Putting a ring on it — The å’s diacritic

The letter ‘å’ (typed using Alt+0229) is perhaps one of the most recognisable letters in the languages of Scandinavia, as you may have recalled the last time you went strolling about in an Ikea store. It is even the entire name of certain places in Norway and Sweden. So too does it represent a unit of measure, the Ångström, which is 0.1 nm.

Curiously, it has found its way into the Finnish alphabet, despite not really having any native use at all. Called the Ruotsalainen O, or “Swedish O”, its use is mainly limited to place names and names of Swedish, Danish, or Norwegian origin, and not really much else. However, it is advised against to use the digraph “aa” to replace å, since it is already a common letter combination (as a long “a”). In fact, there have been movements in Finland to rid Finnish schools of mandatory Swedish, ditching the letter å due to the lack of any native use in the Finnish language.

Other than the Finnish alphabet, the Å is also used in alphabets from as far north as Greenland, in the Greenlandic language, to as far east as the Marianas, in the Chamorro language. Very often this letter represents the same or similar sounds, usually this vowel /ɔ/, loosely transliterated as “aw”.

This diacritic added to the A is known as an “overring”, although it could also be interpreted as an “o” written over the A. But how did the diacritic get there?

If you are a long-time reader of this site, the concept of evolution in languages should ring a bell. See, the sound å represents did not always stay that way. Instead, during the times of Old Norse, this sound was much closer the the long “a” vowel /a:/, sometimes represented by the letter á. Sound changes resulted in this sound becoming an /ɔː/ sound, and later, an /o:/ sound in many Scandinavian varieties in Sweden and Norway.

To denote this sound, the letter combination “aa” was used, which served its purpose of representing the long “a” vowel back in the day. However, as this sound changed, so to did the need for a new grapheme. While it is unclear who exactly came up with this idea, in the 16th century, they placed a miniscule “o” above the letter “a” do denote this sound, and hence the overring diacritic was born. The first ever recorded use of the letter “å” was in the Gustav Vasa Bible published in 1541, and by the end of the 16th century, the letter “å” had almost entirely replaced the “aa” in Swedish.

Now, came the challenge of introducing this letter into Norwegian and Danish, which also had similar sound changes, but were reluctant to adopt this letter since the speakers did not see much use for it. It was not until 1917 in Norway, and 1948 in Denmark when they adopted the “å” in orthographical reforms, although this was met with public resistance in Denmark. In fact, the “aa” is still seen in some Danish place names like Aarhus and Aalborg, although at some point in their history, the letter “å” was used in their place names.

Among the North Germanic languages, however, Icelandic and Faroese do not have this letter å, instead, using the Old Norse letter á, which represents diphthongs in both of these languages today.

The Czech language is also known for using such a diacritic in one of its vowels, this time the one above the letter ‘u’. Unlike the Å, the Ů has the same sound as the letter ú, which is a long u vowel. However, there are some orthographical rules governing when each letter is used. The ú, for instance, is used almost exclusively in the initial position, or the start of a word root in a compound word. The ů, however, cannot be used in the initial position.

The ů also indicates the presence of a vowel shift at some point in Czech’s linguistic history, where it was pronounced as an /o/ in older forms of the language, before morphing to /uo/, and today, /u:/. Perhaps this letter also indicates some vowel changes when a noun or adjective is conjugated into the genitive, as the ů changes into the letter o in the genitive (like dům → domu), showing a bit of how this word has changed over time.

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