Living with a diacritic

No, this is not an article about living with an obscure illness. It’s an article about living with a name no-one can spell correctly. You see, my surname is Měchura and the second letter from the left is adorned with a diacritic called a caron. This diacritic is used a lot in Czech, the language of the Czech Republic, which is where both my name and I are from. It is not used a lot in Ireland, though, which is where both my name and I live now. So we both end up being misspelled a lot.

Most of the time, people simply drop the diacritic and I become a Mechura. It’s not ideal but I can live with it. What’s worse is when people try and fail and misspell my name as Méchura or Mëchura or Mĕchura or some such. Of these, the last one is the most sneaky because it confuses the Czech caron for the Turkish breve. The caron has a sharp angle like a small ‘v’ while the breve is curved like a small ‘u’. It’s disappointing when people don’t appreciate the difference.

Is this a huge problem? Well, I guess it isn’t, it’s not like I’m being hurt or robbed or anything. But it is annoying when it keeps happening again and again. Like I said, I could live with it when people just drop the diacritic because they don’t know what to do about it. At least that’s being honest. What gets me is when people try to approximate it somehow but don’t care enough to get it completely right. I do appreciate the goodwill but don’t appreciate the lack of ability or perseverance or whatever to do it properly. Each time it happens, I can almost hear the “ah sure that’ll do” that must have been going through their mind.

What comforts me is that I’m by far not the only person affected buy this. It is common in English-speaking countries for people to be completely clueless when it comes to recognizing and writing diacritics from languages that, like English, use the Latin alphabet but, unlike English, adorn it with diacritical marks. And so things like people’s names and foreign placenames are butchered on a daily basis.

In the interest of fairness, this problem is not limited to English-speaking countries. Even in those Continental European countries that have their own fair share of diacritics, people are quite often quite clueless about diacritics from other, neighbouring countries. That’s why you see so many Hungarian names, which should contain the Hungarian Umlaut (as in Petőfi) misspelled with the German Umlaut (as in Petöfi). It’s such a shame that this keeps happening. We’ve been living this heady European dream of “unity in diversity” (the EU’s official motto) for some two generations now and still we can’t even copy and paste each other’s names correctly?

Fortunately there are other people beside myself who care about this. Some years ago I came across a campaign called Multialphabetism run by Bernd Kappenberg from Brussels. Its goal is to educate the general public about the various alphabets of Europe so that people can finally stop butchering each other’s texts unintentionally. Mr Kappenberg has also suggested that there should be an EU-wide legal right to have your name spelled correctly by the authorities, according to the conventions of your own language, regardless of where in the EU you live – so that I, a Czech EU citizen, might one day have a legal right to see my name on letters from the Irish Revenue and on the Irish electoral register spelled as Měchura instead of some sorry approximation. I like the multialphabetism campaign so much I’d even give it money if I were rich.

Campaigning for multialphabetism isn’t going to be without friction. I can already hear the excuses: “the computer can’t do it” or “the software we use can only handle English (or German, Spanish, …) letters”. But this kind of whining usually has nothing to do with technology and everything to do with people’s ignorance. We already have the technology to handle practically any alphabet on Earth, and we’ve had it for more than a decade. It’s called Unicode, it’s a standard for encoding characters from any language known to man, and every major software package in use today supports it. More often than not, the problem is not in the computer, it’s somewhere between the computer and the chair: in the person who doesn’t know how to use the software properly, doesn’t care and couldn’t be bothered to find out. And so they blame the computer instead. A small bit of training, for example as part of one of those trendy “multicultural awareness” programmes, would reduce the task to a triviality and the problem would cease to exist.

Granted, there may be cases when the software genuinely can’t handle foreign characters. But if anybody out there is still using such software and if that software was created in the last ten years, then that piece of software is a Mißgeburt that should never have seen the life of day. Whoever commissioned or bought it should have known enough to ask for Unicode support, and even if they hadn’t asked, Unicode support should been included anyway because that’s the industry standard.

The drive towards multialphabetism is much more important in the world today than it ever was before. In today’s globalized world, it is becoming more and more common for people to come in contact with names and other textual artefacts from foreign countries and foreign languages. It is time people started treating each other’s textual artefacts with respect, and respect here means not misspelling them out of ignorance (honest typos are excused). Because practically all text that matters is processed on computer these days, the task of educating people about multialphabetism is identical to the task of educating people about computers. Computer users need to be brought up to date with the “multialphabetical” features that their computers have had for some time but which they may have ignored until now. If you’re a Windows user, I suggest you go to Start → Accessories → System Tools → Character Map and start exploring. You may even find it’s fun.

