There’s a website called “There, I Fixed It” that specializes in photos of assorted appalling improvisations for mechanical situations – quick fixes done with whatever things might happen to be lying around: elastic bands holding multiple remotes together; mailboxes made of ski poles and reusable bags; roofs held up with blocks, sticks, and binder twine; car doors made from vinyl siding or carbdoard boxes; insulation made with towels and glue; wrong-sized parts everywhere; and of course ductape, ductape, ductape, and no doubt a fair amount of WD-40 too. A veritable MacGyver festival, only keeping the crazy but losing the brilliance.
Well, that’s the infinite ingenuity of humanity. People improvise when they don’t have the parts necessary and, for some reason or other, can’t or won’t get them. Now, imagine you had a language with that kind of problem: you wanted to write it down, but the letters you had available weren’t exactly matched to the sounds the language made. What would you do?
Ha. Welcome to most languages in the world. Including ours. We’re using an alphabet that was made for the Latin language. We have sounds that Latin didn’t. What do we do?
Well, OK, English is a special case. We’ve given up even trying to fix it, exactly. It’s all just git-r-done. But many other languages determined that the letters available would work fairly well with their sounds if they just had some extra marks to put on them. What, you object? Listen, live a critic, die a critic.
Diacritic. Indeed. That’s what they put on selected letters: diacritics. Also known as diacritical marks. The word comes from Greek δια dia “between” and κρίνειν krinein “separate” (verb). They separate between different sounds represented by what is otherwise the same letter.
Oh, we mean accents? Actually, accents are just part of it. Acute and grave accents, é è, are certainly diacritics; so are circumflexes î, tildes ñ, cedillas ç, diaereses (also called umlauts for the phonological process they often indicate) ü, and a small host of others such as dots, hooks, and rings. These are the ductape and WD-40 of orthography.
Except that ductape and WD-40 fixes are decidedly downmarket. Redneck. At the opposite end of the scale from, say, a French restaurant. Diacritics, since they are not normal in English but are associated with certain European languages that we valorize for their exoticness, often increase the dollar value of a word. What has more class: a resume, a resumé, or a résumé? Will you pay more for cream, creme, or crème? And which publication is higher-brow, the one that talks about getting the naive to cooperate or the one that talks about getting the naïve to coöperate?
Yep, they may be ductape for other languages, but they’re bowties for English. Except the umlaut (diaeresis). Oh, it’s special, as we’ve just seen, and can raise the tone. But it can also just add a certain Teutonic otherness, as more than a few heavy metal groups have noticed with distinct disregard for phonological functionality (Mötley Crüe are a particularly notable offender, but I suppose Blue Öyster Cult get a lot of blame for starting it). Those two dots are like the eyes of Kilroy looking over the wall, but sometimes Kilroy is a copyeditor for the New Yorker and sometimes he’s a headbanger in studded leather.
And all that from a really fairly dry, light, even prissy-sounding little word. Diacritic. The air of intellectual circumspection from dia is, I think, a factor: diametric, diatonic, dialysis, perhaps dialogue; it may seem feminine from the flavour of Diane. But the crisp click-rebound of critic cannot but be detached and askance (and, yes, it’s actually the same critic as critic, at root). Put them together and you have a clear, shiny taste of acrylic and perhaps a bitter taste of acrid. And of course dialectic and dialect.
Which brings us back to the infinite variety of language. And the limited toolkit of letters we have for transcribing it. Wayyyyy too much trouble to get a new letter widely used, usually. We’ll just take what we have and fix it till it works.