Understanding diacritics

February 2021

TypeTogether cofounder Veronika Burian discusses the major Latin-based information you should know about diacritics: those accented characters we include in all our font families.

 

By Veronika Burian

Necessary squiggles
The Latin alphabet is the most popular writing system. More than 70% of the world’s population uses it to read, write, and generally communicate. Apart from English and possibly a couple more languages, these almost-five-billion people speak in a multitude of languages and dialects with their own unique sounds. The beauty of the Latin alphabet is that this richness of sounds can be represented by adding special marks, commonly called accents, that are above, below, next to, or through the base 26 letters.

As our multicultural world comes into more contact with other languages, it becomes increasingly important to represent these diacritics correctly. Even English-speaking institutions such as the University of Sussex, UK, recognise the importance of “the various little dots and squiggles”, explaining to their students to “make every effort to reproduce those diacritics faithfully.” So, what is it that makes them so powerful?

The path toward diacritics
Diacritics made their entry into the world in the very early 15th century, as a way to simplify the customary but very inconsistent and cumbersome use of digraphs, trigraphs, and even tetragraphs. These two, three, and four letter combinations represented special sounds in national languages, especially the Slavonic ones, which did not exist in Latin. The driving force behind diacritics was the expanding Christianisation of Eastern Europe and its demand for Bible translations into the common peoples’ spoken tongue.

Although disputed among experts, the unsigned treatise Orthographia Bohemica (c. 1406–12)  has been attributed to theologian, reformer, and medieval scholar Jan Hus who later bitterly paid — he was burned on the scaffold — for his reformation ambitions. Possibly inspired by cantillation marks of Hebrew texts, this treatise devises a new orthographic system that introduces clear rules for Slavonic languages for the first time, and adequately denotes and explains their particular sounds, thus laying the path for our modern-day diacritics.


Excerpts from Orthographica Bohemica (Library of Metropolitan Chapter of St Vitus at Prague Castle). The dots soon developed into the caron shape.



 

Up until the early 21st century though, unfortunately, most Western type-making companies (especially since font digitisation in the 1980s) paid very little attention to accent design and the organic relationship to the letter itself. Diacritics were often added to existing typefaces as an afterthought, disregarding style, position, and size, and bringing a busy and even confusing effect to the printed text. In recent years this has increasingly improved with the help of many enthusiastic typographers sharing their special local knowledge, and educating font makers and users.

Diacritics: why concern yourself
Readability and aesthetic appearance of a typeface suffer markedly if the diacritics are not brought into accord with the rest of the alphabet. Similar to punctuation marks, diacritics are a subdued but integral part of the script, helping the reader. Their function is to enhance the ease and flow of reading and to gently indicate changes in pronunciation and the phonetic value of letters. Arbitrary alterations to their appearance, position, and even their complete absence leads to misunderstanding. Diacritics change the meaning of words drastically, e.g. in Czech byt (flat) and být (to be); in Finnish säde (ray) and sade (rain); or Spanish años (years) and anos (anus).



 

Diacritics that are too large will cause undue attention and break the flow of reading. Those that don’t have the correct shape or angle can be confusing. Correct diacritics, such as Karmina’s on the second line, should match the font style, be weighted correctly, and enhance comprehension.


 

Colour, visual structure, and flow of a page can change decidedly depending on the language and its amount and type of diacritics used. English and Czech, for example, are a universe apart. English has no accents but Czech has 15 accents, and it’s common for words to have three marks, sometimes even next to each other: růžový (pink), příští (next). Harmonious design of the accents with one another and with the base letters therefore becomes paramount for legibility and meaning. Good diacritic design and localisation features, such as those in our multiscript Adelle Sans family shown below, are a sign of a high quality font.


Diacritics clearly influence the typographic colour of text. The better they are integrated into the design without sticking out, either by being too small, dark, or unclear, the easier the flow of reading will be.


 

 

Global sensitivity & local credibility
Taking great care when setting text in a foreign language is a sign of professionalism and respect for the audience. Although Europe as a whole has strong cultural ties, its orthographies are still rather unique. (More about this in Filip Blažek’s article, “Peculiarities of typesetting Latin-based languages”.) Correct diacritics are part of playing nicely together on the international playground.

Readers are sensitive about their language and have preferences. For example, it is desirable for the “Umlaut” in German to be rather large compared to the diaeresis in Finnish, which appears on several vowels in a row and together with i-dot. And the cedilla in Romanian should actually look like “commaaccent”. These are only a few of many cases. Well-crafted typefaces have some of these localisations built in. Usually, they can be accessed in regular DTP software by selecting the right language, which automatically switches to the correct diacritics.

