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Why does English omit diacritics from foreign names that still use the Latin alphabet? For example, why are the Czech tennis player Tomáš Berdych, the Norwegian crime writer Jo Nesbø, or the Polish city of Łódź so often simply spelled as Tomas Berdych, Jo Nesbo, and Lodz?

Within their native languages these are often separate letters, and in the Netherlands they would always use these diacritics where possible. So what’s the reason that English often omits these?

Two examples:

(Note: I am only talking about names using the Latin alphabet, I am not talking about transliterated names)

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    Laziness, impatience, and ignorance. Sorry, but that's the reason. – tchrist Jan 29 '15 at 13:21
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    Probably the same reason we spell it "Germany" instead of "Deutschland"; when foreign words are imported, they are often transformed, sometimes extensively. In the particular case of diacritics, the alphabet used in English lacks these (except in some old-fashioned and increasingly rare cases), to the extent that it's often not even obvious how to type such letters, outside of professional typesetting contexts. Where those contexts do prevail (e.g. established news media), often a style guide will determine whether and where to use inflected letters in foreign names and words. – Dan Bron Jan 29 '15 at 13:24
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    The letters á, š, ø, ł, ó, and ź are not part of the English alphabet. There’s no rule against using them in foreign words (I personally always write złoty rather than zloty, for example), but there’s also no particular reason to use them in an English setting. I don’t really see how the script using in the source language is particularly relevant—you always have the option of including non-standard letters or not when writing in English. (Note: if you’re talking Norwegian, the letter ø doesn’t have any diacritics. It’s a simple, uncompounded letter like i or f.) – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jan 29 '15 at 13:28
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    Please don't answer in comments. – TimLymington Jan 29 '15 at 13:31
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    The British policy about accents and foreign words is that British pronunciation and spelling is to be preferred in every case. Including speaking French fluently with a strong English accent, which irritates the hell out of the French, and has been policy for centuries because of that. The British royal family has spoken French since the Norman conquest, for instance, no matter what Shakespeare said in Henry V. – John Lawler Jan 29 '15 at 17:16
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I, an ignorant, lazy, hubristic, and (most-importantly) impatient American, need to add this preface, so I will have enough letters for this to be counted as an answer.


One word:

Keyboard


Please, before you take offense at my use of adjectives, read the second-to-last paragraph before the note about dıacrıtıcs ın English.

Now that I've made this answer longer anyway, I shall give some exposition. As an English-as-a-first-language American who has worked with diacritics and accent marks and slashed letters quite a bit, I give the explanation that the US English keyboard (at least with the Windows default) contains no letters wıth dıacrıtıcs, with the possible exception of the tittle1.

Neither does the United Kingdom keyboard have any differentiating/distinguishing diacritics, unless you use the Alt Gr key, but I'll just show the American, <hubris>because it's American!</hubris> Check it out!

United States Keyboard Layout

(attribution / source)

Let's see it with the lower-case letters. (Note that there's no Alt Gr option for us default, ignorant American users of Windows.)

US English Keyboard Layout with lowercase letters

(source)

Most English-speakers English-typers [sic] use only one keyboard layout. There are people such as I, who, for purposes including genealogy work, has a-dozen-or-so keyboard layouts set up on my computer.

Let's go through a stream of consciousness that I might have whilst using diacritics in genealogy: "OK, Lithuanian, that means push Ctrl+Shift ... hmm ... seven times, then I have to hit Caps Lock. Now, push Shift ... umm ... it's above the ... 3? No ... 4? No ... 5? No ... 6? There it is!" On my computer screen pops us an Š, and I can write the place-name, Šiauliai.

Most who do have extra keyboard layouts aren't as OCD as I am. Let's say that I want to talk about a couple of composers. Back to my thoughts: "Oh, shoot, I don't have Czech set up on my computer. Time for Google Translate. Choose to translate from Czech. Click the drop-down keyboard. Who cares what I translate to ..." Some typing and then copy ... Go back to my document about music and money and paste the name, Leoš Janáček. Back to my train of thought, "Shoot, I can't find the u with a circle over it. (Note to future self, it's where the American English keyboard has a semicolon.) Forget that, I'm heading to Wikipedia. Type the name - yes, without diacritics ... There he is! Copy, paste. Boom!" Hooray, now we have Bohuslav Martinů on the page. "Okay, most everything uses Alt Gr+E for Euro. Good. Shoot! Where's the percent symbol? Dang, I switched back into French instead of English..."

