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A macron, from the Greek (makrón), meaning "long", is a diacritic placed above a vowel (and, more rarely, under a consonant). It was originally used to mark a long syllable in Græco-Roman metrics, but now also indicates that the vowel is long. (The opposite is a breve ˘, used to indicate originally a short syllable and now also a short vowel.) Distinctions between long and short vowels are often phonemic. In the International Phonetic Alphabet the macron is used to indicate mid tone; the sign for a long vowel is a modified triangular colon.

Syllable weight

In Græco-Roman metrics and in the description of the metrics of other literatures, the macron was introduced and is still widely used to mark a long syllable. Even the best and relatively recent classical Greek and Latin dictionaries are still only concerned with indicating the length (i.e., weight) of syllables; that is why most still do not indicate the length of vowels in syllables that are otherwise metrically determined. Though many ancient Roman and Greek textbooks employ the macron, it was not used in ancient Rome or Greece.

Vowel length

The following languages or transliteration systems use the macron to mark long vowels:

  • Slavicists use the macron to indicate a non-tonic long vowel, or a non-tonic syllabic liquid, such as on l, lj, m, n, nj, and r. Languages with this feature include standard and jargon varieties of Serbian, Croatian, Macedonian , Czech , Slovak , Bulgarian.
  • Transcriptions of Arabic typically use macrons to indicate long vowels — ا (alif when pronounced as /aː/), و (waw, when pronounced as /uː/), and ي (ya', when pronounced as /iː/). Thus the Arabic word ثلاثة (three) is transliterated ṯalāṯah.
  • Some modern dictionaries of classical Greek and Latin, where the macron is sometimes used in conjunction with the breve. However, many such dictionaries still have ambiguities in their treatment and distinction of long vowels or heavy syllables.
  • The Hepburn romanization system of Japanese. Examples: kōtsū ( ) "traffic" as opposed to kotsu ( ) "bone" or "knack" (fig.)
  • Latvian. "Ā", "ē", "ī", "ū" are separate letters that sort in alphabetical order immediately after "a", "e", "i", "u" respectively.
  • Lithuanian. "Ū" is a separate letter but given the same position in collation as the unaccented "u". It marks a long vowel; other long vowels are indicated with an ogonek (which used to indicate nasalization, but no longer does): "ą", "ę", "į", "ų", "o" being always long in Lithuanian except for some recent loanwords. For the long counterpart of "i", "y" is used.
  • Transcriptions of Nahuatl (spoken in Mexicomarker). Since Nahuatl (Nāhuatl) (Aztecs' language) did not have a writing system, when Spanish conquistadors arrived, they wrote the language in their own alphabet without distinguishing long vowels. Over a century later, in 1645, Horacio Carochi defined macrons to mark long vowels ā, ē, ī and ō, and short vowels with grave (`) accents. This is rare nowadays since many people write Nahuatl without any orthographic sign and with the letters /k/, /s/ and /w/, not present in the original alphabet. Some projects prefer macron-based writing, as in Nahuatl Wikipedia.
  • Modern transcriptions of Old English.
  • Latin transliteration of Pali and Sanskrit.
  • Polynesian languages:
    • Hawaiian. The macron is called kahakō, and it indicates vowel length, which changes meaning and the placement of stress.
    • Māori. Early writing in Māori did not distinguish vowel length. Some — notably the late Professor Bruce Biggs — have advocated that double vowels be written to mark long vowel sounds (e.g., Maaori), but he was more concerned that they be marked at all than with the method. The Māori Language Commission (Te Taura Whiri o te Reo Māori) advocates that macrons be used to designate long vowels. The use of the macron is widespread in modern Māori, although sometimes the diaeresis mark is used instead (eg. "Mäori" instead of "Māori") if the macron is not available for technical reasons[3011]. The Māori words for macron are pōtae "hat", or tohuto.
    • Tongan. Called the toloi, its usage is similar to that in Māori, including its substitution by a diaeresis.


The following languages or alphabets use the macron to mark tones:

  • In Pinyin, macrons are used over a, e, i, o, u, ü (ā, ē, ī, ō, ū, ǖ) to indicate the first tone of Mandarin Chinese. The alternative to macron is the number 1 after the syllable, e.g. tā = ta1.

Other uses

  • In French comic books that are hand-lettered all in capitals, the macron sometimes replaces the circumflex .

  • In some German handwriting the a macron is used to distinguish u from n or instead of the umlaut.

  • In some Finnish and Swedish comic books that are hand-lettered or in handwriting the macron is used instead of ä or ö, sometimes known colloquially as a "lazy man's umlaut".

  • In older handwriting such as the German Kurrentschrift, the macron over an a-e-i-o-u or ä-ö-ü stood for an n, or over an m or an n meant that the letter was doubled. This continued into print in English in the sixteenth century. Over a u at the end of a word, the macron indicated um as a form of scribal abbreviation.

  • In Russian handwriting, a lowercase Т looks like a lowercase m, and a macron is often used to distinguish it from Ш, which looks like a lowercase w. Some writers also underline the letter ш to further reduce ambiguity.

  • In music, the tenuto marking resembles the macron.

Non-diacritical usage

  • In medical prescriptions and other handwritten notes, macrons mean:
    • over c, with, abbreviating the Latin word cum;
    • over p, after, abbreviating post;
    • over q, every, abbreviating quisque (inflected forms: quoque/quaque);
    • over s, without, abbreviating sine;
    • over x, except, formed by analogy, and not specifically from any Latin.

  • In statistics, mathematics and physics the macron is often used to indicate:
    • x̄ a mean (e.g., \bar{x} as the average value of x_i)
  • In mathematics it may denote:
    • the conjugate of a complex number, so that if x = a + ib, then \overline{x} = a - ib.
  • In mathematics and physics it may denote:
    • A vector, so that \overline x=|x|\hat x, although boldface and arrows commonly are also used.

Technical notes

Pre-composed characters
Upper Case Lower Case
Character HTML Code Unicode Character HTML Code Unicode
Ā Ā U+0100 ā ā U+0101
Ē Ē U+0112 ē ē U+0113
Ī Ī U+012A ī ī U+012B
Ō Ō U+014C ō ō U+014D
Ū Ū U+016A ū ū U+016B
Ǖ Ǖ U+01D5 ǖ ǖ U+01D6
Ȳ U+0232 ȳ U+0233
In Unicode, "combining macron" is a combining diacritical mark with the code U+0304 (in HTML, ̄ or ̄). This is different from the "macron" at U+00AF ¯, from the "modifier letter macron" at U+02C9 ˉ and from the combining overline at U+0305 ̅. There are several precomposed characters; their HTML/Unicode numbers are as in the table to the right. In LaTeX a macron is created with the command "\=", for example: M\=aori.

The row before the last is the letter Uu with diaeresis (Ü ü) and macron, used in pinyin. The final row is the letter Yy with macron, used sometimes in teaching Old English and Latin.

See also


  1. P.G.W. Glare (ed.), Oxford Latin Dictionary (Oxford at the Clarendon Press 1990), p. xxiii: Vowel quantities. Normally only long vowels in a metrically indeterminate position are marked.
  2. Годечкият Говор от Михаил Виденов,Издателство на българската академия на науките,София, 1978, p. 19: ...характерни за всички селища от годечкия говор....Подобни случай са характерни и за книжовния език-Ст.Стойков, Увод във фонетиката на българския език , стр. 151..
  3. Yearbook of the Academy Council - 2000, Royal Society of New Zealand

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