15

Being a speaker of several European languages, I'm always getting upset when I see people are using certain loanwords ignoring accent marks:

Sending my resume for your review;
We went to cafe;
The naive algorithm performs worse than an optimized one;
The Schrodinger's Cat phenomenon;
The Citroen car;

The rationale is that the accent marks are not random. Their role is assisting pronunciation, and if they are omitted, it makes a different pronunciation. In some cases, it will make a different word. Not to say that some may feel offended if their name is written with a mistake.

My questions are:

  • Is it grammatical to skip accent marks in loanwords?
  • Is there any special treatment for proper nouns?
  • Is it a good excuse that the keyboard layout may not have accent marks?
  • 4
    Loanword is an inappropriate metaphor; resume, cafe and naive are not "borrowed" but "appropriated" from French, transformed into words proper to English. I quite agree, however, about the nomina propria, which are proper to their bearers, not to English or any other language. – StoneyB Jan 31 '13 at 14:05
  • 1
    @StoneyB but "resume" is "to continue something that has been stopped". How to avoid this ambiguity without accent marks? – bytebuster Jan 31 '13 at 14:11
  • 5
    What ambiguity? One's a noun, the other's a verb, they're employed in entirely different syntactic contexts. We don't distinguish rebel (noun) and rebel (verb) with diacritics. – StoneyB Jan 31 '13 at 14:20
  • 2
    @StoneyB: That's not fair: loanword and borrowed word are the standard terms... – Cerberus Jan 31 '13 at 22:16
  • 2
    @StoneyB: At some point, in certain contexts, yes, although we can still say "sky" is a Mediaeval loanword from a northern Germanic language; but in the context of modern English, it would be less common and less relevant to do so. With respect to words like resumé, I think we are still well aware of their language of origin, and I don't think anybody would be shocked if you called them loanwords. A loanword is an English word, by definition—at least to a considerable degree. Otherwise I would simply call it a foreign word, not a loanword. – Cerberus Jan 31 '13 at 23:55
10

The answer, as with so many other such questions, is it depends.

  • How long ago did the word enter the English vocabulary? The longer ago, the less likely it is to retain the diacritics.

  • How frequently is the word used? The more frequently, the less likely it is to retain the diacritics.

  • Without the diacritics, does it look identical to a different English word, especially one that's pronounced differently? If yes, it's slightly more likely to keep the diacritics.

  • Is it a personal name? If yes, it will almost always keep the diacritics, at least nowadays. (Even just 20-30 years ago, personal names would be Anglicized to a much greater degree than they are now. For example, the conductor born in 1899 was Eugene Ormandy, not Jenő Ormándy, but the pianist born in 1953 is András Schiff, not Andrew Schiff.)

  • Is it a proper noun that is not a personal name? Then it really depends on the first three factors above, namely age, frequency, and conflict. Plus, there are place names that are translated into totally different words — for example, the difference between München and Munich is not just the umlaut. (This occurs in other languages, too: chances are, you don't call the countries "Suomi" or "Magyarország" in your native language, unless of course your native language happens to be Finnish or Hungarian, respectively.)

  • Are you writing for a publication that has a style guide about diacritics? Then follow that guide, even if it contradicts your experience or your dictionary.

The only way to settle this question is to look up each word in the dictionary (or encylopedia, if it's not the sort of proper noun that's listed in the dictionary). For the words in your example, here's what Dictionary.com had to say:

résumé; also resume, resumé
café; also cafe
naive; also naïve
Schrödinger
(no listing for Citroen or Citroën; Wikipedia only has the latter spelling)

In any case, don't get hung up on "but that's the wrong pronunciation!", and especially not on "but that's the wrong spelling!" Once a word has entered English vocabulary, it is slowly but surely assimilated, and at some point — same as with literally every other English word — its etymology becomes irrelevant. Its correct pronunciation will come from context and from the reader's knowledge, same as the rest of the words in the sentence.

  • 1
    +1 Great answer! Diacritics are also a real hassle for most native speakers to type (since they are not normally found on a keyboard) and they convey no extra meaning to most English readers, since most English speakers wouldn't appreciate that 'ö' sounds different to 'o'. The diacritics are therefore a difficult-to-type decoration for most of the population, and so are only used either out of sufferance (e.g. for people's names), out of necessity (when quoting foreign text verbatim) or out of pretentiousness (e.g. "Please find attached my résumé.") – Matt Apr 25 '13 at 10:14
13

This is not a matter of grammar, but of spelling. In your examples, many readers will expect to see the diacritics, so it’s safer to use them, although naive is probably now widely accepted without the diaeresis.

It’s a courtesy to show proper nouns in the way that their owners would prefer. The keyboard is not a good excuse for omitting diacritics, because you can produce them all with a little trouble. Ultimately, however, the associated inconvenience may lead to their disappearance.

