At least in adults, the graphic accent in Spanish does not seem to play an important role when we read.
The foundations of the Spanish language were shaken in 1997, when Gabriel Garcia Marquez asked retirement spelling, “terror of the human being from the cradle”, proposing the burial of the “rock axes”, a rational criterion for “the ge and the jota” and claiming “more use of reason in the written accents, which after all nobody has to read tear Where you say tear nor will confuse stir with stir”.
Many readers will think that, although it is difficult to confuse stir Y stir, that tilde 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 fifteenth century. The first known case of a Castilian accent is found in the manual Christian Doctrine (1477), in the words Justice Y 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 general during the 16th century. However, it is not until 1726, with the Proemial speech of the orthography of the Castilian language, from the dictionary of the Royal Spanish Academy (“Real Académia Españóla” in its first minutes), which establishes a rule system about when accents should be used.
Reforms and debates
Since then, there have been several spelling reforms in Spanish, the last one in 2010. In it, following in some way the path marked out by García Márquez, graphic accents were eliminated in words with orthographic diphthongs, such as film script, in the adverb only and in demonstrative pronouns (for example, this). This latest update gave rise to numerous debates on social networks, where spelling observers demanded the return of the accent mark as a fundamental piece in our way of expressing ourselves, while others hid behind the fact that accent marks are nothing more than a sample of a orthographic classism that distinguishes people of “good education”.
But does science have anything to contribute to this debate? The accents that indicate the stressed syllable are absent in most languages and, in Spanish, the new rules eliminate their obligation in some cases with some ease. Therefore, the question that concerns us is whether accents really help word recognition 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 accents
To examine whether the omission of the graphic accent carries a cost in reading, the linguist Schwab did 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 What jail they would be words; words with a diacritical accent were avoided, such as bed sheet/bed sheet). Interestingly, Schwab found no difference in recognition times for both types of words.
Cognitive science always tries to go a little further, and seeks to capture the earliest moments of the cognitive processing of written words, those of which we are not even aware. With this objective, Perea, Fernandez-Lopez, and Marcet. examined the role of accent marks 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 signal-stimulus is identical to the target-stimulus, 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 CÁRCEL were essentially the same when it was briefly preceded by jail or jail.
And what happens when we read sentences with unstressed words? Marcet and Perea They found, using 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 induced some people to return to the word with the omitted accent, which can be explained since the omission of the tilde implies a misspelling that can attract our attention.
Shall we retire graphic accents?
In short, 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 accent marks implies an extra difficulty when writing that, surely, we have faced. How many people have not doubted whether demolished or distracted do they 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 COVID, such as the omicron ). Future research must examine the cost of omitting graphic accents in their prosodic function (indicating the stressed syllable) and, possibly, as García Márquez invoked, achieve 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 to 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 the movement, its permanence”.
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