Friday, March 2, 2012

Grave Accent

The grave accent is a diacritical mark used in Breton, Calalan, Corsican, Dutch, French, Greek, Italian, Mohawk, Norwegian, Occitan, Portuguese, Ligurian, Scottish Gaelic, Vietnamese, Welsh, Romansh, and other languages. Until very recently I misunderstood what this term actually meant.

there’s the meaning we believe
the real meaning known to everyone else
and we’ve no idea they’re separate things

I was certain that term
grave accent
meant the reverent tone
reserved for graveside services
our dignified whispers
saved only for the grieving and the dead

But no, it’s a linguistic thing
a diacritical mark taught in the academe
and known from Corsica to Wales

First used by the ancient Greeks
it marks a lower pitch to accentuate
the higher pitch that follows

On this mournful day
I hear grieving Tuscans
gently intone

he died
with virtue
and was carried here

I was wrong
I didn’t know
but in my providential world
where graveside visits are rare
and higher pitches follow
my tone would have been
just right


  1. How acute of you circumflexing that grave!
    Tut tut,You should have done French at school.

  2. A fascinating poem. Many French people campaigned - fortunately unsuccessfully - to do away with all the accents, but the spoken language is so much the richer for the nuances of difference.

  3. I hadn't thought of the word diacritical for years. Thanks for this poem.