Below is a guest post by Bob Ladd:
Recent events in Turkey have meant that President Erdoğan is in headlines around the world – except that in many parts of the world, the headlines are about President “Erdogan”. A few newspapers outside Turkey faithfully reproduce the yumuşak G (the letter G with a short mark or caron, which between vowels is mostly silent in Turkish), but mostly they just use an unadorned G. So is this a matter of technology or ethnocentricity? That is, do newspapers ignore the diacritic on the G because inserting the correct character would be a time-consuming and potentially error-prone process? Or do they ignore it because it’s a weird letter in a weird language and nobody really cares anyway? There’s a lot of evidence to suggest that both factors play a role.
I’m not denying that letters with diacritics can be a nuisance for word processing, and that lots of people are happy to ignore them. In Romanian, for example, the very regular standard orthography includes five letters with diacritics. When word processing abruptly arrived in Romania in the early 1990s after Ceauşescu was overthrown, and people unfamiliar with computers started using them to compose documents, they often omitted the diacritics simply because it was easier. (During the Ceauşescu era even typewriters were pretty scarce, and were supposed to be registered with the authorities so that the source of subversive pamphlets could be traced.) Some 25 years later, it’s still remarkably common to find notices and web sites in Romanian without any diacritics at all. So the technological excuse for all the headlines about “Erdogan” is almost certainly part of the story.
However, when I started noticing this, I realised that some of the newspapers who write about “Erdogan” nevertheless sometimes use diacritics in other contexts. For example, the Economist includes the accent on Hugo Chávez’s name every time it prints it (which is still fairly often), but never includes the caron on the G of Erdogan. And quite a few continental European newspapers reproduce the umlaut on the name of Fethullah Gülen, the man who is alleged (by the man the same newspapers call “Erdogan”) to have masterminded the recent coup attempt in Turkey. Here, too, we could have both technological and ethnocentric explanations. Characters like á and ü are part of the set of 256 8-bit ASCII codes that are widely supported in even fairly basic word-processing programmes; the Turkish yumuşak G is not. So perhaps newspapers like the Frankfurter Allgemeine or the Neue Zürcher Zeitung that write about “Gülen” and “Erdogan” are just trying to avoid printing errors. But again – maybe for a German-language newspaper, ü looks like a proper letter and ğ looks weird, and nobody really cares anyway.
It doesn’t take long to establish that ethnocentricity really is part of the explanation for all this. Close inspection of several recent issues of the Economist reveals that correct diacritics are consistently used with names in French, German, Spanish and Portuguese (and maybe Italian). Diacritics in all other languages that use any form of the Roman alphabet are consistently ignored. This is not just a question of letters outside the ASCII 8-bit canon, as in Erdoğan or Ceauşescu. In the Economist, the same diacritic gets treated differently depending on the language. So Wolfgang Schäuble gets his umlaut, but Fethullah Gülen doesn’t. Hugo Chávez gets his acute accent, but Viktor Orbán doesn’t. Even the Scandinavians are outside the charmed circle: in the Economist, Anders Breivik’s atrocity took place on Utoya, not Utøya, and (in the set of recent issues I checked), the Swedish names Björn and Malmström were reproduced without their umlaut. Ironically, the head of the German Green party, Cem Özdemir, counts as German for the Economist, so he gets his umlaut; if his cousins in Turkey made the news for some reason, they wouldn’t.
I don’t mean to pick on the Economist. A fairly quick inspection of web pages suggests that both the New York Times and the Financial Times operate essentially the same policy – diacritics for languages like French, German and Spanish, basic 7-bit ASCII (no diacritics at all) for the rest. It appears, from the same inspection of web pages, that a number of continental newspapers have a slightly more inclusive “8-bit” version of the same policy (8-bit ASCII for everyone, which guarantees correct diacritics for a few major languages but not for many of the others). However, they are also less consistent – for example, mentions of Viktor Orbán in the Frankfurter Allgemeine sometimes have an accent and sometimes don’t.
I would hesitate to ascribe any serious political significance to this, except that the Guardian seems to be a consistent user of correct diacritics for everyone. They have consistently been writing about Erdoğan, and when they report on someone like, say, Laura Codruţa Kövesi, the head of the Romanian anti-corruption agency, they print her name the way she spells it. The Süddeutsche Zeitung is almost in the same league with the Guardian, though they let me down with Codruţa Kövesi. For mainstream papers, the Guardian and the Süddeutsche are decidedly to the left of the spectrum, decidedly internationalist/Europeanist, and so on, and you would expect them to resist any suggestion that some languages are more important (or more normal) than others. This is reflected in their typographical policies. Most of the rest, whatever their editorial line, in practice make a subtle contribution to marginalising places where the major Western European languages are not at home.