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18 thoughts on “Living with a diacritic

  1. Considering Irish People have such huge problems with the siné fada in Irish, they just ignore it, it does not surprise me that Czech diacritics are ignored.
    Sinéad

  2. Very interesting. The fada on my name causes havoc here in the US, in which the only diacritic we’ll accept is one on an E in some Spanish words (but usually missing) or in the name of some stylish café. Our library catalogs were supposedly fully updated and now support Unicode, but even to this day there is a lot of meaningless symbols used in place of actual characters. The learning here is slow, but it is changing. Take this example of Vietnamese, a diacritic heavy alphabet: “In l^an thu tu (co s?ua ch~ua va b?^o tuc th^em)”. Very pleasing to the eye. I would be happy if the keyboards in this country started featuring some of the common European diacritics, or a diacritic key of some type. I guess I can search out some keyboard meant for Quebec. For now, I create shortcuts in WORD. Oh, well!

  3. I am a Pole, but I live in Germany for more than two decades. Back in the early 1980-ies personal computers were something only some scientists and nerds would have. Later they were machines, that basically came from the United States, importing as well the non-metric hardware (measuring disks, screens in inches) as a software, that was originally designed to support only the plain latin character (e.g. ASCII).
    In that time, even the otherwise self confident West-Germans, the tennis dominating nation, that was the worlds second biggest exporter, faced the humiliation of having their names written more and more often without their idiosyncratic Umlaute, like ä, ö and ü, the more computers were used in companies and offices.

    Under that circumstances, neither me, nor my parents cared thought it would be promising to fight for Polish characters. After being used to the fact, that texts were written by typewriters, that just didn’t have another countries special characters in their sets it was just natural to see computers work – in best case – in the same way. Actually, since personal computers were in their infancy, one got even used to the fact, that they were worse and might not even support your countries diacritics.

    But now things changed! Unicode, designed as soon as 1992, made its way into every standard PC running Windows! Diacritics from different languages can be written in the same program and even saved in the very same file!
    Suddenly, being able to use all diacritics in Europe at the same computer was not just something theoretically possible, but even something, that the designers have made possible, by actually creating a char set, that would encompass all European diacritical signs… and way more than that!

    Sadly, that technological revolution, did NOT mean, that I have my first name written correctly these days. First there still IS the technological problem.
    Do you remember the source of the primary cause for the Y2K problem? It was that in 2000 still a host of computer systems were running on software written and compiled in the 1970-ies! Were all those mainframe programs never updated through 30 years?
    No, they were, but the amendments were like new layers wrapped around the old core, which was considered to expensive to rewrite.
    In the same way, companies and especially public offices operate often humongous data bases, running software that might still only support the ISO 8859-1 char set that would only support characters from the former Western Block or even only ASCII…
    In one of those cases I was bluntly told, that the office would not introduce a new program only to type my name right. Evidently that lady did not take into consideration, that I am by far not the only person in Germany affected…
    … as well as the fact, that having ones own name written as it is originally written in ones own language, is a right for both Germans and Poles, as stipulated in the German-Polish Treaty of Good Neighbourship and Friendly Cooperation of 1991!

    That statement shows, that indeed – in Germany as in Ireland – the technological problem is not the main one any more. It is ignorance! Oh, and arrogance too!
    In case of anglophones I can understand, that there is simply no habituation at all, to care for any Fliegenschiss (fly shit), being the German word for little spots of black ink on a printed paper, around characters, so one might blame just that. But the true source of the reluctance to care and reproduce diacritics one doesn’t know becomes obvious in case of Germany: it is foremost arrogance.
    Why? Well, the German language knows special characters very well: Absolutely common are the above mentioned Umlaute and in addition there is also the “buckling S” looking like this: “ß”.
    Clear prove Germans cannot claim lacking sensitivity to diacritics…
    But they just don’t care for diacritics from other countries! Well, maybe “important” countries like France, countries of “the west” deserve to have their cities and people’s names spelled correctly, so François Mitterrand gets his ç and El Niño might get his ñ, – but all those Czechs and Poles and Slavs altogether and all that former Eastern Block (erroneously being often refereed to as “eastern Europe”, despite comprising central European countries like the above mentioned Czechia and Poland for instance – another case of ignorance by the way), are just not considered worth the effort. So late president Kaczyński does not get his ń even in articles which are supposed to treat the deceased Polish politician respectfully… and it’s not because of his awkward diplomacy while still alive. As well poor Mr. Janez Potočnik did not see his č being commonly represented properly in the media, despite having ascended to be the European Commissioner for Science and Research…

    “Why do you care for that? It is just a little slash!” I was told at the office where I applied for a new personal identification card and wanted to make sure they got my name right this time. “Yep”, I thought later on and remembered what a Polish friend of mine replied when told the same while fighting for the ó in her last name “And if your name was <>, what would you think of being written <>?”
    “Oh, you are right”, the puzzled clerk replied.

    Well, Europe definitively needs more of those epiphanies…

  4. I just realized that some mechanism made the names, given by my friend disapear. It was supposed to be:

    And if your name was “Müller”, what would you think of being written “Muller”?

