A Guide to Diacritics and When to Use Them.

Over 140 countries use the Latin alphabet - but they don’t all use it the same way. 

 

Diacritics - also known as accents, accent marks or acute accents - are used to modify sounds or signify stressed syllables. They’re essential to other languages and you’ll recognise them in everyday words like façade, naïve and fiancé. But what do they mean - and when should we use or avoid them?

 

In this guide, we’ll talk through the meaning of diacritics and how you can type them using everyday word processors and programmes. Take a seat in your favourite café and let’s get into some linguistics.

Jumbled, multi-coloured letters on a white background

What is the meaning of diacritics

 

Diacritics, also known as accents, can take the form of lines, squiggles, apostrophes and dots found above, below and within a letter in typography. There are many uses of diacritics, from modifying the pronunciation of the letter to indicating the syllable that should be stressed on each word when spoken. They can also be part of stand-alone phonetic characters, such as the letter á in the Hungarian alphabet or á in Arabic.

 

The English alphabet uses 26 letters from the Latin alphabet. Interestingly, English is one of the few languages based on the Latin alphabet that doesn’t typically use diacritics in standard English words. 

 

In English, diacritics are usually only found on loanwords. For example, words such as ‘cliché’ from French or ‘doppelgänger’ from German are used in the English vernacular, but the diacritics are sometimes omitted. 

 

While diacritics aren’t always necessary when writing English loanwords, they can improve readability. For example, with a word such as ‘resumé’ (a document typically used for job applications in American English), it may help to include the diacritic, so it’s not confused with the word ‘resume’ (to continue something after a pause). 

 

However, names which include diacritics should remain unchanged out of respect to the person or place, so it’s courteous to include the diacritic where possible for example over the letter e in the famous writer Emily Brontë’s name.

 

The different diacritic marks.  

 

While there are many ways to modify a letter, diacritics are broken down into categories, based on their appearance. Not every type of diacritic will appear in every language, but here are some of the most common types:

 

Acute

Acute diacritics (acute accents) are found above a letter and usually highlight a change in vowel sound or indicate stress. The mark leans forward away from the letter - a bit like a comma. The acute diacritic is found in many languages worldwide and is most commonly seen in Spanish and French.

 

Examples:

  • Délicieux - ‘delicious’ in French
  • Canción - ‘song’ in Spanish
  • Július - ‘July’ in Hungarian

 

Breve

A breve is a short, curved mark added to the top of a letter. Depending on the language, it modifies the vowel sound by making it a long vowel or short vowel. The breve is found in languages such as Romanian, Turkish and Vietnamese.

 

Examples:

  • Yağmur - ‘rain’ in Turkish
  • Măr - ‘apple’ in Romanian

 

Cedilla

The cedilla is a diacritic mark found below a letter. Cedillas are found in languages such as Portuguese, French and Azerbaijani. Some loanwords in English like ‘façade’ can be written with or without the cedilla.

 

Examples:

  • Garçon - ‘boy’ in French
  • Şeker - ‘sugar’ in Turkish
  • Praça - ‘plaza’ in Portuguese

 

Caron/háček

The caron is found above a letter and looks similar to a breve, except it’s angular and shaped like a small v. This diacritic is also commonly referred to as a háček, meaning ‘little hook’ in Czech. The caron is found across many European languages such as Lithuanian, Slovak and Serbian.

 

Examples:

  • Škola - ‘school’ in Czech, Croatian and Serbian
  • Oranž - ‘orange’ in Estonian
  • Čačka - ‘doodle’ or ‘scribble’ in Slovenian

 

Circumflex

A circumflex is found above a letter and looks like an upside-down letter v. It can be used to modify the tone of a letter or change a vowel length. 

 

Examples:

  • Forêt - ‘forest’ in French
  • Dŵr - ‘water’ in Welsh
  • Ângulo - ‘angle’ or ‘corner’ in Portuguese

 

Diaeresis/umlaut

Both the diaeresis and umlaut are diacritic marks, written as two dots above the letter. In French, the diaeresis is specific to words where two vowels follow one another, with the diacritic placed on the second vowel to show that it’s pronounced as another syllable. 

 

The umlaut is found in German and Germanic languages and changes the pronunciation of a single letter - usually a vowel sound. Some English loanwords such as ‘naïve’ can be written with or without the diaeresis.

 

Examples of diaeresis:

  • Noël - ‘Christmas’ in French 
  • Canoë - ‘canoe’ in French

 

Examples of umlaut:

  • Hände - ‘hands’ in German
  • Öga - ‘eye’ in Swedish

 

Grave

A grave accent is a diacritic found above a letter and leans into it. Depending on the language, this diacritic alters the vowel sound or signifies where stress should be placed. It’s commonly seen in languages like French, Spanish and Italian.

