Wednesday, April 24, 2013

GrammatiCats: Umlauts



Otherwise known as "those little dots that Mötley Crüe put in its name for extra metal cred" and "The official  diacritical mark of the Weimar Republic."

"That's great for them," you might say, "but what does that have to do with me?"

Well, have you ever wondered about how or why your word processor autocorrects your writing to say "Noël" or "naïve", or why the New Yorker keeps talking about "preëminence" and "coöperation"?

If so, get your pinkies out, people - we are going to put the ü in über.

Pinkie Rating: 5

Actually, I have to tell you a horrible, sad truth.

We don't have umlauts in English.  Or better to say, the only umlauts we have are those carried by German loan words and names: über, Führer, the Gräfenberg Spot (otherwise known as the ever-elusive "G-spot.")

A true umlaut is a diacritical mark used in German to indicate pronunciation of a particular vowel sound.  Listen to schon and schön if you want to hear the difference.  (Both those links go to Wiktionary - click on the "audio (Austria)" playback button on each page, and you can hear the same lady pronounce both words.)

Interestingly, it's also been added to some English words in German so that they will be pronounced more faithfully to the original: check out this German article about the demise of the Big Mäc and the Fishmäc, or read the translated version.  (Notice how the spelling has to change in the web address: Big Mäc becomes Big Maec.)

Other languages have since taken the umlaut on board for various purposes - can't beat a good old-fashioned Swedish smörgåsbord! - but these aren't technically umlauts, because they don't follow the sound-shift and pronunciation rules of the German umlaut.  (It's kind of like how only sparkling wine grown under specific conditions in the Champagne region of France is technically "champagne", even though we use that word for almost every drunk-making bubbly substance imaginable.)

"Sure," you may say, "but you can't tell me that a word like 'naïve' is German."

Not in the slightest!  (Actually, it's French.)  In English, the double dots are called a diaeresis.

"A what."


"That sounds like - "

Well, if it makes you feel any better, it's pronounced 'dye heiresses.'

"...Are you sure we can't use 'umlaut'?"

Kinda, yeah, because it's doing something completely different.  We use a diaeresis over a vowel that should be pronounced separately from the letter before it

Check it out:
  • maize - one syllable
  • paint - one syllable
  • rained - one syllable
  • naïve - two syllables!  (nai-eeve)
  • daïs - two syllables! (dai-is)
All the words above are spelled with "ai", but in the first three, they make one sound.  In the last two, the diaeresis sits on the I to tell you that it's a separate sound from the A.

Here's another example:
  • hoe
  • toe
  • woe
  • Poe
  • Zoë
  • Chloë
This is especially important in a language like ours, where we love throwing silent Es onto the end of everything.  How much less elegant would the Brontë sisters' names be if everybody thought they were pronounced "Bront"?

...Now I kinda want to write a torrid Gothic romance about two star-crossed apatosaurs.


You remember back when we talked about hyphens, and how they're often used to separate syllables of a word that would look or sound confusing without them: re-elect, pre-eminent, co-operate.

Well, diaereses do the same thing!
  • re-elect --> reëlect
  • pre-eminent --> preëminent
  • cooperate --> coöperate
True, they're not appropriate for consonants (you couldn't change "ex-wife", for example.)  But diaereses can go places that no hyphen would dare show itself:
  • continuüm
  • zoölogy
  • oöcyte
So why do we see diaereses twice every never?

Well, let me ask you this: now that you know about them, how excited are YOU about going out and memorizing all twelve alt codes so that you can start writing with diaereses?

Yeah, I think that's where the rest of the world is too: in a world where even widely-known and traditional grammatical usages are dropping by the wayside (see the Case of the Disappearing Hyphen), there's not much hope for a mark you can't even find on your keyboard. 

Good news, though: in addition to the Crüe, Motörhead, Brütal Legend, Häagen Dazs, and Lars Ümlaüt himself are here to assure you that the metal umlaut is alive and well in English usage. 

Remember: just because we can't be bothered with them when they'd actually be helpful, useful, or relevant, doesn't mean we won't whip out the rock dots when we need some cheap flair!

Further Reading:
Ünited Stätes Toughens Image with Umlauts  - with love from The Onion
The Diaeresis Divide - an examination of the New Yorker's curious habit, courtesy of Taddle Creek
We Resist Further Cooperation on 'Coöperation' - The Atlantic Wire weighs in against diaeresis
Lastly, I need everyone to know that the Swedish Chef once had his own cereal: Cröonchy Stars.

Sorry for lack of cats today - home computer is börked.


  1. Interesting post. I learned something. Yay! Although it's a bummer I won't get much of a chance to put this knowledge to use.

    1. I KNOW, right. It's like finding the world's most awesome shirt and realizing that it's inappropriate for 99% of everything you do. So much lost potential!

  2. Interesting. New follower here. I'm stopping by from the "A to Z" challenge and I look forward to visiting again.


    1. Hi Sylvia - and thanks so much for stopping by; it's awesome to meet other writers! I am wildly jealous of your hat, but I won't let that keep me from stopping by!

  3. You'll find umlauts in Afrikaans as well, which is why I have to copy my Afrikaans emails to family and friends in South Africa from Word doc and paste them in my e-mail application. -Belinda.

    1. Oh, COOL! So it looks like they behave like the diaeresis in English - they don't change the pronunciation of the word, but tell you to start a new syllable. So voël should be pronounced "vo-el" and not "voel", right?

      Regardless, thanks so much for stopping by and commenting - I love learning this stuff!

  4. Hey! Where's the Umlaut Grammaticat??

    1. Haha, well, this post happened on the day Photoshop gave up the will to live... but I might have to retroactively add pictures, just so the Russian referrer spam will lighten up a bit!