Another of those sky-is-falling horrors-of-SMS stories, this time about Polish, “Language experts launch campaign to save the diacritical marcs of Polish, threatened by IT” [sic; I wonder how long that “marcs” will stay up?]:

Polish language experts launched a campaign Thursday to preserve the challenging system of its diacritical marks, saying the tails, dots and strokes are becoming obsolete under the pressure of IT and speed.
The drive, initiated by the state-run Council of the Polish Language, is part of the UNESCO International Mother Language Day. The campaign’s Polish name is complicated for a non-Polish keyboard: “Je,zyk polski jest a,-e,.”
That’s a pun meaning that Polish language needs its tails and is top class. Part of the meaning is lost and the pronunciation sounds wrong if the marks aren’t there.
Computer and phone keyboards require users to punch additional keys for Polish alphabet. To save time, Poles skip the nuances, and sometimes need to guess the meaning of the message that they have received. This is also true for IT equipment users of other languages with diacritical marks, like Russian or Romanian.

Setting aside the odd inclusion of Russian (whose only “diacritical marks,” as far as I know, are those over й and ё, and while the latter is famously under threat, it’s not because of IT), the amusing thing about this story is the unintelligibility of the campaign’s name using a “non-Polish keyboard”—you’re putting the story up on the internet, you can use Unicode! Anybody know what the actual name is? (Thanks, Kobi!)


  1. The thing is, „Język polski jest ą-ę” is being more clever than the average crank campaign: they’re inviting newspapers and pop artists to print / sing without diacritics. Search YouTube, for instance.

  2. Of course, there was a lot of heated debate around this back when the Slavic national alphabets were being standardized. Kopitar called them »böhmischen Fliegendreck«.

  3. For extra wtf: “and a dot over “z’’ makes it hard like a metal drill.”
    Also, what MMCM said. I saw some banners and stuff they put up on FB and Twitter and it seems more like an awareness campaign encouraging folks to use the full capabilities of the software they’re using.

  4. Which reminds me of this. Apparently a joke spoofing the various standardized varieties of Catalan, it aims to establish yet another standardized variety with its distinct ‘genuine’ (as opposed to the ‘imposed’, i.e. identical with other varieties) orthography.

  5. David Marjanović says:

    »böhmischen Fliegendreck«


  6. The native character set of SMS messages supports only English, French, the mainland Scandinavian languages, German, Italian, Spanish with no accents, and GREEK SHOUTING. Everything else has to be Unicode, which means you get only 70 16-bit characters in a text instead of 160 7-bit characters. That makes a huge difference.

  7. The iPhone automatically corrects all of those, tho. Maybe they should work out a way to do that on computers.

  8. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    I dont know much about Polish, but something I noticed in the early days of email (when correct transmission of accented letters was a lottery) that Spanish speakers didn’t care in the least about distinguishing a from á, etc., but cared greatly about distinguishing n from ñ. Absolutely no one was willing to write ñ as n, but unfortunately there were a lot of different work-arounds: one saw ny, ni, gn.

  9. John Emerson says:

    Just a shoutout to the Portuguese, who have something like 13 diacritics. Yay!

  10. I recently screwed up my daughter’s English university application by enclosing a Norwegian file that had an Å in the title. Luckily the IT guy at the school in Britain figured out the problem before the deadline, but it was touch & go whether I was going to have to find new digs.

  11. The difference between ñ and n is the difference between anus and year (ano vs año), among other things. Of course, you could figure that out from context, but somehow figuring out whether “llamo” is 1st-pers sing present or 3rd-pers sing past (“llamó”) involves less visual shock than using n for ñ.

  12. Athel: nn would be historically correct for ñ.

  13. Mongolian manages to do without diacritics using clever orthography while Kazakh which is quite similar phonologically uses almost half a dozen diacritical letters:
    and this is on top of Mongol ө, ү and 33 letters of Russian Cyrillic.

  14. But inventors of Hmong orthography went even further in order to avoid diacritics.
    They use consonants to indicate tones! ;-)))

  15. But inventors of Hmong orthography went even further in order to avoid diacritics.
    They use consonants to indicate tones! ;-)))

    Well, Chinese has Gwoyeu Romatzyh.