  5. Excellent article, I’ve enjoyed reading it! Let’s hope that the multialphabetism campaign will be successful.

  6. I think Government departments can be the worse. If you want your name in Irish they will often drop the fada, and argue that it’s not on keyboard etc. (answer open charmap). In Irish we use to have an overdot. This was dropped from the orthography about 50years ago due to the perceived extra cost it added to typewriters. As a result:
    ḃ,ċ,ḋ,ḟ,ġ,ṁ,ṗ,ṡ,ṫ became bh,ch,dh,fh,gh,mh,ph,sh,th personally I think this did more damage to the Irish language then good.

  7. Oh dear, hurting other peoples languages is one thing, hurting ones own is even worse! As I wrote, in Germany the ignored the umlaute ä, ö, ü and the ß in the times when the first computer systems have been introduced. No surprise here, they have been made in the US and been and based on their limited charset. But the Germans always had their special characters on the typewriters!

    Personally I don’t like special sounds being expressed with combinations of letters. What if you want to express a “s-h” sound or a “b-h” sound? The reader will always mash them up into “sh” and “bh”. A reason why I prefer special characters.

    By the way: Where did you get those overdot characters from? Are they in unicode because of another language? And: Have they really changed the ortography, in the meaning of, that it is wrong, should you use it in school?

    • Bartłomiej,

      They are in unicode, as is ogham (óm) which is the oldest form of writing Irish (pre-christian, think of runes and the like)

      Well the overdot is not thought in school simple as. you only see it on traditional signs or in print that’s done in Cló Gaelach. In my case I was thought to write my surname as Ó Dubhthaigh in irish whereas my Dad would use Ó Duḃṫaiġ if signing his name in irish.

      Regarding a “sh” sound in irish, well that’s always written as “s” but it has to be beside a slender vowel (i or e eg. Seán). Sh/Th (Ṡ/Ṫ) in irish is prn as “h”. Bh/Mh (Ḃ/Ṁ) is prn as either v (beside slender vowel such as i or e) or w (if beside broad vowel a,o,u) whereas Fh (Ḟ) isn’t pronounced at all (the overdot originaly signified deletion)

      Personally I think Irish needs more diacritics. We should have a system of displaying if a consonant is broad/slender. that way silent vowels (there just to mark consonants slender/broadness) could be done away with. I’d think something like a cedilla would be nice way of doing it. As result in case of the name Seán /ʃaːn̪ˠ/ you would write it as Şán

      However we are stuck with a system developed in the 6/7th century and the inertia against change is always great.

  8. I thought of something similar, not just for Polish, but for at least all of the European languages. Especially I thought of sounds, that exist in several languages, but are coded differently. The Poles for instance write “sz”, the French “ch”, the Germans “sch” and the English “sh”, but it all codes the same sound. In all those languages you have the problem, that one cannot code a word, where – for instance in English – an “s” is followed by an audible “h”.
    I think the Czechs or Russians solve the problem in a better way, by having a special sign for that sound. The Russian character is the “” and does not really fit into the Latin alphabet, but the Czech “š” does it quite well.
    I would like a revised all-European alphabet, that would encompass all sounds we use here, while being understood on the whole continent. However, I severely doubt English would accept “šort”, the Germans “šeibe” or the French “šomage” (or even “šomaż”).

    On the other hand: should the European unification continue successfully as it does until now, such a reform might be thinkable within the next 100 years.

    • I don’t think European integration will result in an agreement on orthographies. Though it would be nice if we all just wrote in IPA 🙂

      More then likely English will become the dominant language in the EU context which is ironic given how euro-sceptic the UK is. There is already signs of this happening at the moment.

      • Yes, I also consider that, to be quite probable. However there are strong signs of the revival of local, small languages and in general of a certain resistance to a uniform pop culture. Still I think that the position of English as Europe’s lingua franca will become more and more dominant, until all other linguae francae loose their role.

  9. Oops, I just forgot the Russian character. It should be the “ш”.

  10. Excellent article, I’ve enjoyed reading it!

  11. This reminds me of a colleague of mine (a German himself, his wife is Spanish), who had the idea to give his newborn son a Portuguese name.

    Unfortunately, the book the young couple consulted was a Spanish puiblication with a typo in it, and now the poor boy is one of very few people in this world whose name is officially spelled “Joâo” (instead of “João”).

    • Poor soul. But it could be worse. I knew a person once whose first name was probably meant to be “Niamh” (a common Irish Gaelic name, meaning unknown) but for some reason in her case the name was spelled as “Nimh” (which quite literally means “poison”). Call that a fatal typo! I guess the bottom line is, never name your kids in a language you can’t speak.

  12. ‘I knew a person once whose first name was probably meant to be “Niamh” (a common Irish Gaelic name, meaning unknown)’

    My copy of Dineen translates “Niamh” as “brightness, lustre, burnish, gloss … beauty, appearance”. Though that was under the Cló Gaelach. Maybe the meaning changed when the orthography did.

    Still, though, it’s a hell of a contrast with “poison”.

  13. Pingback: Christian mechura | Asianevangelis

  14. The English language doesn’t have diacritics, hence your surname is properly spelled “Mechura” in English. We transliterate other foreign characters (i.e. Chinese, Hebrew, Arabic) as well.

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