Diacritical Marks

Diacritical Marks

A frequently asked question from any aspiring speller is “How do you know the correct pronunciation of a word?” The Merriam-Webster dictionary has a system of pronunciation symbols (also called diacritical marks or diacritics) that will tell you how to pronounce the word.  In any dictionary entry, the pronunciation symbols will be right next the spelling of the word.

(You can find a complete list of all Merriam-Webster pronunciation symbols at http://unabridged.merriam-webster.com/info/pronsymbols.html ).

Learning all these symbols may be overwhelming for new spellers. In this post, we will break down this list of pronunciation symbols so you will become a master in reading diacritical marks!

Schwa (pronounced /shwä/): ə

One of the most common diacritics is the schwa, which looks like an upside-down e (ə). This is a neutral vowel sound, pronounced like “uh,” as in banana, circus, and collect. This is often the hardest sound for a speller to figure out because it can be spelled with any vowel: a, e, i, o, u, or even y.

Short Vowel Sounds: a, e, i, o, and u

Whenever there is a plain vowel with no marks on it, it is pronounced with a short sound.

Short vowel sounds:

a- “aa” sound as in had or cap

e- “eh” sound as in set or head

i- “ih” sound as in mitten or sip

Macron (pronounced /mā-ˌkrän/): ā, ē, ī, ō

A macron is a straight line ( ) that is placed over a vowel. This symbol gives a vowel a long sound.

Long vowel sounds:

ā- “ay” sound as in day

ē- “ee” sound as in bead

ī “ii” sound as in site

ō- “oh” sound as in snow

Diaeresis (also spelled dieresis, pronounced /dīˈerəsəs/):  ä and ü

A diaeresis is two dots (..) that are placed on top of a vowel. A diaeresis is used when the vowel ‘a’ or ‘u’ are pronounced like they are “stretched out”.

ä- “ah” sound as in bother or cot

ü- “oo” sound as in moose or rule or shoe

In German words, these two dots can also be called an umlaut. An umlaut is used when a German vowel is pronounced like a mix of two vowel sounds. One example is the word kummel, which is pronounced /kiməi/. Notice how the letter ‘u’ in kummel is pronounced like a short ‘i,’ that’s how an umlaut works.

Stress Symbols: ‘ and ,

Stress symbols tell you which syllable of the word has the most stress, or emphasis. If a syllable is stressed, that means you put some extra force or pressure as you say that syllable. Stressed syllables are pronounced slightly louder and longer than unstressed syllables.

The diacritical mark (‘) indicates primary stress. This means that you put the most stress, or emphasis, on the syllable that comes right after this mark.

The diacritical mark (,) indicates secondary stress. This means that the syllable after this sound also has some stress, but it is not as much as the primary stress.

Stress on the word can make all the difference in what it means. For example, the word “present” can have two different meanings depending on where you put the stress.

Additional Symbols:

ŋ- “ng” sound as in sing

au̇- “ow” sound as in out

ȯi- “oy” sound as in boy                                                                  

Now let’s take a mini-test! Read the pronunciations and try to guess what the word is.




By learning how to read pronunciation symbols, you can learn how to correctly pronounce every word in the dictionary, which will help you in spelling bees. With some experience, you will be able to read these pronunciation symbols so quickly that they will become like a second language, and you will be able to practice words faster.

Please send your questions to spellpundit@gmail.com.


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