I hope I've illustrated a bit the reason why we lazy, impatient, and ignorant (@tchrist♦) as well as hubris-ful (@hunterhogan) American English speakers don't use diacritics.

By the way, I have no arguments with those characterizations for Americans, but I won't claim them for the Brits. (It's all in good fun, friends, no offense taken or meant.)

If you'll excuse me, I'm going to read this site, entitled Orthographic diacritics and multilingual computing, while listening to some Fryderyk Franciszek Chopin, - the Polish version, so I don't have to use those funny ink splotches that one often sees near the letters of his name, or that "Fr%C3%A9d%C3%A9ric Fran%C3%A7ois Chopin" version ... dang (verb version of "dang") his French father who moved to Poland and then sent his prodigious, 21-year-old son back to Paris ... It's as if he didn't foresee English-speakers from around the world discussing his son on the keyboard-layout-dependent Internet ...


Note 1: Dıacrıtıcs ın English

There is the tittle, which I, as well as others, do consider a diacritic. However, as was well stated in Evertz, Martin, Visual Prosody: The Graphemic Foot in English and German, Walter de Gruyter GmbH & Co KG, Jun 25, 2018, p.43,

The dots in <i, j>[,] ... in contrast to other diacritics, ... do not bear any function [and] do not even distinguish letters from each other in the writing system under consideration.

The emphasis is mine. Opposing argument link. ... My rant, which @ChrisH correctly pointed out was extraneous. (Sorry, I got excited.)

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    +1 for perl content :) But you seriously need a Mac, where it’s a lot easier to do all that. – tchrist Nov 6 '18 at 3:01
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    Honestly, I think you have a good answer in here which is ruined by the fact it's embedded in a rant where you argue with nobody in particular about whether or not the dots on i and j are diacritics. – Chris H Nov 6 '18 at 7:44
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    Point well-taken @ChrisH. I'll cut that out now. – bballdave025 Nov 6 '18 at 17:42
  • @tchrist♦ , you have an excellent point. However, I couldn't have made my point as well if I were using a Mac (or Linux.) I actually had to get my Windows Laptop out to remember the hard way of doing stuff, so I could write out my streams of consciousness. Also, I need to thank you for your "Sorry, but that's the reason," comment to the OP, partly because it contains a lot of truth, and partly because it made it a lot of fun to write this answer. – bballdave025 Nov 6 '18 at 17:44
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Broadly agree with @tchrist (lazy, impatient, ignorant). I would add as well, however, that English speakers are extremely comfortable with impenetrable and unfathomable pronunciation differences. Memorising an enormous variety of irregular pronunciation is part of what we are used to doing. As such, we don't expect to be given guidance on pronunciation from the page, and diacritics almost get in the way of having a good 'run up' to a word (and if you're lucky enough to have heard it spoken, trying to recall how it sounded) !

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    I doubt most native English-speakers would allow diacritics to really affect their pronunciation of a foreign word. Most people seeing the name Łódź would probably pronounce it [lɒʣ] whether it had diacritics or not, whereas the Polish (and presumably thus more ‘correct’) pronunciation is [wuʥ], more or less like ‘woodge’ would be pronounced in English. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jan 29 '15 at 13:53
  • Very closely related. – tchrist Jan 29 '15 at 14:10
  • Hmm. It's an interesting question. I reckon most native English speakers are seriously put off by diacritics, even grave and acute accents (which they most likely ignore - unless they also speak the language in question). If the diacritic is not there to confuse matters the standard approach to learning a new word can more easily take place (ie compare to similar letter combination and have a go). Usually the result is an anglified mangulation. I suppose the point is that English is not, and never will be as simple and clear to pronounce as, say, Spanish. – Dan Jan 29 '15 at 14:10
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    Au contraire mon ami, it is diacritics that require memorizing pronunciations. We are content to guess, and we abide abominable guesses gallantly. – ScotM Jan 29 '15 at 19:09
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    It's a common trope in English character comedy for someone to be prone to pronounce words as they are written, indicating to the audience that they have only read them in books, not heard them in conversation, indicating a great deal about class and education. That this idea seems rare in other European languages, I think that illustrates that the letters used are only guidelines to pronunciation, even in native English words. As Dan suggests, when a foreign word comes along we use the letters at hand as they are merely aide memoir as to the word itself. – Dan Sheppard Jan 30 '15 at 23:39
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The answer is obvious: Modern Standard English does not have diacritics. Why would you expect English copy to include non-English characters? If someone wants to write my English name in a non-English language I expect the writer to do just that, and I don't complain if my name looks different when written in that language.

