How come in English we don't put symbols (things) above our letters to change how they are pronounced?

In French for example they have an acute accent ( ´ ) and grave ( ` ) and the cedilla that goes under the "c" and in Spanish they sometimes put ~ over the "n".

Many languages do this so why not English?


2 Answers 2


We do in a way; it's just that our letters with bits added above and below them have come to be considered separate letters.

The same happened in Swedish, where "ä", "ö" and "å" are considered separate letters of the alphabet rather than letters with accents or diacritics. Similarly Danish with "æ", "ø" and "å".

In English (and other languages), "j" was originally an "i" with a tail beneath it. The OED tells us:

From the 11th to the 17th cent., then, the letter I i represented at once the vowel sound of i, and a consonant sound /dʒ/, far removed from the vowel. Meanwhile, the minuteness and inconspicuousness of the small ı, and its liability, especially in cursive writing, to be confounded with one of the strokes of an adjacent letter, had led in mediæval Latin and general European writing, and thus also in English, to various scribal expedients in order to keep it distinct. (See I.) Among these, an initial ı was often prolonged above or below the line, or both; a final ı was generally prolonged below the line, and in both cases the prolonged part or ‘tail’ came at length in cursive writing to be terminated with a curve... The ‘dot’, used to individualize the minuscule i, was also used with the tailed form, and thus came the modern j, j.

Historically, in Old English, ash (æ), thorn (þ) and eth (ð) were added to the alphabet, but they dropped out sometime after the Norman invasion and the subsequent shake-up of English orthography. (While æ is occasionally still seen, it is now just another way of writing "ae", and it isn't very common any more even in that use.) Old English scribes also placed length marks over long marks on at least some occasions (see here).

As others have noted, English has a number of words with accents ("café", "résumé"), but of course, these accents are often considered optional, and most of the words they appear in still feel "foreign" as well.

  • Does anyone remember rôle? Coöperation? Zoölogy? Just me? OK. Commented Sep 18, 2017 at 22:46
  • @Malvolio: You're right (and I had forgotten them), but I'm not sure any of those spellings has ever been compulsory. So they are like "café" and in that sense quite unlike French or Spanish accents or German umlauts, which are compulsory (though I think you are allowed to replace "ü" with "ue" if you can't manage an umlaut - but you can't just miss it off; you have to add an "e").
    – rjpond
    Commented Sep 18, 2017 at 22:53
  • You can’t leave off a diaeresis off a Spanish word like Sigüenza, the name of a city, or else you make it a different word, one without a /w/ sound in it. And you certainly cannot add an e as in German. Because that’s diaeresis not umlaut. :)
    – tchrist
    Commented Sep 19, 2017 at 1:29
  • "Does anyone remember rôle? Coöperation? Zoölogy?" The New Yorker magazine still does that.
    – jrdevdba
    Commented Sep 19, 2017 at 18:43

Fascinating question - thanks. I suspect the relative lack of diacritical marks in English may be due to the adoption of the Roman alphabet to spell English. Specifically, English ended up using a version of Roman letters for its pronunciation system, and those letters did not have diacritical marks as far as I know - or certainly not to the extent that they were carried over into English orthography.

See also this question: https://latin.stackexchange.com/questions/1180/roman-uses-of-diacritical-marks

Consequently - and this is only my guess as a nonexpert - I believe the diacritical marks in other languages that you refer to (French, Spanish, etc.) had to be added to the Roman alphabet because those speakers had to distinguish the pronunciation somehow, and they didn't want to create entirely new letters for those pronunciations.

In short, what I'm guessing is that diacritical marks can be a way of making an evolutionary change to a Romanized or transliterated sound that was not originally in the Roman alphabet.

I'm curious to read other answers here to learn more.

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