Examples of Diacritical Marks in English and Foreign Languages

The symbols change letter sounds and word meanings

diacritic marks
Don't be fooled by this graphic: when letters are capitalized, diacritics generally aren't used. In addition, diacritics (or accent marks) are usually omitted in text messages and other forms of online writing. (mathisworks/Getty Images)

In phonetics, a diacritical mark is a glyph—or symbol—added to a letter that alters its sense, function, or pronunciation. It is also known as a diacritic or an accent mark. A diacritical mark is a point, sign, or squiggle added or attached to a letter or character to indicate appropriate stress, special pronunciation, or unusual sounds not common in the Roman alphabet, according to L. Kip Wheeler, a professor at Carson-Newman University in Tennessee.

Purpose

While diacritical marks are more common in foreign languages, you do encounter them quite often in English. For example, diacritics are often used with certain French loanwordswords that are imported into one language from another language. Café and cliché are loanwords from French that contain a diacritical mark called an acute accent, which helps indicate how the final e is pronounced.

Diacritical marks are used in dozens of other foreign languages, including Afrikaans, Arabic, Hebrew, Filipino, Finnish, Greek, Galician, Irish, Italian, Spanish, and Welsh. These marks can change not only the pronunciation but also the meaning of a word. One example in English is résumé or resumé versus resume. The first two terms are nouns that mean curriculum vitae, while the second is a verb meaning to return to or begin again. 

Diacritical Marks in English

There are literally dozens of diacritical marks, but it is helpful to learn the basic diacritics in English, as well as their functions.

Some of the marks and explanations are adapted from a list of diacritical marks created by Professor Wheeler.

Diacritical MarkPurposeExamples
Acute accentUsed with certain French loanwordscafé, cliché 
Apostrophe *Indicates possession or the omission of a letterchildren's, don't
CedillaAttached to the bottom of the letter c in French loanwords, indicating a soft cfaçade
Circumflex accentIndicates reduced primary stressélevàtor ôperàtor
Diaeresis or Umlaut

Used with certain names and words as a guide to pronunciation

Chloë, Brontë, coöperatenaïve
Grave accentOccasionally used in poetry to indicate that a normally silent vowel should be pronouncedlearnèd
Macron or Stress Markdictionary notation to signify "long" vowel soundspādā for payday
TildeIn Spanish loan words, the tilde indicates a /y/ sound added to a consonant. cañon or piña colada
TildeIn Portuguese loanwords, the tilde indicates nasalized vowels.São Paulo

*Because marks of punctuation aren't added to letters, they're generally not regarded as diacritics. However, an exception is sometimes made for apostrophes.

Examples of Diacritics

Diacritical marks are plentiful in English-language articles and books. Writers and lexicographers have used the marks to great advantage over the years as these examples show:

Acute accent: "Feluda handed over the blue attaché case before he sat down."
- Satyajit Ray, "The Complete Adventures of Feluda"

Apostrophe: " 'Let's go down to my house and have some more fun,' Nancy said.
" 'Mother won't let us,' I said. 'It's too late now.'
" 'Don't bother her,' Nancy said."
- William Faulkner, "That Evening Sun Go Down." The American Mercury, 1931

Diaeresis or Umlaut: "Five young activists were voted into office, bringing political validation to a youth-driven movement dismissed by establishment elders as naïve, unschooled, and untenable."
- "Youthquake." Time,  Oct. 6, 2016 

Grave accent: "Margret stood in her chamber;
She'd sewn a silken seam.
She lookèd east an she lookèd west,
An she saw those woods grow green."
Tam Lin, "The Traditional Tunes of the Child Ballads"

Macron: "neighbor
noun  neigh·bor  \ˈnā-bər\"
- Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, 11th ed., 2009

Diacritics in Foreign Languages

As noted, there are literally dozens of diacritical marks in foreign languages. Wheeler gives these examples:

"Swedish and Norse words may also use the circle marking above certain vowels (å), and Czechoslovakian words may use the hacek (ˆ), a wedge-shaped symbol to indicate a "ch" sound as in English chill."

But unless you learn—or at least develop a proficiency—in those languages, you won't know how to read the words and letters altered by diacritical marks. You should, however, learn where these marks have become common in English—and where they have been dropped, notes Shelley Townsend-Hudson in "The Christian Writer's Manual of Style." It can be tricky to know when to retain the diacritical marks, she says:

"The language is in flux. It is becoming more common, for example, to see the acute accent and diacritics being dropped from the words cliché, café, and naïve—thus, cliche, cafe, and naive."

But dropping diacritical marks can change the meaning of a word. Townsend-Hudson argues that in many cases you should retain these crucial marks, particularly various accents, to ensure you are referring to the correct word, such as pâté instead of pate: The first use means a spread of finely chopped or pureed seasoned meat, while the second refers the crown of the head—certainly a great difference in meaning.

Diacritical marks are also important when you are referring to foreign place names, such as São Paulo, Göttingen, and Córdoba and personal names such as Salvador Dalí, Molière, and Karel Čapek, she notes. Understanding diacritical marks is the key, then, to correctly identifying and even using many of the foreign words that have migrated into the English language.