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    Well, except that you do see diacritics in English writing. Do you turn in a resume or a résumé with your job application? Some use the former, some the latter. – Robusto Dec 6 '18 at 16:37
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As mentioned in comments, since the diacritical markings (and crossed-letter letters) don't (generally and currently) have an analog in English language, the markings will be ignored for the common English speaker who will make a best guess at what the characters resemble from A-Z and what they sound like from their closest A-Z analog.

To an English speaker, the closest thing that is learned in school to a diacritical marking is an apostrophe used as a stressed syllable indicator, and (IPA aside) the "long vowel" marking (āēīōū) or "short vowel" marking (ăĕĭŏŭ). And those are pronunciation guides, not spelling guides.

  • Some English speakers may be familiar with the diaeresis used in words such as coöperate. It does have a distinctly old-fashioned feel, though. – Brian Tung Dec 8 '15 at 21:25
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I think it is an attempt to appropriate the word (into English), and I believe it is quite common (in the sense that this is what language users do and will do).

For example, the name of the German town of Meißen was -- as far as I'm aware -- always spelled 'Meissen' outside Germany. This is the same phenomenon.

One might take the view that a word is more than just its spelling, and consequently, spelling is not all-important. In case, for example, there is a spelling in the target language that better approximates the pronunciation in the source language, the new spelling is often used. This is not the case here; the problem here is that there's no easy way to render, or approximate, the pronunciation.

It is quite difficult to do full justice to a foreign word or two within a phrase, pronunciation-wise. Ignorance put aside, a mighty reason for this is the different articulation basis for the source vs. the target language. At best, there's a slight stammer, at worst, it's a farce.

Anyway, we Czechs counter the humiliation of being deprived of our diacritics by maiming foreign proper names in our own fashion, often beyond recognition. Thus 'Paris' becomes 'Paříž'; 'London' becomes 'Londýn' and 'in London' becomes 'v Londýně' (locative); 'Serena Williams' becomes 'Serena Williamsová' (female surname, nominative). (To abide by tennis players...)

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    How would the Czechs write Lech Wałęsa, as neither of these diacritics are used in Czech? – TallArnie Jan 30 '15 at 16:48
  • In established media, books etc., as you do. Pending availability of the diacritics also elsewhere. But even with Polish, which is quite close to Czech, the major problem is not how to spell it correctly but how to read the word from its (correct) spelling. – anemone Jan 30 '15 at 18:34
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    That'll teach us arrogant non-Czechs. (On a serious note - great answer.) – bballdave025 Nov 5 '18 at 20:34
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One of your examples was from the BBC, so I attempted to find any mention of diacritics in the BBC Style Guide, but I could not find anything.

I did find an incredible page on Wikipedia that is not an article, but is rather a User Page, and it has an unbelievably detailed explanation of diacritical marks, including recommended usages from most major style guides and many specialized style guides.

In short, the consensus of professional editors is to preserve diacritical marks. The Columbia Journalism Review has a short article that adds a little more clarity: use the diacritical marks as found in contemporary English language dictionaries.

Why not use diacritical marks?

A few verifiable reasons were offered:

  1. You are directly quoting a source and the source did not use the marks
  2. English has fully assimilated the word without the marks (see CJR's advice, "use the dictionary")
  3. For proper nouns, there is an established Anglicized version (my favorite example was Napoléon vs Napoleon)
  4. The Associated Press is a notable dissenter and their reason is pragmatic: "Do not use them; they cause garbled copy in some newspaper computers."
  5. Habit

My completely unsupported opinion

I believe that a significant reason why most writers in English, especially native speakers of English, do not preserve diacritical marks is simple: hubris. For a couple hundred years now, the British Empire and then the United States empire have dominated multiple aspects of public life. The dominance of the USA is unprecedented. The USA is either the undisputed heavyweight or a significant player in nearly every sphere of public life: armed conflict; politics; film, music, television, and prose, hence language; capital; education; immigration; and possibly more. The only area that I can think of that the USA does not dominate is religion.

To this near-universal dominance, add the geographic isolation of the USA and add the fact that compared to equally developed countries, citizens of the USA are shockingly mono-lingual, and I believe the inevitable result is the general attitude, "I am right because I am American." (Please note that most citizens of the USA call themselves American and bristle at the suggestion that anyone from Latin America is also American.)

