Foreign words and accents

Normally accents are not something we need to worry about in English. The exception of course, is the use of foreign words. Here are a few common examples.

  • résumé
  • à la carte
  • raison d’être
  • tête à tête
  • vis-à-vis
  • soirée
  • pièce de résistance

It’s no surprise that many of them are French. After all, at least a third of the English language is taken from French. And with these terms come diacritic marks that don’t exist in English. The question is, do you have to include them?

Some words or phrases have entered into the English language and are no longer really borrowed, more like adopted. So words like ‘resume’ are very commonly written without an accent and are used with no special affectation. They are part of the English language.

Others are borrowed. These would be words or phrases like pièce de résistance that are still seen as foreign. No matter how common, people hear these words or phrases and think “that’s French.” These borrowed terms are borrowed as is… diacritic marks and all. Stylistically speaking, they are typically written in italics, precisely to highlight their other-ness.

So which ones have been taken in as part of English and which ones are just on loan?

I think an argument could be made for many of these. To my mind what matters is consistency: remove diacritic marks for those treated as part of the English language and italicize those treated as foreign terms.

What do you guys think?

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4 Comments Add yours

  1. Reed James says:

    I agree with your general premise. Those words that must use foreign accents could perhaps be avoided. I know that many American style guides say that Latin and French words should be avoided if there is a plain English equivalent. My Babylon dictionary says that masterpiece is a synonym of “pièce de résistance”.

    I am doing a translation on construction right now, and I used the word “façade”. I think in that case the cedilla is important to retain because “facade” would make the reader think of a hard c.


  2. When I have the choice to use a term in the language I’m translating into, like you, I see it as the better option… unless there is a stylistic reason why it isn’t.

    So, if there is a French term that is clearly borrowed used in a Spanish document going into English, then I might keep that term in French because a certain tone is being established in the Spanish by using this word, and that tone needs to me reflected in the English translation.

    Then again, that only works if both Spanish and English borrowed the French word and use it in equivalent ways, right?


  3. Reed James says:

    How many times have you seen borrowed French words in Spanish? Besides some words for clothing, I can’t think of one off the top of my head.

    I agree with you that supposing there is a French word borrowed in Spanish, it should be kept the same if it is understood to have the same meaning in English. However, if the tone comes across as “snooty” in English and it is a text for publication for middle-of-the road U.S. audiences, I would change the tone and get rid of the French word all the same.


  4. @Reed James. Hmmm… Other than clothes… Names of furniture and some other nouns, in some cases, appear in French. But you’re right, come to think of it. I can’t really think of phrases that stay in French within Spanish discourse.

    Well, none that don’t sound snooty and affected. In the case of the snooty, then preserving the French phrase in English would be basically an exercise in preserving the snooty tone.


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