The Diacritics Affair

Oct 19, 2016 by

[This is a guest post, written by Roger Fernàndez from Barcelona, Spain]

Can a few simple accents become the center of a controversy that occupy headlines? In Catalonia, yes. Catalan is the language of this northeast Spain region, whose capital is Barcelona. The Catalan language, however, is not only spoken in Catalonia; other Spanish regions such as the Balearic Islands, Valencia and some Aragon areas as well as areas of southern France, and the Italian city of Alghero, make this Romance language the 20th most spoken language in Europe (9,4M speakers ).

On 29 September an intention was announced to eliminate the vast majority of diacritical accents. The proposal was made by the IEC, the Institute of Catalan Studies, which is the organization that, since 1911, defines the rules of grammar, spelling and new vocabulary of the Catalan language. And, as if someone had thrown a match into a powder keg, a discussion has exploded and unleashed far beyond the purely academic circles.

But what diacritical accents mean in Catalan and what role do they have? The diacritical accents are marks that are introduced in some words to help distinguish words with different meanings; they do not follow the rules of accentuation,. A few examples illustrate this:

Ma (my) / Mà (hand)

Dona (Woman) / Dóna (gives)

Pel (for the) / Pèl (hair)

Net (clean) / Nét (grandson)

Deu (Ten) /  Déu (God)

And so up to 150 pairs of words were defined by Pompeu Fabra, the philologist who created the prescriptive rules of modern Catalan orthography in the early twentieth century. The new IEC proposal reduces the number of such pairs to just 14!

Initially, the news appeared in the Catalan newspapers, but it was only a small article in the Culture section of each newspaper. But after a few hours, thanks to social networks, the debate was on like an uncontrollable fire. Soon the “Diacriticals affair” was the cover story in the media all around the country.

That day, Empar Moline, one of the most prestigious writers in Catalan, published an article in the newspaper “Ara” denouncing, in his usual humorous style, that the disappearance of diacritic marks would become an oversimplification of a language which, by constant contact with the powerful Spanish language, is already suffering a loss of rigor. Why not, Moline asked ironically, remove Catalan personal pronouns (“pronoms febles” or weak pronouns), the real nemesis for any student of Catalan.

Within a few hours, Quim Monzo, a close friend of Empar Moline and probably the most recognized living writer in Catalan, responded in Tweeter standing at the other side of the controversy:

tweet-quim-monzo“Please, we need an immediate crowdfunding campaign to save the diacritics” wrote the eternal candidate for the Literature Nobel Prize, Quim Monzó.

The discussion, however, was not limited only to a philological and literary milieu, and Twitter was starting to warm up. That evening #diacritics hashtag became Trending Topic on Twitter. Catalan TV channels and radio stations buzzed and the controversy grew hour by hour. Right now, platform has three active campaigns to collect signatures to “save the 136 diacritical accent marks from a death sentence.”

The following day, instead of troubled waters getting calm, tempers were inflamed even more. Even some graffiti appeared:


The sentence, which with stress marks would be written “La dona dóna un os d’ós al nét net” will hardly ever be used, considering its meaning: “The woman gives a bone of bear to the clean grandson”, but it is a symptomatic example of the sudden Catalans’ love for their 136 words with diacritical stress marks. Some online media took advantage to propose tests and surveys to determine how many diacritics readers were able to recognize, as many Catalan speakers are not able to spell all the words with diacritical accents, as required by prescriptive rules. Note that these written accents do not follow any rules and, therefore, the only way to learn them is to do it by memory.

If I had to evaluate a distribution of supporters and opponents of diacritic accents suppression, I think much of the academic world (philologists and linguists) are for this simplification, while writers are divided 50-50. Interestingly, however, a large majority of Catalan speakers, let’s say, ordinary people, are absolutely against simplifying their language. Even songs and flash mobs appeared in YouTube in defense of Diacritic accents:

What makes Catalan speakers so zealous about an alleged complexity of the language? Before trying to answer, I would like to clarify that Catalan is as simple or complex as any other language of the Romance branch of Indo-European may be. Well, back to the question: With the end of sovereignty of Catalonia (in the eighteenth century), political and cultural decline began, the Catalan language was banned from public administration and education. The language was restricted to the private sphere and suffered a clear recession, reaching an almost jeopardized state during the fascist dictatorship of General Franco (1939-1975). With the arrival of democracy in Spain and the recognition of a certain autonomy for Catalonia, the language became the center of the Catalan cultural identity. Catalonia is currently undergoing a process of independence that has made people feel more proud than ever of their culture and, therefore, of their language. Catalan language now has a strong presence in all areas of society, government, education and the media, despite being a region where two languages (Catalan and Spanish) live quite harmoniously. And maybe diacritical accents have become a symbol of Catalans’ pride for their language.

keep-calmAfter this controversy, I don’t want even to think what will happen with the spelling reform announced for 2017! If this point was reached with diacritics reform, I hope not to see barricades in the streets in defense of the only exclusively Catalan letter “L geminada “(l·l)!


Subscribe For Updates

We would love to have you back on Languages Of The World in the future. If you would like to receive updates of our newest posts, feel free to do so using any of your favorite methods below: