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Accent or no accent: Anglo newspapers struggle with little black marks

Hispanic Affairs Writer

(AP): When journalist Aly Colón began his career, he always made the same request to his editors—Could he please have an accent?

Colón, a Puerto Rican native, writes his name with an accent over the second “o” to honor the rules of Spanish grammar and uphold family honor. When his editors said they couldn’t/wouldn’t add the slash to his byline, Colón began adding it by hand before the paper went to press.

“My father told me that I had a family name, and that that was a name I was to grow up and honor,” said Colón, “and one of the important elements of honoring that name was spelling it right.”

Most people with an accent in their name don’t have the option of pestering the local copy editor, nor do they have Colón’s passion on the issue. But with the number of Latinos in the United States rising, up more than 18 percent since 2000 according to the U.S. Census, and overall newspaper readership on the decline, many Anglo media companies are looking at ways to respond to the shift in demographics—and are rethinking just how tough it is to add the squiggly lines.

Anglo newspapers have long maintained that technological problems and editorial confusion make it too difficult to add accents, officially known as diacritical marks. For Colón, now a faculty member at The Poynter Institute of journalism in St. Petersburg, Florida, it’s a question of accuracy, one of the basic tenets of journalism.

Moreover, the absence of accents can change the pronunciation and the meaning of a word. For example, ask any Latino—there is a big difference between “mama” [breast] and “mamá” [mom].  

The name “Peña,” without the tilde over the “n,” means suffering or shame, whereas “Peña” means rock or group.

The Spanish word for year [año] without that squiggle becomes “anus.”

Iris Llorente, 21, of Doral whose mother emigrated to the U.S. from Cuba, said she doesn’t expect to see accents in the Anglo/English press.

“I don’t take it too seriously. I usually think it’s funny when I see it wrong,” she said. But Llorente echoed other Latino newspaper readers when she added that seeing the accent marks “would be nice. You always want them to get it right.”

Advertisers have been quicker to make the change.

Cartier’s newest “La Doña” line of watches, created in honor of Mexican actress María [not Maria] Felix, features the tilde over the “n,” distinguishing the product from the Spanish word for doughnut [dona].  “Doña” is a term of respect before the name of a Latina [Spanish, from Latin domina, feminine of dominus, “Lord”].

“When you’re persuading people, you want to eliminate any barriers to the communication,” said Carl Kravetz, chairman of the Association of Hispanic Advertising Agencies, garble in many newspaper computers.”

Yet the issue is far from closed at the AP, where senior editors are looking at ways to insert accents in the names of individuals who prefer them. The wire service has long transmitted accents on its non-English wires.

“It’s something we look at all the time,” AP Stylebook editor Norman Goldstein said. “The biggest problem is where do you stop once you start? Doing it in Spanish would be more useful, but you can’t just have diacritical marks for one language.”

The technology issue is changing as more newspapers upgrade to computer software that can read the marks. Editorial software provider Atex Limited, which serves 50 small and medium papers throughout the U.S. said all its systems can support accents.

Even Colón said he sees the accent over his “o” more frequently these days.

The Los Angeles Times instituted an official policy a few years back to add the tilde.  So did the New York Times.

La Prensa has always used the accents and tilde marks.

Clark P. Stevens, chief of the paper’s copy desks, said the issue is difficult especially for the international desk, which has the most words to check and still gets much of its copy through e-mail and other systems that may change the accent. Also, many Latinos in Los Angeles have lived several generations in the U.S. and no longer even use an accent.

But Clark P. Stevens says he believes the trend is toward more accents.

“It goes back to Journalism 101 and accuracy, and identification of a person is a primary element of information in a news story,” he said. “We’ve been edging down the road to using accents for a long, long time. I think we’ll go more that way.”

Editor’s Note: Rico de La Prensa contributed to this report. By the way, when utilizing Word Doc or PageMaker, to realize “ó” one only has to press the “Alt” button simultaneously with the numbers of “162” on the right keyboard. How about the others? Mark “160” for “á,” “161” for “í,” “163” for “ú,” “130” for “é,” “164” for “ñ,” and “165” for “Ñ.” Also, don’t forget “173” for “¡” and “168” for “¿.”






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