Have you ever thought about the fact that a lot of other Latin alphabet languages besides English have accent marks? Spanish and French are two of the most immediate examples that come to mind for most people who were schooled in the American education system, but consider German, too, with its characteristic umlauts, or any of the Scandinavian tongues like Danish or Norwegian. Eastern European tongues like Polish and Slovenian are no exception either, and some Asian languages that use Latin script (like Vietnamese) are also chock-full of them.
And English is a language that, frankly, could use a little more guidance and specificity in its orthography. We’ve got through, thorough and enough — and none of those words are pronounced the same. English spelling is really weird and inconsistent — so much so that students of the language are pretty much resigned to just memorizing words individually (as opposed to learning the rules of pronunciation and having it all make sense).
So why, then, does English lack accent marks? And is this even a valid question to be asking?
Ye Olde English Alphabet
One big development that changed modern English as we know it was the development of the first English printing press by a man named William Caxton in the late 1400s.
Part of the work of developing a printing press involved standardizing the English language, and because this was largely up to Caxton’s discretion in the very beginning, he opted for what was familiar to him — the Middle English, or “King’s English,” of the London area, as well as certain Flemish spelling habits from his apprentice days (like the use of the silent letter “h” in “ghost,” and a general lack of accent marks).
Basically what happened since is that English pronunciation continued to morph and change, but our spelling has largely remained frozen in time (for instance, the “k” in “knight” used to be pronounced, but we no longer say it how it’s spelled).
The Great Vowel Shift that occurred between 1350 and 1700 saw a great deal of phonetic changes occur, essentially leading to a condition where our spelling reflects a language that once didn’t really need accent marks, but now probably really does.
But Loan Words, Though
English actually does contain accent marks — if you count all the loan words we’ve adopted from foreign languages that are now an everyday part of the average English speaker’s vocabulary, and if you count The New Yorker‘s use of “coöperate.”
“We have a lot of weird silent letters in English spelling (as in people, isle, phthisis) for no other reason than to display where we pillaged the word from, so we’re certainly going to want to keep that extra soupçon of éclat on the façade of jalapeño,” writes The Week‘s James Harbeck. “Otherwise we would look naive — sorry, naïve. It’s no accident that so many accented letters are found in food terms; we take savory delight in what seems exotic.”
However, as Harbeck points out, we haven’t exactly been consistent in terms of keeping or discarding accent marks from foreign loan words. Almost no one calls it a hôtel in English anymore, and the Italian latte never had an accent mark to begin with — we added that in for some weird reason.
Accent Marks Are Just Diacritics
Those things we colloquially refer to as accent marks are technically called diacritical marks (or just diacritics), which are symbols that are added to a letter in order to change its stress or sound.
Phonetically, diacritical marks serve an important role in indicating how a word is pronounced, but in some cases, the presence of a diacritic can change the meaning of a word entirely (think about the difference between résumé and resume).
However, determining what counts as a diacritic actually isn’t as straightforward as it sounds. For instance, from an English speaker’s perspective, the Spanish “ñ” appears to be an “n” with a diacritical mark over it, but it is, in fact, considered to be its own autonomous letter in the Spanish alphabet. In other words, the tildes (or squiggly marks) on top aren’t technically accent marks, but just components of the letter itself. Similarly, the “ø” and “å” count as separate letters in the Danish alphabet too. You could argue that the birth of the letter “G” was just taking the letter “C” and adding a diacritical mark to it, though we recognize them as two separate letters.
Either way, the point is that just because another language appears to have accent marks that are unfamiliar to us doesn’t mean that they actually function as such.