Blog post written by Audrey Nickel
(If you prefer to learn from video, see our How to type the fada videos.)
One of the thing that frustrates me, living where I do, is the complete and utter lack of respect for diacritic marks.
I don’t know if it’s an American thing or an English language thing (I rather suspect the former), but to those of us who speak and use languages that have diacritic marks (including Irish Gaelic), it’s really a frustrating situation.
Most American registries, including the American Kennel Club and most DMVs, don’t allow diacritic marks (also sometimes called “accent marks”). You typically can’t put them on birth certificates. It’s enough to drive a linguist mad!
What difference does it make?
Diacritic marks aren’t just there for decoration. They supply a lot of information about the word in question, including how certain letters should be pronounced and often which syllables should be emphasized.
In most languages that use them, a letter with a diacritic mark is considered to be a different letter from its unmarked equivalent, and words that are supposed to have diacritic marks and don’t are considered to be misspelled.
Also, in many languages (and Irish is one), sometimes the only difference between one word and another is the presence and placement of that little mark!
The Síneadh Fada
Irish Gaelic only has one diacritic mark: the síneadh fada (SHEEN-oo FAH-duh), or “long accent.” It’s also known in linguistic circles as an “acute accent.” Most Irish speakers and learners simply refer to it as a “fada.”
The fada is a right-slanting line placed over a vowel (as in the í in síneadh, above). It indicates that the vowel is to be pronounced “long.” In the Munster (southern) dialect of Irish, a syllable with a long vowel is typically emphasized (in other dialects, emphasis is typically on the first syllable, regardless of accents).
Pronunciation of accented and unaccented vowels
The presence of a fada can make a huge difference in how vowels are pronounced:
a – “a” as in cat (sometimes closer to a short “u” sound)
á – “ah” as in bought
e – “eh” as in bet
é – “ay” as in bay
i – “ih” as in bit
í – “ee” as in beet
o – “uh” or “ah”: kind of a cross between dug and dog
ó – “oh” as in go
u – “uh” as in dug
ú – “oo” as in boo
Irish has a lot of words that are identical in spelling except for the presence and placement of the fada.
The importance of the accent
Here are a few Irish words that can take on very different meanings if the fada is omitted, added where it isn’t needed, or misplaced (Bitesize members can access an entire lesson on this topic, complete with audio, at Lesson: The Importance of Accent Marks) Uppercase indicates a stressed syllable:
Éire (AY-reh): “Ireland”
Eire (EH-reh): “Burden”
Céad (kayd): “First” or “a hundred,” depending on context
Cead (kad): “Permission”
Té (chay): “Person”
Te (cheh): “Hot/warm”
Císte (KEESS-cheh): “Cake”
Ciste (KISS-cheh): “Fund” or “treasure coffer”
Bríste (BREESS-cheh): “Trousers”
Briste (BRIS-cheh): “Broken”
Cáca (KAH-kuh): “Cake”
Caca (KA-kuh): “Excrement”
Seán (shawn): A man’s name; a form of “John”
Séan (shayn): Noun: “characteristic,” Verb: “deny/refuse”
Sean (shan): “Old”
And these just scratch the surface! As you can see, it really is a major deal.
So how can I type a fada?
If you’re in Europe, you may be in luck: Your computer keyboard probably has an “ALT GR” key. All you have to do is hold down that key while typing the vowel you want and voila! The accented vowel will appear!
If you’re in the U.S. or Canada and running Windows on a PC, you pretty much have two choices: choose an alternate keyboard layout or use ALT codes.
THE U.S. INTERNATIONAL KEYBOARD
The U.S. International Keyboard Layout lets you type a variety of special characters. For our purposes, you can get a fada over a vowel by typing first the apostrophe key and then the vowel. For example:
‘ + O = Ó
To set up this keyboard layout on your computer, follow the instructions in the link above.
USING ALT CODES
Sometimes it’s not practical to use an alternate keyboard layout. In those cases, ALT codes are a good alternative, assuming you have a keyboard with a separate number pad on the right-hand side. To use ALT codes:
- Make sure your NUM LOCK key is on
- Hold down the left ALT key while typing the following combinations
ALT + 0225 = á
ALT + 0193 = Á
ALT + 0233 = é
ALT + 0201 = É
ALT + 0237 = í
ALT + 0205 = Í
ALT + 0243 = ó
ALT + 0211 = Ó
ALT + 0250 = ú
ALT + 0218 = Ú
This may seem like a lot of effort at first, but if you write Irish a lot, you’ll be surprised at just how quickly you’ll start to automatically touch-type these combinations!
TYPING FADAS ON A MAC
If you’re using a Mac, as you might expect, this is quite a bit simpler.It’s not too bad.
Hold OPT + e and then type the letter you want accented.
OPT + , then type a = á
USING A SMART PHONE
If you have a smart phone and you need an accented character, all you have to do is hold down the letter. A selection of accented letters will appear above the keyboard. Then you simply slide your finger up and tap the one you want.
It’s all about respect
Now that you know how easy it is to type fadas, there’s no avoiding them. They’re an essential part of the Irish language, and knowing how to produce them is an essential part of learning the language.
Just because English tends to avoid diacritic marks is no reason for people who love and respect other languages to avoid them.
Now, if we could just persuade those U.S. government agencies and registries to show that same respect!