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Friday, November 03, 2006

Those Critical Diacritical Marks

A writer at seeking a unifying symbol of the countries of Eastern Europe finds it in the foreignness of their alphabets.

What really unites all the post-communist countries is their distinctive character sets. Every alphabet is different. Every one has letters that look intimidating and unfamiliar to the western eye. Estonia has the õ, Latvian the ķ, Lithuanian the ų, Polish the infernally similar ż and ź, not to mention the ł; the Czechs have the ů, the Slovaks the ŕ and the Hungarians the ő. There are dozens of other examples, but you get the point.

There is a political dimension to this. Westerners who pride themselves on the pedantically correct use of the German umlaut, or the French cedilla, and who always put the accent on Chávez and Guantánamo, blithely ignore the crucial diacritical marks in the languages of the new Europe. They are too complicated; too difficult, too unfamiliar.

But they do matter. Estonia’s national anthem, for example, starts: “Mu isamaa, mu õnn ja rõõm” (My fatherland, my happiness and joy). Leave out the vital diacritical marks and the last words become, comically, “onn ja room” (roughly: small hut and crawl). [Link]

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