  16. “But inventors of Hmong orthography went even further in order to avoid diacritics.
    They use consonants to indicate tones! ;-)))”
    Yes, SFReader – it looks pretty extreme, but it works for Hmong. It helps that Hmong (most? all? varieties) doesn’t have final consonants to get in the way.

  17. There are actually two kinds of Hmong orthography. There’s a practical adaptation of the Roman alphabet, done by someone who would die in his boots rather than saddle the Hmong with annoying diacriticalia of the kind that bedevils the Vietnamese. This led to the aforementioned encoding of tone by redeploying some consonant letters; the Hmong ethnonym comes out as Hmoob.
    Then there’s another, much weirder system, invented by a Hmong messianic revolutionary figure named Shong Lue Yang (Soob Lwj Yaj in the Romanized Popular Alphabet). This system, the Hmong Pahawh, is used by almost nobody, and since it has no Unicode support (though an extention to cover the Pahawh is planned) I can’t include a sample. And yet, the Hmong themselves seem to adore the Pahawh from afar. It is beloved as a religious/political/cultural talisman, rather than as a practical tool.
    The actual structure of the Pahawh is too weird to shoehorn into a comment, and I restrain myself. Don’t miss the excellent Wikipedia article “Pahawh Hmong”.

  18. The fact that “oo” means a nasalized “o” is also weird, though overshadowed by the weirdness of the tone letters.
    I spent some time digging up my favorite tonal spelling system for Mandarin. The trouble with Gwoyeu Romatzyh is that while it’s easy to remember to put the tone labels on, as opposed to Guóyǔ luómǎzì where they easily get forgotten, it’s not so easy to remember in real time which spelling corresponds to what tone. In this system, instead of writing “Yǒu rén huì fā zhège zì de yīn ma?” (“Does anyone know how to pronounce this character?”) you write “Yoou rren huih fa zhehge zih de yin ma?”. There is a simple rule for each tone: same as Pinyin in tone 1, double initial letter in tone 2, double marked vowel in tone 3, add h after the vowel in tone 4. No fuss, no muss.

  19. J.W. Brewer says:

    You would think it’s just a coincidence that English is both (for contingent historical reasons) the dominant language of computer/internet/everything-from-ascii-to-unicode stuff and (for other contingent historical reasons) the most diacritical-free of the major world Latin-script languages. (Although I guess maybe Bahasa Indonesia is pretty light on the diacriticals and it’s now probably well over 100 million for people who can read/write it?) But is it just a coincidence? Maybe diacritical marks turned out to be a handicap in the struggle for world supremacy during the crucial early bandwidth-constrained period of internet development?

  20. “dominant language”
    hey, SFR, i would love to see a slogan like ” daesh nostratic ( futuristic, but based perhaps on the ancient, that, united language) global language!”, it dhould be great if in some time rhat could become possible, or maybe like in that funny cartoon, aliens analyzing humans conclude that they were not very advanced linguustically cz their last words were in ” wtf lol omg” s people would start talking in acronyms
    i was watching yesterday the Oskars and fell asleep, all that feeria/extravaganza etc. couldnt hold my attention, or maybe just too tired, the spring cz
    so i was thinking watching it whenever people would start wearing something like futuristic looking outfits, it’s 2013 already and the dresses look just like dresses, not speaking about the men’s formal wear, when i was a kid i used to think we’ll live in the cosmos in the twenty first century

  21. There were alternative 7-bit character sets for various non-English Latin-script languages, but US-ASCII had the first-mover advantage and beat them easily. The only 7-bit character sets surviving in actual use are US-ASCII and GSM 03.38, the SMS encoding.

  22. that is after building communism,
    but sure videoskyping home and with friends or the ability to have internet access wherever through the phone always leaves me feeling like we live in the future

  23. Even basic English orthography could be said to use one diacritic and one ligature, if you’re Irish or Italian.

  24. I had always thought the Russian ё was a convenience for learners, to guide their pronunciation towards a stressed “yo” (similar to the use of acutes as stress markers in primers), and not a diacritic in actual use by Russians.
    I see I was wrong. New thing for today learned!

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