A Plea for Small Things

Accents are important in life and deserve your respect. They are not exotic decorations that you sprinkle about like glitter over the Christmas tree. They have their place in this world and many languages would not be the same without them. So when writing or typing foreign words, don’t forget to use the correct accent in the right place. (Here is a list of alt codes to type accents.)

Don’t judge accents by their size; they are deceptively powerful. In some cases, the accent makes all the difference between two otherwise identical words. In French, for instance, “a” (has) is a verb and “à” (at, to, in, etc.) a preposition; “sûr” (sure) is an adjective and “sur” (on, on top of) another preposition; a “tache” (stain) is not a “tâche” (task). Compare this with the short and long [e] sounds in English: many non-English speakers struggle to make the distinction between “sheep” and “ship”, or “pip” and “peep”. A Greek friend of mine and former colleague would talk about “spreadshits” at work and “bed shits” at home.

French written without accents is not as entertaining, however. In fact, it can be very confusing and difficult to read. Believe it or not, “cafe” means nothing to a French person. There are no kafs in France. What’s a kaf, anyway? While most spelling mistakes are harmless, it is not always the case: I once attended a training session that finished with a slide saying “VIOLA!” instead of “voilà”. 5 letters, 2 mistakes, and an unfortunate result: “viola” means “raped”.

Here are a few accentuated French words that commonly appear in English: café, voilà, cliché, déjà-vu, à la carte, glacé, passé. Feel free to add to the list in a comment below.

Next time you use a non-English word, be smart: check the spelling and be sure to include those subtle, yet essential, little dashes as required.

coffee and glitter

Photo: the-fashion-trunk.tumblr.com

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