Knowledge about language-specific peculiarities and understanding their correct visual shape will help your design achieve more credibility. Unfortunately, the unicode standard — “a character coding system designed to support the worldwide interchange, processing, and display of the written texts of the diverse languages and technical disciplines of the modern world” — does not provide several code points for essentially the ‘same’ diacritics; this leads to compromised versions in digital fonts. Adapting a full typeface for a single project might not be always feasible, but a good designer can adapt a logotype or brand easily to take advantage of local preferences, which tangibly increases brand value.

Beautiful design is correct design
A blocky headline with tight interline spacing is punchy. However, accents can suffer immensely in such a situation. In recent years a growing amount of typefaces started to make a distinction between capital and lowercase letter diacritics. The ones meant for uppercases are flatter, wider, and more compressed to avoid clashes and cut-offs. In some custom applications, acutes, graves, and carons can even turn into macrons. Meaning must then be derived from context and should be handled with care to avoid misunderstanding.

Another possible solution are accents nestled into the capital letter. This kind can often be observed in Scandinavian countries, for instance. Other localised shapes do exist, but appear mostly in hand lettering and signage, for example as a dot instead of a slash through the “o”. Most fonts don’t take this into consideration but it’s useful to be aware of the possibilities.


Creative localised solutions for special accents. In these instances, the word is understandable from its context.


 

TypeTogether fonts usually have two sets of diacritics. The accents for capitals are flatter, shorter, and wider than those for lowercase letters. Abril shown here.


 

Complex diacritics
Things get tricky when several stacking accents are needed. Vietnamese or Yoruba are good examples of Latin-based tonal languages that require many extra marks to indicate the tone and therefore meaning of a letter and word. It’s not limited to languages though. Pinyin, the notation system for Chinese, uses diacritics extensively to clearly identify pitch. Typesetting can become a challenge here, aiming to avoid clashes within letters, words, and lines.

Problems of how to transfer the spoken word into writing are old, diverse, and manifold. Various types of marks exist that are used similarly to accents but have different functions. There are cantillation marks in Hebrew for religious chanting, Arabic diacritics to represent short vowels either as an indispensable part of the consonant letter (determining the sound) or optional as standalone vowels, and the above mentioned tonal marks — also occurring in other scripts, such as Thai.


 

A few of the myriad and complex marks in four languages. Chinese uses vocal pitch (raising and lowering of notes within words) to indicate meaning, represented by common marks. The same is true of Vietnamese. Diacritics in Hebrew and Arabic can stand for several things: vowels, breaths, and even modern punctuation.


 

Learning from the masters
One of my early type heroes and a master of diacritics, Oldřich Menhart, summarises the the issue nicely: “Accents are not individual characters, such as the numerals are. They are simply a companion to the face; they should not disturb the flow of the basic lettershapes and they should not bring unrest and chaos to the printed text. Just like the other analphabetic symbols, the accents should enhance legibility, they should quietly, but firmly point to a change in pronunciation and to the phonetic value of the letters. If the accents are overstressed and raised in importance to the level of the letters themselves, the flow of even the best of faces is broken, calm perception of the text distracted, legibility disturbed. Balance, colour, position, and shape of the accents is important for the technique and aesthetics of composing a [Czech] typeface.” (Tvorba typografického písma, SPN, Prague 1957.)


Metal type of accented letters for Figural.
Accents of Menhart Roman and Italic.

 

TypeTogether’s global commitment
From the beginning of TypeTogether, with the team’s diverse backgrounds and origins, we embraced the world of diacritics with full enthusiasm and cultural mindfulness. At a time when OpenType was only starting to provide newer, easier ways of accessing and displaying specific accented letters, we saw an opportunity to help improve the uninformed status-quo with correctly drawn, culturally sensitive diacritics. We have included them in all our type families since day one.

Over time we have ventured outside the scripts of the Americas and Europe and into Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. We have dedicated ourselves to learning from linguistic experts and trying to adhere as much as possible to each script's individual set of rules and preferences. The importance of diacritical marks and culturally sensitive typesetting is, in our opinion, indisputable. Whether discussing accurate diacritic designs or providing quality multiscript typefaces with all the bells and whistles for your work, we are here to help make this a world with better communication and more understanding!



 

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