(n.) a hook-shaped diacritic, ( ˛ ), often used to show a nasalized vowel
You might have spotted this tweet over on HH the other day, about how the circumflex marker or diacritic, ( ^ ), in used in French:
The explanation that followed that tweet up on the HH blog has since proved ridiculously popular, and there have been lots of requests since to do a similar deep dive into other symbols and diacritics. This is officially A Good Idea. So we’ll try to cover as many of them as we can in the weeks ahead. But this time around, it’s the turn of the brilliantly-named ogonek.
LEADING BY A NOSE
Chances are, this won’t be a mark familiar to many of you reading this, so for the uninitiated, here are some basics.
The ogonek is a backwards-facing, tail-shaped diacritic, (˛ ), kinda like a reversed cedilla. Unlike the ç of French and the ş of Turkish, however, in most of the languages that use ogoneks today (like Polish, Lithuanian, or some of the Native American languages, like Navajo) they tend only to be attached to vowels. Why? Well, an ogonek generally shows that a vowel in question has been nasalized.
“Great. Lovely. Super,” you’re probably thinking. “But what does that mean?”
A vowel becomes nasalized when it’s pronounced with some airflow through the nose, typically giving it a richer, more sonorous sound than so-called oral vowels, that only involve open airflow through the mouth. English doesn’t have ogoneks or nasal vowels, so to us this sound will probably be most familiar via French words like bon (“good”), non (“no”), vent (“wind”), rendez-vous, and croissant, the N syllables of which are all noticeably nasalized.
A few of these have been adopted into English in stock phrases like bon appetit and vol-au-vent, but we English speakers are a picky bunch and we don’t tend to pronounce them with an accurate native French sound—leading to decidedly anglophone versions like “kwassont”, and “vollavont”. So even when English borrows a nasalized vowel sound from another language, we apparently do our utmost to get rid of it as quickly as possible.
That’s not to say that English has no nasal sounds at all. Actually, we have three: the nasal consonants “m”, “n” and “ng” are all likewise pronounced with airflow through the nose to create a warm, sonorous sound. What we don’t have are nasalized vowels—or at least, not technically.
Y’see, the thing about that warm, sonorous sound is that—well, it can leak. Often when they pop up in an English word, nasalized consonants like “m” and “ng” tend to naturally affect the other sounds around them, giving them a smidgen of nasalization too. The A in a word like ban; the E in length; the I in sting; the O in comb; or the U in sung are all often partially nasalized, simply due to their close proximity to a nasalized consonant. (In fact, if you pronounce them slowly, you might even be able to feel that the A in bang or brung isn’t quite as clear as the A in a word like tap or cat.)
English doesn’t recognize this nasalization at all; that is to say, we don’t have separate letters, symbols or markers in our alphabet to show that this modification has occurred. Largely that’s because English doesn’t tend to like using diacritic markers anyway, but it’s also because, unlike in other languages, nasalizing a vowel in English doesn’t do anything at all to the meaning of the word. Ergo, we don’t use ogoneks.
Speaking of which...
A TALE OF TAILS
Other languages are a lot more open about highlighting these nasal vowel sounds than English, of course. Portuguese uses a tilde ( ~ ), as in words like mão (“mother”), corações (“hearts”), pão (“bread”) or São Paulo. Hindi uses a dot ( · ) called an anusvara, either written above or below the character in question. And Polish uses the hook-shaped ogonek—as in words mięso (“meat”), mąż (“snake”), piękny (“beautiful”), się (“oneself”) and dziękuję (“thank you”).
The word ogonek itself is a Polish word; for obvious reasons, it literally means “little tail”. There are two ogonek characters in the 32-letter Polish alphabet, ą and ę, both of which occupy their own places after A and E respectively.
Originally, these letters would simply 32-letter represented nasalized versions of the A and E sounds themselves, and in some Polish words today that’s still the case. Mąż, meaning “husband”, for instance, is pronounced “mõsh”, with a nasalized “o” sound (albeit represented by a letter A, but that’s another story for another day).
In many other modern Polish words, however, this pronunciation has changed and the nasal sound indicated by an ogonek is often articulated asynchronously—that is to say, the nasalization is delayed slightly, and doesn’t fall on the vowel itself, but rather prompts a separate nasal consonant to appear after it. Confusing? Yeah, it really is.
The Polish word for “tooth”, for instance, is spelled ząb—but it is pronounced zomp, with a very separate “m” sound after the vowel. Likewise, ręka, meaning “arm”, is pronounced “reng-ka”. Sędzia (“judge”) is “sen-jah”. Jagnięcina (“lamb”) is “jag-nyen-tchee-na”. And żołądek (“stomach”) is “zhoh-won-dek”. There are lots of rules dictating which sound nasal sound appears where and when in words like these in Polish, all of which is a bit beyond what concerns us here.
So for now, if this is how the ogonek is used in Polish, what about why is it there in the first place? Where did this “little tail” come from in the first place?
