Do we remove the graphic accent?

The foundations of the Spanish language shook in 1997, when Gabriel Garcia Marquez asked spelling retirement, “Terror of the human being from the cradle”, proposing the burial of the “rupestrian haches”, a rational criterion for “the ge and the jota” and demanding “more use of reason in the written accents, that after all No one should read a tear where it says tear or confuse a revolver with a revolver ”.

Many readers will think that, although it is difficult to confuse stir Y stir, that tittle makes things a little easier for us. Or is it just an appearance?

The origin of the tilde in Spanish

To find the first texts with graphic accents in Spanish we must go back to the Middle Ages, specifically to the 15th century. The first known case of a Castilian accent is found in the manual Christiana Doctrine (1477), in the words justice and fortuitous (Tobarra, 2005).

A few years later, in 1492, Antonio de Nebrija mentions for the first time the existence of the graphic accent, whose use became widespread during the 16th century. However, it is not until 1726, with the Proemial Discourse of the Dictionary of the Castilian language of the Royal Spanish Academy (“Real Académia Españóla” in its first minutes), that a rule system on when to use accents.

Reforms and debates

Since then, there have been several reforms of spelling in Spanish, the last one in 2010. In it, following in some way the path set by García Márquez, graphic accents were eliminated in words with orthographic diphthongs such as “hyphen”, in the adverb “Solo” and in demonstrative pronouns (for example, “this”). This latest update gave rise to numerous debates on social networks, where observers of spelling claimed the return of the accent as a fundamental piece in our way of expressing ourselves, while others took refuge in the fact that accents are nothing more than a sample of a Orthographic classism that distinguishes people of “good education”.

But does science have something to contribute to this debate? The accents that indicate the stressed syllable are absent in most languages ​​and, in Spanish, the new norms eliminate their obligatory nature with some ease in some cases. For this reason, the question that concerns us is whether accents really help the recognition of words during reading or if, on the contrary, it is a relic of our language whose detailed rules, with many exceptions, require dozens of pages in your explanation.

The science of tildes

To examine whether the omission of the graphic accent carries a cost in reading, the linguist Schwab made an experiment in which he asked the participants to decide if the item presented to them was a Spanish word, regardless of whether they were correctly accented or not (both “jail” and “jail” would be words; words with diacritical accents were avoided, as “sheet” / “sheet”). Interestingly, Schwab found no differences between the recognition times of both types of words.

Cognitive science always tries to go a little further, and seeks to capture the earliest moments of cognitive processing of written words, those of which we are not even aware. With this objective, Perea, Fernández-López and Marcet examined the role of tildes in a lexical decision experiment with priming masked.

The priming Masking is a technique in which, before the target-stimulus (the one to which the participants respond), a signal-stimulus appears very briefly (for 50 milliseconds), which the reader processes without realizing it. When the stimulus-signal is identical to the stimulus-objective, there is a facilitation when it comes to recognizing the latter. In this way, response times are faster than when a stimulus-signal different from the stimulus-target is presented (Figure 1). The results showed that the identification times for a word like “JAIL” were essentially the same when it was briefly preceded by “jail” or “jail”.

Figure 1. Masked priming.

And what happens when we read sentences with unstressed words? Marcet and Perea found, with the use of an eye-tracking device, that when the graphic accent of a word was omitted, the costs in reading times were minimal. Although the omission of the accent did induce some people to return to the word with an omitted accent, which can be explained since the omission of the accent is a spelling mistake that can attract our attention.

Shall we retire the graphic accents?

In summary, at least in adults, the graphic accent in Spanish does not seem to play an important role when we read. In addition, the use of accents implies an extra difficulty when writing which, for sure, we have faced. How many people have not doubted whether “collapsed” or “distracted” have an accent?

In any case, we must not ignore the potential facilitating role of accents as a guide for reading aloud in the first levels of language teaching, or in the case of new words (see the case of variants of the covid such as omicron) . Future research should examine the cost of omitting graphic accents in their prosodic function (pointing to the stressed syllable) and, possibly, as García Márquez invoked, achieving a greater use of reason in Spanish orthographic norms.

After all, and closing with another Nobel Prize, Octavio Paz:

“The language belongs to everyone or no one, and the rules that govern it are flexible rules and are subject to use (…) The language lives in perpetual change and movement, these changes ensure its continuity, and movement, its permanence.”

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Do we remove the graphic accent?