It’s Pokémon, not Pokemon (and why you should care)

With the release of the wildly-popular mobile game, Pokémon Go, journalists around the world rushed to file copy about the new phenomenon. The Associated Press, the world’s largest consortium of reporters, accordingly issued its style guidelines for reporting on the new game. In addition to advice to “avoid made up words”, the AP directed the majority of the world’s English-language press which follows its guide, to write “Pokemon” (without the accent). The absence of that simple piece of typography might seem minor, but it is part of a longer pattern of Anglicization, the scrubbing of variety from modem English, and the pervasive notion of the American melting pot.

Yes, Pokémon is a “made-up word.” It’s not even a word of one language, but a Japanese portmanteau composed of two English words – pocket monster. Obviously, accents (or more technically diacritical marks) don’t exist in the traditional Japanese alphabet, but the accent is used in the English transliteration of Pokémon to distinguish between the short “e” in “pocket” and a longer “e”, such as that in “legal”. Unsurprisingly, the majority of Americans mispronounce Pokémon (by using the long “e”). But this is larger than just Pikachu and co. Why did AP feel the need to remove the accent, and how is it symbolic of wider trends?
In the backlash to the AP announcement (mainly led by Nintendo nerds), some sarcastically wondered if the news agency takes the same approach to one of the most famous women in the world, Beyoncé. Well, it does. And this is where the issue moves from the pronunciation of fictional Japanese critters to denial of identity. The singer’s name is derived from her mother’s maiden name, Beyincé, and both are descendants of Acadian leader Joseph Broussard. As she puts it in one of her songs, “My daddy Alabama, Momma Louisiana, you mix that negro with that Creole make a Texas bama.”
Franco-Americans and descendants of immigrants of all kinds will be familiar with the frustration of having a name that includes a non-standard English character. An informal survey on Facebook unearthed a spectrum of experiences. Some individuals had added accents back into their name, after they had been removed by an ancestor; others chose not to use them because they found it easier.  The discussion ranged beyond accent marks to difficulties explaining the spellings of two-word surnames (St-Laurent) or a name with more than one capital letter (LaForest). For people whose families may have been in the States for years, these experiences are remarkably similar to the modern immigrant and their “Starbucks Name
Given the personal frustrations this causes, why would the AP (and most English language press) chose to disregard accent  marks? Traditionally, the explanation has been practicality. Typefaces produced in the United States typically did not include accented letters, and readers old enough to have used type writers will remember the difficulty of typing in French – a process that involved going back to the typed text and handwriting the accent marks atop the typed letters. The same is still true of computer keyboards produced for the English-speaking market in the US and UK, but in the age of the computer, it’s hardly a valid excuse. Most operating systems recognize Unicode, which allows the use of “alt-codes” to type a range of additional characters (French language codes are here).
When Lewiston’s French-language newspaper, Le Messager, closed in 1964(??), the idea of continuing a French language column in the English-language Daily Sun(?) was nixed on the basis that the Sun didn’t have the ability to print the French characters. Ironically, in the 1890s, another paper, the Evening Journal, had run a French  column, “Notes Canadiens”, with the aim of politically influencing new immigrant voters to the publication’s Republican cause. 
The shift away from diacritical marks is as much about philosophy as practicality. Older works in English are liberal with their use of accents and special characters for words borrowed from French. But today, you would be hard-pressed to find examples of naïveté, manœuvres, façade, or rôle. Even the last holdout, café, is more often found with a misplaced apostrophe today. Even crème, appropriated by processed food manufacturers, has become the bland creme.
I would argue that the erasure of accent marks, on names or other words, is yet one more symptom of globalization. The age of the Internet should be one that celebrates worldwide linguistic diversity, yet the majority of website addresses use the Roman alphabet, unaccented. Earlier this year, even the mighty Acadamie Française bowed to the trend, and retired some circumflexes, like the “ô”, in ôignon.
The scrubbing of exoticism from American English parallels the melting pot attitude of assimilation that requires immigrants to “leave their culture at the door“, or at least “assimilate“. Just as immigrants must become American in their speech and dress, so their names become Americanized, and if we borrow their words, we Americanize them. Most strikingly, Canada, painfully aware of its status as a bilingual country, is much more sensitive of the importance of accent marks, and engages in less of the scrubbing. Despite the fact that the United States has a growing Spanish-speaking population, we’re still struggling to distinguish between José and Jose (though Major League Baseball is trying), let alone quinceañra or México. It’s not wonder that even the global phenomenon of Pokémon Go! fell victim to the force of Americanization.


James Myall

About James Myall

While I currently work for an Augusta-based non-profit, I spent four years as the Coordinator of the Franco-American Collection at the University of Southern Maine. In 2015, I co-authored "The Franco-Americans of Lewiston-Auburn," a general history of that population from 1850 to the present. I was also a consultant for the State Legislative Task Force on Franco-Americans in 2012. I live in Topsham with my wife and two young daughters.