Diacritics: Trema, Umlaut, Macron, Circumflex, and All That

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Diacritics: Trema, Umlaut, Macron, Circumflex, and All That

Xah Lee, 2011-06-24

You know the accent mark of 2 dots above a char, like this ö? That is often called umlaut, but a more correct term to describe that accent mark is Trema. Accent mark itself is called Diacritic. I've always been fascinated by these symbols and their names, since teen.

Here's a list of common diacritics and their names:

  • acute ( ´ ). café, décor, déjà vu, résumé, risqué, Chopin's étude, fiancée, ingénue.
  • grave ( ` ). crème de la crème (see: One Night in Bangkok), ménage à trois (see: Art of Sexual Positions.), Perl's raison d'être.
  • breve ( ˘ ).
  • cedilla ( ¸ ). façade.
  • circumflex ( ˆ ). coup de grâce, mêlée (as in melee weapon in gaming.), my rôle.
  • macron ( ¯ ).
  • trema (diaeresis/umlaut) ( ¨ ). zoölogy, reënact, naïve, Chloë.

Note that some foreign char such as ñ in Spanish, is not considered as n with a accent mark. It is a distinct letter by itself.

Wikipedia has interesting historical note about trema. Quote:

The diacritical mark is itself commonly referred to as either a diaeresis or umlaut, depending on which role it is fulfilling. The two uses originated separately, with the diaeresis being considerably older. In modern computer systems using Unicode, umlaut and diaeresis are identical: ‹ä› represents both a-umlaut and a-diaeresis.

The diaeresis indicates that two adjoining letters that would normally form a digraph and be pronounced as one are instead to be read as separate, either as a diphthong or as two distinct vowels in two syllables. The diaeresis indicates that a vowel should be pronounced apart from the letter which precedes it. For example, in the spelling coöperate, the diaeresis reminds the reader that the word has four syllables co-op-er-ate, not three, *coop-er-ate. In English, this usage is becoming archaic[1] but languages such as Dutch, French and Spanish make regular use of the diaeresis. By extension, the diaeresis is also used to denote similar distinctions, such as marking the schwa ë in Albanian.

“Um”+“laut” is German for “around/changed”+“sound”. It refers to a historical sound shift in that language. In German, the umlaut diacritic is found as ä, ö and ü. The name is used in some other languages that share these symbols with German or where the Latin spelling was introduced in the 19th century, replacing marks that had been used previously. The phonological phenomenon of umlaut occurred historically in English as well (man ~ men; full ~ fill; goose ~ geese) in a way cognately parallel with German, but English orthography does not write the sound shift using the umlaut diacritic. Instead, a different letter is used.

Wikipedia has nice and complete explanations on other Diacritic.

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