Auto-da-fé for the Façade of Diacritics

ipod-to-heavymetal-umlautThey’re going the way of the Lord God bird. Those umlauts, tildes, cedillas, accents aigus and graves and very occasionally the circumflex—all those funny little decorations that we used to have to retype or ink in, that we now access by way of the Option key, that get their own keys on those maddening foreign keyboards—they’re on their way out. Are you mourning yet?

The New Yorker is apparently a holdout, at least when it comes to the diaeresis—those two dots over a second syllable that are often confused with the German umlaut. As Mary Norris posted at the magazine’s Culture Desk last year, the decision was made when The New Yorker was just getting under way, when someone debating among cooperate, co-operate, and coöperate “decided that the first misread and the second was ridiculous, and adopted the diaeresis as the most elegant solution with the broadest application.” These days, “The diaeresis is the single thing that readers of the letter-writing variety complain about most.” In 1978,  The New Yorker’s style editor indicated that he would soon send out a memo changing the style rule for words like reëlect and zoölogical, but he died soon thereafter, and no one has dared upset the applecart since.

Elsewhere, you’ll find few instances of those twin dots unless they’re indicating the difference between schon (already) and schön (beautiful) in German. I don’t know The New Yorker’s position on the circumflex, but The New York Times seems to have dropped it, at least for crêpes (which, sans diacritic, sounds to me like creeps) sometime in 2011. Words common in English but still clearly imported from other languages, like piñata, still get their diacritic in most publications, but façade  lost its cedilla long ago, just as auto-da-fé lost its accent.

Few of us miss these imported quirks—English is neither very dependent on diacritics nor sufficiently straightforward in its relationship of spelling to pronunciation to find much help in little hats and wiggles above and below letters. Since the Internet seems to wreak havoc on diacritically enhanced letters, we’re reluctant to use them in tweets and e-mails. So there’s unlikely to be an outcry here similar to the drive initiated by the Council of the Polish Language on International Mother Language Day in February. (Did you remember to celebrate?) Diacritical marks, according to the linguist Jerzy Bralczyk, are a “defining feature of the Polish language”; they “carry meaning and enrich the speech.” As part of the campaign, radio stations are playing songs with words stripped of diacritical pronunciation, making them sound odd or even meaningless.

As an author whose work has just appeared for the first time in Poland (Utracona Córka, and don’t forget the accent), I’m all for keeping in place slashes and tildes that help distinguish, say, between fate (los) and elk (łoś). In English, we have precious few of those instances. Which is why it’s fascinating to me that both my e-mail and Word programs regularly insert a few diacritics while ignoring—or, as Mary Norris points out, trying to override—others. In a random list of possibly enhanced orthography, I was automatically supplied with marks for naïve, protégé, façade, and café, but not for naivete, etagere, pinata, creche, crepe, elan, or pied-a-terre. And sure enough, when I tried for résumé, château, coöperate, soupçon, cortège, and piñata, it challenged me on every one of them. It’s an odd style guide those folks have, over at Microsoft—choosing with their own discretion, I assume, from the smörgåsbord of diacritics.



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