Here’s something that’s been on my mind for ages: diacritical marks.
The trema, the diaeresis, the umlaut, the caron, the breve, the circumflex, the cedilla. In American English, we don’t rely on them to tell us how to pronounce words, and they’re often omitted. Even so, we know that cafe is two syllables and that pinata and jalapeno have soft ‘ny’ sounds, even when the marks are missing.
If anything, Americans have tended to sprinkle diacritics through our language like confetti. From the heavy metal umlauts of Mõtley Crüe to actress-singer Raven-Symoné, we’ve become accustomed to seeing them as optional and decorative.
Blame it on the limitations of typesetting, and then the challenges of early word processing software.
Many a database doesn’t know what to do with a diacritical mark, and so José becomes Jose, and he may feel like his name is misspelled.
Diacritical marks aren’t likely to help the average American pronounce an unfamiliar name. Now and again, I’ll receive a comment saying “but the accent clearly indicates …” and the commenter is correct. But the commenter has knowledge of Irish/Danish/Portuguese that isn’t necessarily shared by others.
California officially prohibits the use of diacritical marks on birth certificates. Not every state is the same, but the federal government does not use them, either, so they don’t appear on passports or in Social Security records.
When a California lawmaker tried to change the rules in her state, she was told the price tag would come in around ten million dollars, and the change might cause additional problems with vital records.
I want to say that diacritical marks should be permitted, just as we allow parents to spell their children’s names as they prefer. But I do think the arguments about implementation are legitimate. (When I started this site in 2008, I used diacritical marks in Baby Name of the Day posts. But in 2011, during a site upgrade, diacritical marks broke the website. I’m still fixing errors four years later. And so now I tend to omit them.)
What do you think?
- How much do I love Jill Duggar Dillard’s naming style? Word is that she and Derick short-listed Selah for a girl before finding out baby #1 was a boy and settling on Israel. I don’t believe I’ve ever loved a Duggar baby name before this one …
- Speaking of loving names, Ophelia Sylvianne Fortune! And Maximilian Gilbert Henry David! And more from British Baby Names.
- Lots of love for Linus on this Waltzing More than Matilda post about rare boy names from the 1940s. One of my new favorites: Bramwell.
- I thoroughly enjoyed Laura’s list of seventeen names that were “just made up.” More suggestions in the comments. Also, some snark. If I ever find myself sitting down with Stephenie Meyer, my first question will be about naming Renesmee.
- Namespotting at Disney World: Mary Grace and Mary Jane! I love a good Mary combination. And I thoroughly agree with this quote from Kate at Sancta Nomina: “doubling up with Mary makes nearly every name okay.”
- I know I’ve said it a trillion times, but my favorite Mary pairing is Mary Blair. Because of, well, Mary Blair. She’s the designer behind It’s A Small World.
- Names from Tory Burch footwear! Whether I’m in Target or Nordstrom’s, I tend to look at shoe names. It’s not only me, right? So I loved Meagan’s list.
- I really like the surname name Briggs.
- More names that I really like, but that aren’t often heard: Adair, suggested by Duana in this consult.
- Love Roses & Cellar Doors’ list of names that were used in recent history, but are not currently heard. From the girls, I’m tempted by Tacey and Rosamund and Clothilde and Hester and Drusilla. The boys’ list is tougher, but Fraser/Frasier, Everard, Cosimo, Winfield, and Barnaby are grand.
- Frasier also makes The Art of Naming’s list of great F names. He’s in good company, too: Forrest, Fox, Ford, Franklin, Fletcher, Finnick, Flynn … and those are just the boy names!
- Does Lilikoi work as a given name? Once Upon a Time Baby Names has me convinced. It would fit on this list very nicely, don’t you think?
- Naming a sister for Harvest. What a fascinating question at Swistle. And Heritage called Hetty? Swoon! Also loving Halcyon. Actress Beth Littleford has a daughter named Halcyon Juna.
- With all these unusual names flying, let’s take a quick trip to Alaska. Boys named Pavel, Trigger, and Indiana. Girls called Novella, Yaell, and Alova. But my favorites? Viktoria Joy Stormborn and Lyle Adair.
That’s all for this week. As always, thank you for reading – and have a fabulous week!
The U.S. has no official language: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Languages_of_the_United_States#Official_language_status
Furthermore, “names have to be recorded in English” makes no sense, because that would mean that José would be recorded as Joseph, Dùghlas as Douglas, Ožbalt as Oswald, Bartholomäus as Bartholomew, Mikołaj as Nicholas, etc.
While Harken was my favourite possibility on that list, Heritage called Hetty (or Hettie!) is pretty great too. Not that I’m biased or anything 😉
The last pair of shoes I bought (2 days ago) were named “Diana” – shoe industry getting ready for royal baby’s middle name already?
Megan M. says
I know, right?!
I found that combination so pleasing…and then I remember that it’s a Game of Thrones name >_<
It is!? I’m clearly not paying enough attention … but oh, yes, there it is. Well, still more subtle than Khaleesi …
I think diacritical marks are very important. From what I’ve come to see, American culture as a whole tends to disregard or belittle things they don’t really understand which I don’t find to be a great quality. From a language standpoint those funny little marks can be the difference between one word or another and are often the reason why it is pronounced a certain way. If we started leaving letters out of English words because we didn’t see the point of them, most would judge us as ignorant and uneducated. What’s the difference?
I take your point that the words and names are changed without diacritical marks, sometimes unacceptably so.
But here’s where I’m stuck: if we allow some diacritical marks, we really have to allow all diacritical marks, right? Because there’s no practical way to say yes to Spanish and German, but no to Polish and French.
Practically speaking, permitting diacritics helps individual parents who wish to preserve their culture. But as a pronunciation aid? I don’t buy it. There’s no reason to assume that most Americans understand what most diacritical marks mean. (You’d have to be a pretty extraordinary polyglot to master more than a few sets of diacritics, right?)
So while I think it is acceptable to expect others to do their best to say your name as you prefer, that’s true with or without notation.
I also think that parents would embrace the chance to use the marks officially. I do come across lots of families who use them informally in their children’s names. But whether they’re using them correctly is sometimes a question mark.
I’m definitely in the “maybe” camp on this one. I can see it must be frustrating to be told you can’t spell your name the way it is actually spelled. And I don’t think a database’s limitations is a good reason for anything.
But how *would* it work? Could you use a Polish L-with-stroke in the same name that contains a French accent grave? Inventing names happens all the time in the US, so I can’t see why not … and at the same time, using diacritics like that seems bananas – not really an improvement over not allowing them.
I totally understand people wanting the marks included in their or their kids’ names, but you’ve hit on the problem with incorporating the diacritics into databases, etc. Once you start, how do you manage it? Logistically it would be a nightmare. And I agree that for most English speakers, the marks aren’t helpful in terms of pronunciation.
I agree that marks make a difference in name pronunciation, but pronunciations can vary without them, too. I had Caroline (CaroLEEN) shortlisted for my daughter but didn’t use it precisely to avoid confusion with the more dominant pronunciation. Diacritical marks would only help some people pronounce some additional names but not all, and I think that their use would also require us to use, for example, Chinese characters on birth certificates as well. Not practical. The best compromise would perhaps be using the best approximate English spelling on a birth certificate but using any additional desired characters or marks for everyday use.
Ooooo, two mentions of Adair! I love that name to pieces! It’s a fantastic middle name because the emphasis is on the second syllable. That’s really hard to find in a unisex name.
Agreed! I remember hearing it on Daisy Adair in Dead Like Me and falling completely in love!