I plan to write about Stephen Prothero’s God Is Not One on this site soon. Aside from my commentary on the book itself, I’d like to quote with approval a surprising argument from the book’s introductory pages:
Scholarly books on religion often use diacritical marks to indicate how a word is pronounced in Sanskrit or other sacred languages. In fact, use of diacriticals is a key way to signal one’s scholarly bona fides. But diacritical marks are gibberish to most readers — is that a breve or a cedilla? — so I avoid them here except in direct quotations, proper names and citations. If an “s” with a mark underneath or atop it is pronounced like “sh”, then it appears here as “sh”: the Hindu god Shiva instead of Siva, the Hindu goal of moksha instead of moksa. Diacritical marks also present a barrier to the integration of non-Christian religious terms into English — a barrier that is better torn down than built up. One reason the Sanskrit term ‘nirvana’ made it into English dictionaries was its willingness to drop the macron over the a and the underdot accompanying the n. And Hindu scriptures such as the Mahabharata and the Ramayana are already finding wide acceptance among English speakers without their respective circumflexes.
Amen to that. This is a minority viewpoint, but I completely agree, and am pleased to hear a respected scholar making a point I’ve often wished to make myself.
You may have already noticed that I brazenly avoid diacriticals on this site, that I will unashamedly refer to Roberto Bolano or Herta Mueller without including tildes or umlauts in their names. I’ve never heard of a reader having trouble understanding which writer I’m referring to when I do so; the names are perfectly comprehensible using the standard twenty-six letters of the English language, and I prefer to avoid the needless trouble of hunting down the keyboard sequences for an infinite variety of foreign characters for no practical purpose.
Some might see my avoidance of diacritical characters as a display of English language ethnocentrism, but I don’t think that’s fair. Indeed, as Prothero points out, unwieldy linguistic conventions for foreign language words and names only make it difficult to use these words and names in English. I think Stephen Prothero makes a great point that certain words like ‘nirvana’ might never have been adopted into English usage if they could not have been typed without diacriticals.
While I agree with Prothero’s decision on this point, I know many of my own literary friends and peer bloggers do not. What do you think — do diacritical characters help or hurt your reading experience when you read texts from other languages?
Just to prove that my heart is in the right place (because, really, it is) on the topic of global language exchanges, I’d also like to suggest adoption of a different practice among English language speakers to help facilitate international communication and show respect for foreign sensibilities. Why, I have long wondered, do we use English language versions of foreign place names? If the people of “Spain” believe that they live in a country called “Espana”, why do we in the United States of America persist in calling the country “Spain”?
A more practical and exchange-friendly set of guidelines for foreign language usage in English, it seems to me, would include the following two rules: avoid diacritical characters, and use native versions of foreign place names — “Espana”, not “Spain”. Does anybody agree with me that widespread adoption of these rules would make good sense?