Thursday, June 3, 2010

Missing Accents

Gatopardo has a cool personal essay this month from the guy behind the campaign Acentos Perdidos, or Lost Accents. A Spaniard working for a PR firm in Mexico, he began posting accent marks where they were missing on public signs in Mexico City, and publicizing his work, complete with grammatical explanations, on a blog. The response was, he tells us, enormous, and he had copycat grammarians joining the effort around the Spanish-speaking world.

One thing you quickly notice while learning Spanish as a second language is that accents are very useful in making the leap from written comprehension to oral fluency. Native speakers, of course, learn to speak first and then write, so the rules of the accent are, paradoxically, less a natural part of a native's linguistic education than they are for a foreigner. Indeed, even educated Mexicans typically regard accents as an annoying anachronism to be ignored whenever possible, a tendency reinforced by the fact that the overwhelming majority of writing for Mexicans 30 and under comes in ruleless media like Facebook and instant messaging. Much as I love accent marks, one wonders if they will be around at all in 100 years.

One brief example of this trend that I ran across this morning: the Spanish captions to this photographic essay in Foreign Policy, presumably written by the Mexican author, include at least four names that should be accented but are not.


David said...

The old editor at The News was pretty sticky about accents and all sorts of style issues, which really just dragged down the product and employee morale. (This was the sort of guy who interpreted a missing accept as an affront to his leadership.) Is an accent that necessary? When writing under a deadline and being somewhat new, all the style stuff just slowed things down. (Is saying "judicial commission in Congress" all that different from his preferred, "judiciary committee"? This is the kind of tomfoolery the higher ups at The News obsessed over instead of getting a product - sponsored by ads - into the hands of readers, the people never thought of in the whole process.)

Spanish accents in English-language stories are nice, but there's often a consistency issue. Thus, most publications I deal with will drop them, including the "ñ". Being Canadian, some of the places I sell to will go with French accents, though. It must be said none of these places are upset to receive a story with no French accents.

pc said...

I'm assuming you don't mean Malcolm...of course, accents shouldn't be given greater importance than the broader content, but you'd like to think that there is room for both. Then again my perspective has been forever warped by teaching basic grammar. In any event, I think what your saying about the French accents makes me think that accents in every language that uses the Latin alphabet are going to slowly drift into disuse.

Re your editor, I dont know if you've seen shattered glass, but there's one scene where Marty Peretz has all of the young staff doing meaningless comma busywork because someone inserted or removed one unnecessarily. Which is ironic if it's a true story, because his blog is full of misspellings and just clunky writing.

David said...

I raise the old regime at The News as a cautionary tale of fiddling while Rome burns - there were far bigger issues at the newspaper (few ads and editors that made it difficult to place those ads in prime sections, to name a pair) than style quirks.

The higher ups (not Malcolm) would complain about the need for another senior editor and then spend so much time on the thinly read sports section and revising copy (already proofed by copy editors) for no other reason than to spot missing accents and minor style slips - and, in my case, lapses into Canadian-style English, which many Americans, including many not-so-conservative Americans, like to ridicule. (Canadian Press style, which I was trained in, is quite different than AP style, especially in its use of numbers, references to the Crown - the government and courts - and general preference for using fewer capital letters.)

I like using accents, but I'm of the opinion that English-language publications in Mexico should drop them. Also, do readers care? And do Mexicans get offended by missing accents? A small English weekly in Guadalajara I worked for used no accents, except for the "ñ" - and no one ever complained. That paper, it should be added, is still being published and is reputedly profitable.