One of my correspondents here on italki, Carlos from Pamplona, España, gave me a valuable lesson recently. I had exchanged a couple of messages with him when at the end of one of his he asked: “Que tal llevas los acentos? En castellano (español) es bastante importante ponerlos. Ejemplo: bastaría.” (“Why don’t you use accents? In (Castilian) Spanish it’s quite important to put them [in]. For example: bastaría.” ). I had been skipping my accents, tildes, and upside down question marks, and Carlos was calling me on it.

The offending message from me had been (in part): “Necesitas mejorar tu English para este puesto? Dos meses bastaria. Cual especie de puesto es?” Among other things, I had, rather inexcusably, left out the upside down question marks that make Spanish questions look so strange to us anglófonos but that are part of the fabric of the language, maybe even the signal leitmotif of written Spanish. Other than nearby Catalan, no other culture uses them. That simple fact should be enough to persuade you that as someone writing Spanish you have an aesthetic duty to include them where necessary. To fail to do so would be like performing the 1812 Overture and leaving out the cannons.

So, I told Carlos that, sure, accents and question marks are important in Spanish, but it’s a pain switching keyboards all the time, especially on a phone. (I magnanimously neglected to mention that he himself, irony of ironies, had omitted the leading “¿” in his question to me.)

By that stage I was in regular contact with a few Chinese-speaking English learners (we had even graduated to WeChat in a couple of cases) and I had seen all sorts of spectacular diacritical and orthographic mishaps from them in their English messages to me, which I put down to the difficulty, like I say, of switching languages on a phone. If you’re like me, that’s where you do a lot of your writing nowadays. I was used to the likes of “hi i can help you learn chinese if youre interested”, and undoubtedly my answer in Chinese would have been just as clumsy. (Although, in fairness, there are no accents or diacritics in Chinese: if you get the characters and words right, that’s pretty much it.)

But, it stuck in my head, this gentle admonition from Carlos, for one simple reason: why was I writing to him in Spanish in the first place if I wasn’t going to do it properly? We had no need to exchange messages with each other - I don’t know him, other than from the messages we’ve shared, nor he me, and we have no urgent business together that needs to be hammered out, acentos o no. I’m writing to him for the same reason I write to any of the other correspondents I have on italki, namely to improve my written skill in the language they’re a native speaker of.

I also began to notice that when I got messages from my other friends with missing apostrophes, words running into each other, and various other spelling and orthographic blunders, I couldn’t tell whether they were just typos, or whether the person was unaware of the fact that reader’s wasn’t the same as readers’. You’d have to assume they weren’t aware of that rather important distinction, and so you dutifully correct them on it, but it becomes onerous correcting every and all mistakes, especially when you suspect they know better but are just being lazy. So, I knew how Carlos felt. If I skimped on accents in Spanish, how could he know whether I meant to say aún meaning ‘yet’ or aun meaning ‘though’? From his perspective, it must have seemed that I wanted him to correct my mistakes, but only the ones he had to guess that I didn’t mean to make.

Despite the fact that, generally speaking, written accents are reserved for exceptions to the rule that dictates that the emphasis falls on the second-last syllable, a lot of very common words in Spanish have an accent. The question words, for example, are words you want to be in complete command of when writing to would-be friends on italki, since asking relative strangers what they do, where they live, and so on, is the lifeblood of these conversations:

  •      ¿cómo?
  •      ¿cuál?
  •      ¿cuándo?
  •      ¿cuánto?
  •      ¿dónde?
  •      ¿por qué?
  •      ¿qué?
  •      ¿quién?

Some of those words are accented to distinguish them from identically-spelled words with a different meaning, for example qué / que (that). Then you have all the “...ción” Latinate words, for example disminución (decrease), which sport an accent as a pronunciation instruction (instrucción pronunciación) rather than a means of disambiguation (desambiguación). Need more evidence that some of the most valuable words in Spanish are accented? An accent separates el, meaning ‘the’, from él meaning ‘he’, se as a pronoun from as a flexion of ser or saber, and mas as a conjunction versus más as an adverb.

You can find all this good stuff on any Spanish grammar website, and even on Duolingo, one of the best sites for learning Spanish, where they actually allow accent omissions and transgressions during the tests, albeit with a gentle reminder to “Pay attention to the accents.” And, much like that site, you can get away with missing accents when you’re writing to Carlos and others whose language has accents, because they’ll know what you mean. Even in the pages of Todo Lo Que Siempre Quiso Saber Sobre la Lengua Castellana by the Fundación del Español Urgente, a great little hardback book I picked up recently in Barcelona, they note that la Ortografía académica de 2010 allows for the omission of the accent (la tilde) even in cases of ambiguity.

I’m not at all suggesting that not garnishing all these words I’ve mentioned with the appropriate accent will lead to understandings. What I am suggesting is that paying attention to these most important and frequently-encountered of Spanish words and taking the small amount of time to learn them properly will raise your written Spanish a notch. That’s why you’re here on italki in the first place, to improve your Spanish (or your Chinese, French, Greek, or Irish.) Eso es lo más importante.



HERO IMAGE by Uqbar (CC BY 2.0)