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DIACRITIC, also diacritical mark. In alphabetic writing, a symbol that attaches to a letter so as to alter its value or provide some other information: in French, the acute and GRAVE ACCENTS over e (é, è); in GERMAN, the umlaut over a, o, u (ä, ö, ü); in SPANISH, the ACUTE ACCENT over o (nación) and the tilde over n (mañana). Some languages that have adopted and adapted the Roman alphabet use diacritics to represent values not covered by the basic letters: Czech, Polish, and Croat use them with both vowel and consonant letters to distinguish Slavonic phonemes not found in LATIN. Pinyin, the Romanized script for Chinese, uses them to represent distinctions in tone.

Advantages and disadvantages

Diacritics are economical, especially as alternatives to DIGRAPHS (two letters serving to represent a single sound). They can be written by hand, but are prone to distortion, misplacement, and omission in the heat of writing. In print, they have the disadvantage of requiring additional characters in a font: until the 1982 reforms, Modern GREEK required 13 varieties of the letter alpha to allow for all possible combinations of diacritics, but only two have been retained. This disadvantage is made worse by the limited number of characters on keyboards originally designed for English and may require a complex use of keys to add diacritics to letters.


(1) Diacritics were widely used by medieval scribes to form abbreviations by which savings could be made in the time needed for copying and the cost of parchment. An m or n might be represented by a macron above a preceding vowel (poetā for poetam, the accusative form of Latin poeta, poet). Omitted letters might be indicated by a suspension sign: the APOSTROPHE in M'ton, short for Merton. (2) In handwriting, diacritics may serve to distinguish letters, if the grouping into separate letters of several successive vertical strokes (minims) is unclear: for example, the 15 strokes of handwritten minimum. (3) A diacritic in one language and alphabet may sometimes be converted into a letter in another: for example, the Greek rough breathing or asper (ʼ) has been transcribed into Roman letters as h (Greek ϱυɵμoς becoming Latin as rhythmus, English as rhythm).

Diacritics in English

The use of diacritics is minimal in English. There is, however, a range of diacritical usage in or related to English, including two everyday marks with diacritical properties: the dot and the apostrophe. These are so much part of the writing system that they are seldom thought of as diacritical.

The superscript dot.

The dot in lower—case i originally served to mark the stroke as a separate letter from adjacent strokes (minims). It was retained in j when that form became an independent letter. See I, J.

The apostrophe.

Although it does not mark a particular letter, the APOSTROPHE has two diacritical functions: indicating the omission of a letter (o in hadn't) and possession (singular boy's, plural boys').

Foreign marks.

The use of non-native diacritics is generally kept to a minimum in English. It is optional in such FRENCH loans as café and élite (with acute accents), and is provided in others where the writer and publisher consider the provision necessary for accuracy or flavour: for example, GERMAN Sprachgefühl (with umlaut).


In addition to use as the German umlaut, DIAERESIS marks are sometimes used on the second of two vowels to show that they are to be spoken separately and not as a digraph: daïs, naïve.

Marks used in transliteration.

An internationally agreed set of diacritics is standard in the academic transliteration of texts from such sources as ARABIC and SANSKRIT script, in which the strict values of the original symbols must be shown.

Stress marks.

Diacritics are widely used in dictionaries to mark STRESS. A stress mark is usually superscript vertical, but is sometimes oblique. Traditionally, such a mark has come after a stressed syllable (demand'), but currently, in conformity with the practice of the INTERNATIONAL PHONETIC ASSOCIATION, the mark generally precedes the stressed syllable (de'mand). Frequently, two marks are used: a superscript for primary stress, a subscript for secondary stress: ˈphotoˌgraph. Such marks may be used in conjunction with standard spelling, in respelling systems, and with IPA symbols.

Marks used in dictionaries.

In addition to stress marks, diacritics of various kinds are commonly used as aids to pronunciation and word-division in dictionaries: for example, to mark vowel quantity (the ‘long’ vowel ā marked with a MACRON, the ‘short’ vowel ă marked with a BREVE) and to indicate SYLLABICATION, as with the medial dot in bathroom.


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di·a·crit·ic / ˌdīəˈkritik/ • n. a sign, such as an accent or cedilla, which when written above or below a letter indicates a difference in pronunciation from the same letter when unmarked or differently marked. • adj. (of a mark or sign) indicating a difference in pronunciation.

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diacritic serving to distinguish XVII; sb. diacritic sign XIX. — Gr. diakritikós, f. diakrī́nein distinguish; see DIA-, CRITIC.

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