Conclusion

There seems to be a gap between suggested usage by the majority of style guides and the majority of native-English writers, but most people who have considered the issue suggest using the diacritical marks.

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    I completely agree. In the case of proper nouns, omitting the diacritic in journalism may well lead to a case of mistaken identity. Here the BBC is lowering the bar on accuracy. Unlike places, the names of people should not be Anglicized, except in the case where the alphabet is completely different (e.g. Cyrillic) or perhaps the name of the person is internationally recognized (e.g. Napoleon) and the context is unlikely to be mistaken. It's likely that the diacritic is unseen by most English readers because they consider these marks nothing more than visual garnish. – Martin Krzywinski Jan 30 '15 at 2:08
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    Why has no one addressed the simple fact that US keyboards do not have diacritics, and most users (justifiably, since the need is so rare) don't know the key combinations to make them. – Hot Licks Jan 30 '15 at 3:39
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    @HotLicks - I agree that it may not be straightforward to type a letter with diacritics on a standard keyboard. But that cannot be an excuse/argument for a leading institution like the BBC or the Guardian newspaper. – TallArnie Jan 30 '15 at 13:56
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    @TallArnie it's not just the people who write that matters, it is also those that read it. So, now that the Internet is all global and stuff some random group of people will claim inverse superiority complex (It's not my hubris. I'm right. It's theirs! Their wrong, and not just wrong because of didn't know better, but intentionally being wrong because they think they know better.) Meanwhile, there's this large swath of people who read an English source, expecting English letters, and can't literally (and I mean literally, literally) parse the diacritical markings into something legible. – SrJoven Jan 30 '15 at 15:32
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    It is still legible--at worst, the reader cannot properly pronounce the word. Without the marks, the reader cannot properly pronounce the word either. The alleged keyboard problem and the alleged problem with reading are both addressed at length in the link from my answer: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:Prolog/Diacritical_marks – hunterhogan Jan 30 '15 at 15:35
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In a note appended to the question, the OP says 'I am only talking about names using the Latin alphabet, I am not talking about transliterated names'. This implies that the OP regards it as unproblematic that Japanese, Russian, Israeli, or Greek names appear in English contexts in a form that is different, sometimes vastly different, from the original. What the OP perceives as the problem is supposed to be somehow created by the fact that English uses the same alphabet as Danish, Czech, or Polish.

In some sense it is true that these languages use the same, that is Latin alphabet. However, looked at in another way, the alphabets they use are not quite the same: if they were exactly the same, there would be no problem. One can thus think of English alphabet as, in a way, different from (although similar to), say, Polish or Danish alphabets. If one takes that stance, the fact that Polish and Danish names change their form when they appear in an English context, can be thought of as transliteration. It is not clear why transliterating names from a similar alphabet, such as Polish, would be any more problematic than transliterating names from a less similar one, such as Greek.

This answer articulates the argument that was, in a more casual way, already made in the comments by Dan Bron, Janus Bahs Jacquet, and Mitch.

  • Also the Turkish 'ı' which is the roman 'i' missing the tittle. What about the Icelandic thorn 'þ'. All these foreign diacritics are foreign in English, and therefore very rare. The argument should be in the other direction - why should any typesetting system for print media (in any language script) spend resources on foreignisms? (of course Unicode reduces the problem considerably and we should be seeing more non-English letterforms. – Mitch Nov 7 '18 at 2:33
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    There is probably a good reason for a writer to take the trouble to follow the original spelling when writing for an audience that is sufficiently bilingual to be able to make sense of the non-English symbols. But it is indeed unclear what is supposed to be the point of doing so when one knows that one's readers have no idea what to do with them. It should thus not be surprising if, say, Turkish names are handled differently in general-circulation newspapers than in scholarly books on Turkish history that are written for specialists in that field. – jsw29 Nov 7 '18 at 17:50
  • I think this approach is very valuable, i.e. the idea that, each time we use a name that was originally used in a language other than that which we are speaking, we can consider composed from a different alphabet. It's like learning the ABCs (or aąbcćs or АБВs) for different languages. I think most of ah bay say in the Spanish alphabet with its extra ñ. All these alphabets have at their base the Latin (Roman) alphabet with added diacritics and other marks (such as the with-a-stroke mark.) However, I think it a great statement that they are different alphabets, if only because of pronunciation. – bballdave025 Nov 27 '18 at 2:50

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