In what circumstances did Romans use diacritical marks, like macrons, in their writing? In particular how common was it to use diacritics in naming letters?

  • 5
    Can you give an example, maybe from some other language or an artificial example in Latin, of using diacritics in naming letters? I want to make sure I understand the last part of your question.
    – Joonas Ilmavirta
    Jul 11, 2016 at 20:55

1 Answer 1


The Romans actually didn't use diacritical marks for the most part. I understand that this question was asked based off of a comment made on a post (which was answered by myself). In my response, I used two diacritical marks: the acute accent (Á) and the macron (ā). These marks are used by modern Latinists to distinguish between long and short vowels, with the acute accent being short and the macron being long. People also use the breve (ă) for short vowels. The breve is only used when the author is not using the acute accent, and needs to distinguish between words spelled the same except for a vowel length. Here is a great website explaining how Romans actually would have written. The written names of letters from your previous post were written using these accent marks, but that was not how a Roman would have most likely written them.

Edit (as per Ben Kovitz's comment)

The Romans did use one mark, however, called the apex. enter image description here

It indicated that a vowel was long, and was quite common (it was also used above consonants). It originates from the time when vowels were written twice to indicate that they were long. It was a type of shorthand, before becoming widespread. Here is a good image of its usage (look for what looks like scratches angled toward the right above letters).

enter image description here

How this would have been used writing the names of the letters in the alphabet remains unclear.

  • 3
    I don't know how much the Romans used them, but I've seen long vowels marked with apices on Roman inscriptions. Apices tend to be very thin, though, and people today often don't notice them. I don't know much about Roman cursive except that it's universally deplored as ugly and illegible, but the little I've seen also appears to have apices.
    – Ben Kovitz
    Jul 12, 2016 at 0:23
  • @BenKovitz Thanks for bringing that up! I'll edit my post to include that.
    – Sam K
    Jul 12, 2016 at 0:44

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