Here’s something to think about as you sip your latté (or your piña colada) while listening to Beyoncé (or Mötley Crüe): Just how important to the English language are accented characters? And will they withstand the test of time?
We’ve included accents in some words for a long time; after all, we like to steal words from languages such as French, Italian, and German. But they’re not an official part of the English alphabet, partly because they weren’t so easy to type or typeset, and partly because … well, they’re not English, are they? But the letters w and j and q weren’t English originally, either. Nor was the apostrophe. And the letters þ and ð were English until we got rid of them. So is the accent on its way out, or is it seeping in?
Technology has long influenced our use of letters in language. For example, English has always had the sounds we now spell with the letters th, but we used to be able to write them with þ and ð. When printing presses arrived from Europe, their sets of type didn’t include those characters, so those characters disappeared. On the other hand, it wasn’t until more recent centuries that English speakers (and writers) found it useful to have an official distinction between v and u and between i and j (before then, Julius was just another way of writing Ivlivs) or decided we had a use for the letter w that came from Europe. And we didn’t really need q, but it looks so … Latin! So, the sets of type for our printing presses included those letters.
In other words, we adopt letters for a handful of reasons: usefulness, aesthetics, and because, well, we simply can. We abandon letters when it becomes too difficult to write or print them out.
The apostrophe has a similar history. It was invented in Italy, introduced into French in the early 1500s to indicate a dropped letter (something French does a lot), and then borrowed into English later in the same century to indicate the same kind of thing: I’m, ’tis, can’t. It also indicated a dropped e in the possessive, so Shakespeare’s play Love’s Labour’s Lost was originally Loues Labour’s Lost because the e was dropped from Laboures but not from Loues (remember that u and v weren’t separate characters yet!). But the idea of using an apostrophe before s …read more