On Diacriticals and Foreign Place Names

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?

14 Responses

  1. It’s funny that you argue
    It’s funny that you argue against the native spelling of words yet at the same time argue for the native place names bereft of those diacriticals. Spanish people don’t call their country Espana, they call it España. For a language as common as Spanish, why not keep that diacritic there if only to make non-speakers hesitate before they speak it incorrectly?

  2. Well, hepcat, I do think
    Well, hepcat, I do think there’s a consistency to my two proposals. In both cases, I’m calling for greater universality and ease of use. I’m also thinking of technical issues like search engine optimization, and cross-platform compatibility.

    I get your point that including the tilde in “Espana” acts as a pronunciation guide. But, as Prothero points out, to many readers these characters are simply gibberish. Is it that hard to pronounce “Espana” correctly without the tilde? I don’t see why it needs to be. English language speakers pick up many illogical pronunciations (say, the silent “gh” in “fight”) without the help of special characters.

  3. The world languages aren’t
    The world languages aren’t “one” either. We speak English.
    If a person is on an english speaking site, they should be able
    to understand what is meant by “Spain”. Same thing for english
    speakers on a Spanish site for “Espana”…or whatever.

    I still get confused when people say “Mumbai” rather than Bombay or “Beijing” instead of Peking…I think the constant
    changing of names is tiresome. In Russia, they changed a lot
    of cities names back to what they used to be when the Soviet
    Union ceased to exist. It was confusing to Russians and to
    English speakers. It is difficult enough to learn English or a
    foreign language without everything being in constant flux.

    Moreover, another example: when African nations became independent, they changed their names and that was confusing…
    but I guess that is modern life for you…I remember when “gay” was queer and the world was more clear. Sorry, my vulgarity comes naturally.

  4. I’m on board with the
    I’m on board with the elimination of most diacriticals. Of course, it might just be a laziness to even bother to figure out how to type them in my word processor. I usually do a google search for the word and copy and paste it.

    Generally, they do nothing but stall typing or slow understanding. Especially if a simple English spelling would suffice. Also agreed that English speakers are pretty savvy at picking up pronunciation from multilingual spellings. It is already one crazy language.

    The usage of country names has always confused me. Pragmatically, however, I think that’s just part of the baggage our language is stuck with. A few influential scholars can probably change the use of diacriticals (especially with the support of the average person). But I know my neighbors are not going to talk about Espana’s chances in the World Cup. And who would have the authority or influence to affect such a change?

  5. As a pacifist, I stand with
    As a pacifist, I stand with hepcat in opposition to Language Genital Mutilation. Let’s not leave our flourishes out of the toolkit. You wouldn’t propose lopping the gargoyles off Notre Dame, would you, Levi?

  6. Oooooh, what a nice can of
    Oooooh, what a nice can of worms you just opened!

    On the topic of diacriticals, I’m not sure I think we need to pick a single answer to apply in all cases. I do have a sentimental fondness for diacriticals, and they make my world richer: España signifies a country more exciting, unique and enticing to me than Espana… Like a good title can make you open a book, a delicious word make you inquire into a concept, interesting diacriticals have a mystique that I’d miss were they to be erased. Then again I don’t think they are indispensible in all situations. Most search engines today are able to look for alternative spellings of words containing e, é, ê or è — I’d rather we kept on the coding effort than keep on homogeneizing the language (en even more minority opinion, I guess).

    Btw, for anyone interested — let me just mention the “United States – International” keyboard option for basic diacriticals. As somebody who writes mostly in French on an American keyboard, I must say that it makes spelling certain foreign languages a breeze. Took all of 3 minutes to understand and learn (no more cut and paste or worse, keyboard sequences…).

    As for the name of countries… Well, your “Espana” example is very interesting: you’re going with a spelling that looks relatively close to España… But is the written form really the most important? Maybe we should start from the sound and try “Espania” — after all until the 16-ish century (in France, no idea for other countries), the spoken form was considered the most important, and if we’re just trying to make it so the average reader has the least to guess, then being closer to pronunciation might be logical?
    On this one I have no real opinion right now — I just never had given it much thought before!

  7. I think if we were to follow
    I think if we were to follow Prothero’s examples and recommendations, then Bolaño would not be Bolano, as you write it, but as per Prothero it would be Bolanyo.

    He’s saying spell it like it is pronounced, eg Bolanyo, rather than using the pronunciation marks, the tilde in this case, Bolaño.

    I always wondered what this bologna was. What’s bologna? I always ate baloney.

  8. I do think we should
    I do think we should distinguish between dropping diacriticals that do not add to most people’s ability to read (or pronounce) foreign words and the ability of nations to abandon the names of countries and cities that were foisted on them by their colonial masters. After all, the United States wasn’t called the United States until after the Revolutionary War, and most people refer to New York, not New Amsterdam…

  9. What about highly trivial
    What about highly trivial changes in spelling like Brasil/Brazil? I think the z actually causes most people to pronounce it incorrectly.

  10. Phonetic spelling in the
    Phonetic spelling in the future to appeal to a larger base..?

  11. Glad to see these
    Glad to see these responses.

    Yes, agreed about Brasil. And so many other examples.

    TKG, I see your point about “Espanya” but I don’t really think Prothero or anybody would advocate inventing new phonetic spellings. One reason “Shiva” makes sense over “Siva” is that “Shiva” has already been in common use, as has “Espana”.

  12. I have to agree with
    I have to agree with Charlotte. Why should we forsake the flourishes that make different languages, well, different. Why should I butcher my mother tongue for the sake of conformity? Those ‘foreign characters of no pratical purpose’ do serve a purpose in their respective languages.

    Our languages and their diversities are at the very basis of who we are as a culture. I see no good reason why we must look to chisel and streamline everything in this world for the sake of keyboarding practicality, of all things!

  13. Sanskrit and Hindi and Urdu
    Sanskrit and Hindi and Urdu scripts are completely phonetic.

    I am an Australian Indian and a funny thing is Rama is in native toungue pronounced Raam; Mahabaratha; Mahabarath, and Ramayana Ramayan. With a stronger nasal “n” at the end.

    But of course Krishna, Karma, Dharma, asana are prounounced with the “a” ending.

    But Karma is a little less like car and more like the cur in curtain.

    But if we expect english speakers to pronounce curtain correctly why not learn karma correctly?

    I wonder how it came to be that it is nigh on impossible for a non-indian to be confident to get native pronounciation because of these arbitraries and non specifications.

    So many Indian words are entering English through yoga and My name is earl, he he.

    I agree diacriticals should go – but the deeper question is why several words are still conventionally written to immediately mark non-familiar-with-native-toungue speakers.

    I would like to do a project of Indian philosophical terms migration to English, and the importance of pronounciation given that the philosophico-religious words are thought to be “celestial archetypes sounds” – “shubd”, which are not tuned into if pronounced incorrectly.

    Pompous western yoga teachers take note! – especially younger than me teachers who pronounce OM incorrectly and encourage decidedly non yogic slapping thoughts in there humble homeland-dislocated yogis!

    Dear reader, feel free to contact me if you are interested on collaborating.

  14. Actually, the ‘z’ in Brazil
    Actually, the ‘z’ in Brazil is much closer to the pronunciation of the portuguese ‘s’ than the English ‘s’.

    So in this particular case, the orthographic transgression serves a phonetic purpose.

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