As unthinkable as it might sound today, Polish was originally only a spoken language; there was no written Polish at all until the Kingdom of Poland was Christianized in the late tenth century, and adopted the Church’s Roman alphabet. Latin continued to dominate written language in Poland until the late 1200s, when the very first written Polish sentence we know about—Daj, uć ja pobrusza, a ti pocziwaj (“Come, let me grind [corn] and you take a rest”)—was recorded in 1270, in a document written by the monks of Henryków Abbey in Silesia. Written Polish was still so uncommon at that time that alongside this sentence is a little Latin margin note, “Hoc est in polonico”, pointing out that, yes, “this is Polish”.
As more and more Polish began to be written down, however, the scribes and writers of Poland encountered a problem. Polish includes a lot of sounds not easily accommodated by the 20-or-so letters used to write Latin. That shortfall was partly solved by using digraphs (combinations of letters representing a single sound, like sh or th in English), and, partly, by adopting a system of diacritics—dots, dashes and other markers, written above, below, on, in, or through existing characters to indicate a slightly nuanced pronunciation.
So an overdot called a kropka was placed over the Latin Z, ż, to represent a Polish sound called a “retroflex fricative” (similar to the G in mirage). Elsewhere, a kreska, similar to an acute accent, was placed over some letters (ń, ś). A kreska ukośna was sliced through the letter L, ł, to represent the so called “dark L” of Polish (pronounced like a “w”). And a “little tail” or ogonek was attached to certain Latin vowels to show that they were nasalized, ą and ę.
So whose idea was this? It’s certainly possible that the ogonek was simply a random invention unique to Polish scribes, that proved so simple and ingenious that it eventually caught on elsewhere. But some palaeographers (experts in historical written language) have suggested that there may have been something else influencing things here too.
THAT’LL BE GRAND
In the sixteenth century, Poland merged with the Grand Duchy of Lithuania to form the enormous Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, a hugely powerful European entity that was at one time one of the largest countries in the world. But while Poland had adopted the Latin alphabet for its writing system, Lithuania had adopted Russia’s Cyrillic alphabet. So despite both languages coming from the same Slavic branch of the linguistic family tree, when it came to writing things down Polish and Lithuanian had gone in two very different ways.
The political union of Poland and Lithuania brought these two writing systems crashing together. As a result, it’s more than likely that some Cyrillic influence began creep into written Polish—perhaps, most notably of all, from an ancient Cyrillic letter known as little yus:
You might notice that that little yus looks a bit like a Latin uppercase A, with something hanging down from it—almost, you might say, like a tail? Yeah, apparently some ancient Polish scribes might have noticed that too.
Some historians claim that around the time Poland and Lithuania joined forces in the 1500s, tailed Cyrillic letters like this one (which also happened to represent a sound similar to the nasal Polish ę today) prompted the appearance of the tail-like ogonek in Polish. Is that truly the case? It’s difficult to say for sure, but it’s a pretty solid theory.
Either way, from its debut appearance in Polish writing, the ogonek became an established method of marking out nasal vowels in a number of other languages. As later linguists have since busied themselves inventing Roman-based writing systems for other languages that don’t use our ABCs themselves, the ogonek has been applied to languages as distant from its eastern Europe origins as Navajo, Western Apache, Ho-Chunk and Tutchone as a means of indicating their nasalized sounds too.
And that’s that. So, can we draw a line under the history of the ogonek (no pun intended)? Almost...
THE LOOK OF THE IRISH
Have a look at this:
That might look like something from the Lord of the Rings, but it’s actually an ancient Irish computus—a series of ecclesiastical calculations for reckoning the precise date of Easter. It’s written in a mixture of Old Irish and Latin, but if you look closely enough, you might be able to see a few of those Irish words (laithidę, “diurnal”, etarlaithidę, “between-day-times”) have what appears to be ogoneks hanging beneath them.
What makes this all document the more interesting to us is that this text was written sometime around 660–700 AD—more than two centuries before Polish even had an alphabet. So what’s going on? Is this the true origin of the ogonek?
Actually, the ę’s in this text are decidedly not ogoneks. They’re an example of an ancient character called the E caudata (“E with a tail”), that developed among some of the earliest Christian scholars and scribes of Ireland. It was long believed that this symbol first emerged around the eighth or ninth century, but this recently-unearthed document, called the Computus Einsidlensis, has pushed that date back to the mid 600s.
E caudata itself emerged for precisely the same reason the ogonek later emerged in Poland: after Ireland adopted Christianity in the fifth and sixth centuries, the Church’s Latin alphabet displaced the older Celtic ogham alphabet—but Irish scribes soon found that the Latin ABCs weren’t quite robust enough to accommodate all the sounds of the Irish language. As a result, they invented new symbols to make up the shortfall.
One of those was this tailed E letter, which palaeographers believe likely developed as a shorthand form of a combined A and E (perhaps with some influence from a similar character from Old Norse, ǫ , known as O caudata). If that’s the case, this ę isn’t an ogonek, it’s really an early form of what we’d now more likely represent Æ.
So the similar appearance of E caudata and the ogonek ę of Polish is apparently just a coincidence: two near identical characters have developed in total isolation from one another. Great minds, it seems, often do think alike.