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This Week in Diacritics

By Susan Harris

With this issue, we present our most challenging translation: the redesign and re-engineering of the WWB site. During the transition, a number of codes and special characters were muddled, including—mortifyingly—our beloved diacritics. Which got me thinking about these sherpas of foreign languages.

In English orthography, letters are rugged individualists, shunning the help of accents to carry the tone, and diacritics tend to fluster native speakers of English. (If you want a good laugh, try watching the Americans at Frankfurt dither over the European keyboards and the secret combination for the @ sign.) In the English-speaking world, diacritics are used not as supporting characters but as stars in their own rights--Chicago boasts restaurants named ñ and, wonderfully, Schwa, and mëtal bänds would put umlauts on their consonants if they could. Hip as they may seem to some, however, diacritics are often ignored or overlooked, especially by that otherwise master facilitator of modern communication, the computer. They are frequently dropped outside their native languages, despite the relative ease of contemporary software. When they are used, they're often misread by the various browsers.

The result on your screen may provoke unintended hilarity. Garbled characters often manifest with an italic capital A, a tilde, and an upside-down question mark--A~¡--which I have come to think of as the international symbol for íwhat the @!#.ë Tearing through every text on the site searching for what look like eruptions of profanity and cursing my own self-righteous rigor, I was reminded that, despite globalization, accents are still "foreign." Programs have, of course, progressed greatly since the days of ASCI characters, with those combinations of keystrokes and the split-second timing required--how we rejoiced at the advent of the drop-down menu. But the fact remains that accents still must be manually entered, whether by hand or by special keystroke, suggesting, of course, that unadorned letters are normal, marked ones the exception.

The Italians say "Traduttore--traditore"--translator, traitor. Diacritics help us remain faithful to both the spirit and the letter of our translations, but they are also clearly traitorous. But I betray my own frustration; so will return to dotting my z's and crossing my l's.

Published Jun 25, 2007   Copyright 2007 Susan Harris

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