 

Examples:

  • Lì - ‘there’ in Italian
  • Première - ‘first’ in French

 

Tilde

The tilde is a diacritic mark above a letter that’s most commonly seen in Spanish and Portuguese to signify a nasalised sound. The tilde is also seen in other languages such as Estonian and Vietnamese.

 

Examples:

  • Señorita - ‘girl’ in Spanish
  • Mãe - ‘mother’ in Portuguese
  • Õhtu - ‘evening’ in Estonian

 

 

How to type out diacritic characters.  

 

From Albanian to Zulu, many alphabets are based on the standard Latin alphabet but include one or more diacritical characters

 

Don’t worry - you don’t need a keyboard or writing system for every language to type the diacritical mark you need. Some word processing programmes, such as Microsoft Word, have a drop-down menu for you to access. Here you’ll find letters and glyphs with accents as well as other special symbols, such as mathematical signs and punctuation marks.

 

Writing diacritics in Microsoft Word.

To type out diacritic characters in Microsoft Word, follow these steps:

 

  1. Click where you would like to insert the symbol.
  2. Navigate to Insert > Symbol within the top ribbon.
  3. Click Symbol > More Symbols to access the full list of diacritical marks.
  4. Choose the symbol you require and double-click or hit Insert to add it to your document.

 

Once you’ve selected the symbol, it will be added to the quick access menu, so you don’t have to navigate through the list every time. 

 

Finding diacritics with the character map.

You can also find the full list of symbols using a Windows operating system if your word processor doesn’t have a built-in symbol map. To do this:

 

  1. Hit the Windows key or open the start menu to the left of the taskbar.
  2. Type ‘character map’ and select the application to open it.
  3. Navigate through the list and double-click the letters with accents you need.
  4. Double-clicking the characters will add them to the field below. You can copy the characters directly from here.

 

Using number pad shortcuts to write diacritics.

Another method to type diacritical characters is to use the keyboard shortcut using a number pad. Whether this is a shortcut, in reality, depends on how often you will be using certain diacritic characters

 

For example, you may find this method easier if you’re often typing in a language that uses the Latin alphabet, such as Spanish or German. In that case, it may be faster to learn the shortcuts if you don’t have the specific language keyboard. 

 

To do this, enable number lock on the keyboard, hold down the alt key and type the numerical shortcut using the number pad. 

 

Here are some common diacritics and their keyboard shortcuts:

 

Upper case

  • Alt+0193 = Á
  • Alt+0201 = É
  • Alt+0205 = Í
  • Alt+0211 = Ó
  • Alt+0218 = Ú
  • Alt+0209 = Ñ
  • Alt+0196 = Ä
  • Alt+0214 = Ö
  • Alt+0220 = Ü 
  • Alt+0199 = Ç

 

Lower case

  • Alt+0225 = á
  • Alt+0233 = é
  • Alt+0237 = í
  • Alt+0243 = ó
  • Alt+0250 = ú
  • Alt+0241 = ñ
  • Alt+0228 = ä
  • Alt+0246 = ö
  • Alt+0252 = ü
  • Alt+0231 = ç

 

If you’re using a laptop without a number pad, you won’t be able to use the alt codes. The best option is to use the built-in symbol tools in the programme or character map. 

 

Diacritics FAQs.

 

What is an example of a diacritic?

Diacritics you’ll commonly encounter are the acute (as seen in French: ‘flambé’), the umlaut (as seen in German: ‘München’), the grave (as seen in Italian: ‘città’) and the tilde (as seen in Spanish: ‘mañana’). There are numerous types of diacritics and their usage will vary per language.

 

What are the most common diacritics?

The most common diacritics are the acute (é), cedilla (ç), circumflex (ô), diaeresis/umlaut (ï/ö) and grave (è). Whether you choose to write the diacritics in English loanwords, such as ‘façade’, is up to you. However, it’s respectful to retain diacritics if they’re included in peoples’ or place names.

 

Which language has the most diacritics?

Vietnamese uses the Latin alphabet and is widely thought to be the language that contains the most diacritic characters. As Vietnamese is a tonal language, the diacritics can even be stacked to create special tonal characters such as ặ, ố and ệ. The popular Vietnamese noodle soup phở is a good example of stacked diacritics.

Use typography effectively in your designs with Adobe Photoshop.

 

Put your new diacritic skills to good use by creating great designs and wonderful text in many languages in Photoshop.