Almost all western- and central-European languages use the Latin alphabet. In adopting this character set, though, a good number of them added special accent marks for information not covered with the unadorned Latin characters. Strictly speaking, these marks should be refered to as "diacritics", because in many languages they are not used to mark the accent but to describe a different sound.

The idea of accents is a foreign one to most English speakers, because English is one of the few European languages that almost never uses them, although most English readers will recognize them in borrowed words or phrases such as "piñata" or "raison d'être". The diaeresis was traditionally used in English and French to indicate two adjacent vowels were to be pronounced seperately, like in "naïve", but is rarely seen today. Here are some other common English words spelled with accents: façade, café.

The usage of the individual accent marks is fairly inconsistant between languages. Many languages, when first transcribed with the Latin alphabet, simply took existing accents and redefined them to represent that languages particular quirks. As with English, borrowed words complicate matters further.

Here is a summary of the various types of accents used with the Latin alphabet, with examples and a list of languages that use them:

Grave

  • a straight line slanting up to the left above the character, like an open-quotation mark
  • examples: à, è, ò, ù
  • html: &agrave, &egrave, &ograve, &ugrave
  • used in French, Italian, Pinyin (Chinese)
  • often seen on words with an e-consonant-mute e combination, like frère or pièce
  • distinguishes French homophones like la and là without changing pronounciation

Acute

Circumflex

  • a little pointed hat above the character
  • examples: ê ô, û, ŵ, ŷ
  • html: &ecirc, &ocirc, &ucirc, &#373, ŷ
  • used in Esperanto, French, Romanian, Slovak, Turkish, Vietnamese, Welsh
  • usually indicates a long vowel sound (w and y are considered vowels in Welsh)
  • used for various alternate accents in Esperanto

Tilde

Macron

Breve

  • lower quarter of a circle above the character
  • examples: ă, ğ
  • html: &#259, &#287
  • used in Latin, Romanian, Turkish

Dot

  • a dot above the character
  • examples: ė, ż
  • html: &#279, &#380
  • used in Lithuanian, Polish

Diaeresis (aka dieresis)

Ring

Cedilla

  • a little squiggle below the character, down and then left
  • examples: ç, ş
  • html: &ccedil, &#351
  • used in Albanian, French, Latvian, Portuguese, Romanian, Turkish
  • indicates a c is pronounced as a soft s, as in François or garçon
  • in Turkish, ç and ş are pronounced ch and sh, respectively
  • also used in odd contexts in the Marshallese language

Ogonek

  • a little squiggle below the character, down and then right, like a backwards cedilla
  • examples: ą, ę
  • html: &#261, &#281
  • used in Lithuanian, Polish

Caron

Stroke


Thanks to tres equis for many additions and corrections.

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