Not An Umlaut

By Maeve Maddox

A reader has posed a question about a mark he noticed in The New Yorker:

In a recent copy of The New Yorker the word ‘reëlection’ appeared with an umlaut over the second ‘e’. I had not seen the umlaut used that way before.
 
Is the umlaut making a comeback?  Should it also be used in similar situations such as ‘realignment’, or ‘reengineer’ or ‘deescalate’?  Or is the hyphen more appropriate?  Or nothing? Or is The New Yorker just being, well NewYorkerish?

I’ll answer the last question first: Yes, The New Yorker is being “NewYorkerish.” The use of the two-dot diacritical mark in words like reëlect is a notable feature of the magazine’s house style. Other publications are prone to ridicule this use.

As for the question “Is the umlaut making a comeback?” I’ll have to contradict the reader’s use of the word umlaut in reference to the two dots in the word reëlection.

An umlaut is a diacritical mark characteristic of German. It indicates pronunciation. For example, the u in the German words über, “over,” and unter, “under,” are not pronounced the same. The umlaut in über alerts the reader to a vowel sound that differs from the unrounded sound in unter. The word umlaut combines German um, “about,” and laut, “sound.”

Used with English words, the two-dot diacritical mark has a different name and a different function.

In English, it’s called a diaeresis, and its usual function is to alert the reader to the fact that two vowels written side by side are not to be pronounced together as a diphthong, but separately, as distinct vowels. The source of the word diaeresis is a Greek verb meaning “to divide.” A diaeresis tells us to divide two vowels.

Note: The first spelling in both the OED and Merriam-Webster is diaeresis; the spelling dieresis is given “also” status. Charles Elster (The Big Book of Beastly Mispronunciations) prefers the spelling dieresis, because it eliminates the conglomeration of vowel letters and because his preferred pronunciation is [dy-ER-uh-sis]. He offers the secondary pronunciation [dy-AIR-uh-sis, which is the first pronunciation given in the OED.

Speakers acquainted with literature, art, music, and astronomy encounter the diaeresis in such classical names as the following:

Danaë
Laërtes
Pasiphaë
Aïda
Laocoön
Boötes

Two common words that some speakers still write with a diaeresis are Noël and daïs, and the diaeresis occurs in the name of the writer Anaïs Nin.

The diaeresis is also seen in English above vowels that occur at the end of certain proper names. This use indicates that the final vowel, usually e, is not silent. For example: Brontë [BRON-tee], Zoë [ZO-ee], Chloë, [KLO-ee], Bettë [BET-ee].

On the assumption that readers “know” how to pronounce these names, people write them without the diaeresis.

However, in these days of superficial English teaching, one mustn’t assume. I’ve heard adults pronounce the name Zoe to rhyme with toe. I’ve heard a young teacher pronounce the surname of writing sisters Charlotte, Emily, and Anne as a one-syllable word.

The New Yorker’s use of the diaresesis to separate standard prefixes in words like reëlection is silly. That’s what hyphens are for.

The use of the diaeresis to clarify the pronunciation of words like daïs, Noël, Brontë, and Zoë, on the other hand, is well worth a comeback.

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9 Responses to “Not An Umlaut”

  • Bill

    I was with you all the way until the end, when you say words like daïs, Noël, Brontë, and Zoë should have a dieresis (let’s all spell it that way!). I’m knew how to pronounce all four without them, and I’m no linguist. A great thing about American English is how fast we can type it. Why add anything that would slow that down? Please coöperate and recommend keeping it simple.

  • Rain

    Thanks for explaining. What about “naïve”? I know the word comes from French, but are the two dots above the i also a diaeresis and is their purpose the same as that in names such as Brontë?

  • Curtis Manges

    I think this mark is doomed, simply because it’s so hard to apply now. When handwriting, you could just write Zoe, pop those little dots into place and be done. With a typewriter, you could, if your machine was so specially equipped (unlikely), backspace over the e in Zoe and add the diaeresis with a keystroke.

    Now, you have to stop at Zo and go on a hunt through the Forest of Special Characters and *hope* your font family includes an e with two little dots over it. What’s the likelihood of that happening these days, when so many people can’t even be bothered to correct their spelling?

  • Heather

    I agree with the previous comment; furthermore, “reelection” doesn’t need a hyphen–M/W has this listed as a single word, no hyphen. Does anyone see this word and think the word has only three syllables?

  • Andy Knoedler

    Though it was years ago that I studied German, I do recall learning that the word Umlaut begins with the prefix um-, meaning “change,” rather than the preposition “um” suggesting “about.” An Umlaut signals a shift or mutation of a vowel sound.

    More on the topic: language has gone full circle regarding the use of the dieresis. When I was a kid, it was quite common to see the diereses over an e. To have a noted publication continuing to pump life into a dead form and have someone think that it is a novelty completes an intriguing circle.

  • Jim Porter

    Here’s my thought about the umlaut:

    If it ain’t on the keyboard, it ain’t going to be in my
    manuscript.

    Thank you. Thank you. I’ll be here all week.
    (My mother is very unhappy about that.)

  • venqax

    I have to agree that reviving the dieresis is doomed if for no other reason than it can’t be easily keyboarded. That is pretty much the kiss of death today. And I have to say it’s fine with me– I don’t even like apostrophes. More to the point, I don’t see people benefitting from the pronunciation guidance they give– it’s one more thing that won’t be learned in elementary school, and people insist on mispronouncing words no matter how clearly they are spelled, and no matter how educated they supposedly are. Just aks a nucular scientist. There are plenny of that spessies who will tell you. I’ve always admired English for being pretty much diacritics-free, although that does necessitate more attention to spelling rules than most seem inclined to learn or obey.

    For myself, I’d like some explanation of why the third syllable should be a schwaed pronunciation– dy-ER-uh-sis. Really? An E pronounced “uh”? I realize that the emphasis on the second, rather than the third syllable (where it seems more natural) is probably Elster’s point and it seems taken for granted. But still dy-ER-ee-sis or dy-ER-es-is seem more applicable.

  • Paul W Dixon

    The importance of the umlaut (or ‘trema’ as it is called over here) is very evident in Portuguese. Even so, a recent orthographic reform has abolished it. The effects on correct pronunciation are devastating.
    Its use in Portuguese is (I use ‘is’ as I strongly oppose the abolishing of accents which has been constant in Portuguese since 1971) on the letter combinations güe/güi/qüe/qüi to say that the ‘u’ is pronounced. In this way, the spelling ‘cinqüenta” shows the pronunciation /sinKWENtah/ rather than /sinKENta/. Now, there is no evidence of how to pronounce the word – the problem is there are many words where the KE pronunciation is used, as in ‘queijo’ /KEI-zhoo/. So no-one knows how to pronounce them, especially when in combination, as in “Quero cinquenta quilos de queijo’. (The use of the umlaut on cinqüenta would solve this – all the other words never had an umlaut, so the KE pronunciation is the one)

  • venqax

    @Paul W Dixon: I sympathize with the sentiment, but to go so far as to say that, “So no-one knows how to pronounce them,…” seems off the mark to me. Shouldn’t, at least native speakers, know how to pronounce the words in their own language without resorting to those kinds of spelling cues? I realize, via English, that they don’t but, still…

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