Wednesday, September 15, 2010

To Diacritic or Not to Diacritic, That is the Question

Following recent discussions with friends on inventing names for places or characters in fantasy writing, I've been musing on the topic a bit further. Not without cause....I'm an inveterate lover of diacritics, those little 'visual signifiers' that can add subtle sound changes to letters. The question is: do they work for readers the same way they work for me? And if not, what do I do about it?

Other issues arise too, of course, such as the length of names - just how big a mouthful are they - and the familiarity/unfamiliarity factor. What sort of word roots and stems do you work from? Are they Latinate, Celtic, Greek, Japanese, Klingon or something startlingly 'other'? You might choose your linguistic base to give your fantasy culture a certain 'flavour', or simply to render the strange into something approachable, recognisable. Then there's word length. As I'm finding, too many long names can have readers stumbling, or becoming distanced from the characters, which is the last thing I'm hoping to achieve!

But back to diacritics, those lovely little hats, cups, dots, bars and squiggles above (or below) letters familiar to readers of Spanish, French, German, Scandinavian, Eastern European and Asian languages, but not to readers of English. I heave a wistful sigh. My love affair with diacritics goes back a long way, to the age of fourteen, when a schoolfriend and I taught ourselves Quenya (Tolkien's invented 'High Elven' language) and began writing letters to each other in beautifully calligraphed script (tengwar). Tolkien used diacritics with dual intent; firstly as a vowel system (with each vowel represented by a different diacritic marker) and secondly, to create a specific visual aesthetic (Quenya being in the realm of 'art languages'). I'll come back to the visual aspects of diacritics and letterforms in just a moment.

In the present revision, I've been working through my novels and stripping back squiggles, creating shortened versions of long or otherwise unwieldy names, and looking carefully at the cultural bases of names for people of different races. And I'm finding that it's not as painful as I thought it would be (although keeping all the alterations straight in my head is a bit challenging!), and that I'm enjoying the simplifications as much as my readers undoubtedly will. In each diacritic instance, I've asked myself whether the name/word could survive without it, and have mostly been answered with a resounding 'yes'. Some subtlety of sound-form has been sacrificed for the sake of ease, but I think the basic aesthetic/aural principles are still holding good. Thank the gods! Imagine the terrible angst otherwise! (Reaches for the smelling salts).

What I'm left with no doubt relates to my background as a visual artist; the squiggles that have made it into the mix exist as visual cues just as much as sound modifiers. So, for instance, the only apostrophes (other than showing possessives) are in words used as magical commands; they all follow the same basic visual pattern for ease of recognition. All the grave and acute accents, diereses (umlauts) and circumflexes are gone - apart from one, which I've again kept for visual emphasis of the most important racial name. Other than that, I confess to my chief villain's name starting with the dreaded 'X', since I like the visual significance of the letter ( as a cross for 'wrong', or 'dangerous' as in skull and crossbones, or as an 'alert' - x marks the spot). I smile to myself, since a short story I'm currently reading (Aliette de Bodard's The Lonely Heart in the Panverse anthology Eight Against Reality) features an antagonist whose name starts with X (although this is also related to the story's Chinese origins and setting). On the other hand, Charles Xavier of the X-Men was a good guy of the highest order. Anyway, enough musing for now. Back to the novels!


  1. Excellent post, Satima! Apostrophes in alien or magical (fantasy) words, names and place names are my bete noir, mainly because most writers have no idea why they're using them. Linguistically (and non-possessively), they either mark a contraction or represent a sound (often a glottal stop), but frequently I find they're used neither consistently nor systematically - they're just there so that everyone knows the word is alien or magic! The Narn names in Babylon 5 are a classic example of this - there's no rhyme or reason. I've looked for both and failed to find either - despite a reasonably thorough analysis. And rules for their use transcend word class or semantic domain in every human language where they occur, so the "But they're just in names!" argument that I've heard doesn't wash with me either! Sometimes being a linguist is such a burden!

  2. I actually didn't write that piece - my friend and crit buddy Joanna Fay did, and of course I agree with nearly all of it. The area of non-agreement lies in the fact that Jo loves using diacritical marks, and in getting rid of them she is, I think, "killing her darlings". She's one of those clever people who writes in Elvish for fun! Me, I draw the line at the odd acute accent or umlaut on words that have been borrowed, and I try to make my names easily pronounceable by English speakers. However, a lot of critters have not liked my names, so I obviously haven't got them right yet!

  3. You're right, Satima. Although these are just little's the big ones that hurt! :-)

  4. I'm really sorry for the confusion! It was an excellent post, Joanna!

  5. No worries, Ragged Staff! And I enjoyed reading your comments. :-)

  6. Tengwar has long been a favourite script of mine and I used it as the basis for an english calligraphy font that was enjoyable to write birthday cards with for a number of years, but far to slow for me to use otherwise. I do like to see logic in created languages and I think this is where Tolkien's mastery came through - that level of consistency through his work added substantially to the technical enjoyment of his novels and it is good to see contemporary writers considering the implications of creating new languages.