  • >Ultimately, however, the associated inconvenience may lead to their disappearance. +1 Watch out, here comes generation Y. – mcalex Jan 31 '13 at 16:56
  • Not just naive, but cafe. Both are thoroughly assimilated, aided by the fact that they don't resemble any other English word that they could be confused with (unlike pâté or resumé). – Martha Feb 1 '13 at 2:07
  • @Martha. The COCA and the BNC don’t differentiate between café and cafe, so unfortunately they are no guide. The OED’s entry is for café, with the note ‘also vulgarly or jocularly pronounced /keɪf/ or /kæf/, and written in the form cafe ’. The 345 citations which include the word show that both forms are used. – Barrie England Feb 1 '13 at 8:13
6

Grammatically, it is acceptable, since a loanword is an English word, and it is spelled using the same letters used for any English word. The fact that the diacritics are used for the pronunciation in the original language is irrelevant for English, as the English pronunciation is probably different, and native English speakers generally don't know how the diacritics change the pronunciation in the original language.

The same phenomenon happens for the proper nouns. The difference is that it probably happens later than with other words, when the proper noun becomes part of a set phrase, and it is not anymore perceived as proper noun.

5

I have just found this answer at ELU that mentions The Times style guide. I'm not sure to what extent The Times guide is an ultimate rule, but it still looks interesting:

Give French, Spanish, Portuguese, German, Italian, Irish and Ancient Greek words their proper accents and diacritical marks; omit in other languages unless you are sure of them.

Accents should be used in headlines and on capital letters.

With Anglicised words, no need for accents in foreign words that have taken English nationality (hotel, depot, debacle, elite, regime etc), but keep the accent when it makes a crucial difference to pronunciation or understanding - café, communiqué, détente, émigré, façade, fête, fiancée, mêlée, métier, pâté, protégé, raison d'être; also note vis-à-vis.

It provides with a partial answer, but I'm still wondering what to do with proper nouns.

  • byte, did you think asking on EL&U what to do with proper nouns? Maybe it is the right choice here, no? – user114 Jan 31 '13 at 22:13
  • On their list, the only word where the diacritics make any difference is pâté, and even that can be perfectly clear in context. Bottom line is, if you're writing in English, you spell the words in English unless there's a compelling reason not to, and English spelling doesn't use diacritics. – Martha Feb 1 '13 at 2:04
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    @Martha In this case, cafe would read [keɪf]. – bytebuster Feb 1 '13 at 2:11
  • 4
    No, it wouldn't, because English pronunciation doesn't follow those rules. In fact, English pronunciation really only has one rule: you pronounce each word the way that particular word ought to be pronounced. Yes, it's a tautology, and no, it's not particularly useful, but it's the only general rule that can be stated about English pronunciation. – Martha Feb 1 '13 at 2:12
3

I suspect personal preference may play a role. People who want to look sophisticated and non-nationalistic and sensitive may use accent marks and the like more.

In the column "Don't Mention the Jihad" (warning: the column may be offensive), right-wing commentator Mark Steyn mocks the use of things such as umlauts, saying

Do you find our language too insensitive? Fine. Let's make "Koran" "Quran", or better yet, "Qu'ran", or, if you prefer, "Qu'~*ran", whatever you want, the more the merrier, toss a couple of wingdings in there. In the Thirties, when Churchill was attacking the Munich Agreement, the sensitivity-check didn't automatically amend it to "München". ... Hitherto, Anglicisation of foreign place names has been an accepted custom ...

Some people also want to use non standard letters to represent the pronunciation of words that weren't even originally written using the Latin alphabet. For example, using macrons to indicate long vowels in Japanese loanwords, so that they use a version of Hepburn romanization. For example, some people (including Wikipedia) spell "Tohoku" as Tōhoku.

I'm not sure if this is a good idea, because it'd make its spelling inconsistent with older words like "Tokyo", unless that gets renamed to "Tōkyō".

3

One common convention in transliterating German words to English is to replace ä with ae and ö with oe. Thus, you often see the spelling Schroedinger.

-1

It's because in English-speaking countries we were never taught at school on how to write words using diacritics despite the fact that the English language itself is spoken as a tonal language (as opposed to a boring monotonous tone) and many of its words, regardless whether it is foreign or native, can be written using diacritics.

If someone today could compile an English dictionary which shows all the diacritic marks for each vocabulary then maybe it might start to become popular in written form.

  • See the OED for that sort of thing. Being an historical dictionary, it lists all attested forms in which a word has been used in English. – tchrist Aug 3 '14 at 2:45
  • The thing is, writing in English, unlike that of other languages, is almost entirely incidental to its pronunciation... diacritics, while useful in languages where graphology and phonology are more closely entwined, are almost useless in English. – jimsug Aug 3 '14 at 7:42

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