ symbols that function essentially as diacritics.
- Non-pure abjads (such as Hebrew and Arabic script) and abugidas use diacritics for denoting vowels. Hebrew and Arabic also indicate consonant doubling and change with diacritics; Hebrew and Devanagari use them for foreign sounds. Devanagari and related abugidas also use a diacritical mark called a virama to mark the absence of a vowel.
Alphabetization or collation
Different languages use different rules to put diacritic characters in alphabetical order. French and German treat letters with diacritical marks the same as the underlying letter for purposes of ordering and dictionaries, but when names are concerned (e.g. in phone books or in author catalogs in libraries), umlauts are often treated as combinations of the vowel with a suffixed 'e'; Austrian phone books now treat umlauts as separate letters (immediately following the underlying letter).
The Scandinavian languages, by contrast, treat the diacritic characters ä, ö and å as new and separate letters of the alphabet, and sort them after z. Usually ä is sorted as equal to æ (ash) and ö is sorted as equal to ø (o-slash). Other diacritically marked letters are treated as variants of the underlying letter.
Other languages treat diacritically marked letters as variants of the underlying letter, but alphabetize them following the unmarked letter. In Spanish ñ is considered a new letter different from n and placed between n and o, however, acute accents and diaeresis are ignored.
The technical term for alphabetization is collation.
See also: Alphabet, Latin alphabet
Generation with computers
Depending on the keyboard layout, which differs amongst countries, it is more or less easy to enter letters with diacritics on computers and typewriters. Some have their own keys, some are created by first pressing the key with the diacritic mark followed by the letter to place it on. Such a key is sometimes referred to as a dead key, as it produces no output of its own, but modifies the output of the key pressed after it.
On computers with the Microsoft Windows operating system, one can also enter each character of the current codepage, e.g. windows-1252, by holding the Alt key and entering the respective decimal position on the Num pad, e.g. Alt+0210 is Ò. Additionally, on Windows XP, it is possible to enter any Unicode character from the Basic Multilingual Plane (i.e. up to U+FFFF) by pressing Alt and then, with Alt still pressed, the plus sign and the digits of the Unicode number each after the other. Alt with plus, D and 2 yields U+00D2: Ò.
In modern Microsoft Windows operating systems, the keyboard layout US International allows one to type almost all diacritics directly: "+e gives ë, ~+o gives õ etc.. In addition to this, the layout provides many 'special characters' behind the AltGr modifier: AltGr+t is þ, AltGr+z is æ, etc..
Using the Microsoft Keyboard Layout Creator (MSKLC) people using Windows 2000, Windows XP or Windows Server 2003 can edit or create any keyboard layout.
On Apple Macintosh computers, there are keyboard shortcuts for the most common diacritics:
- option-e followed by a vowel: places an acute accent.
- option-u followed by a vowel: places a diaeresis.
- option-n followed by a vowel or n: places a tilde.
- option-` followed by a vowel: places a grave accent.
- option-i followed by a vowel: places a circumflex.
- option-c: places a c cedilla
On computers it is also a matter of available codepages, whether you can use certain diacritics. Unicode tries to solve this problem, among others.
In GNOME applications (found on many GNU/Linux and UNIX computers) abritrary Unicode characters may be entered by holding down the ctrl and shift keys while typeing the hexadecimal codepoint. After releasing ctrl-shift the digits will be converted into the symbol. For example ctrl-shift 1E3 produces ǣ.
With Unicode it is also possible to combine diacritical marks with most characters.