Not An Umlaut

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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:


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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16 thoughts on “Not An Umlaut”

  1. 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.

  2. 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?

  3. 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?

  4. 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?

  5. 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.

  6. Here’s my thought about the umlaut:

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

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

  7. 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.

  8. 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)

  9. @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…

  10. I came to this article because of a New Yorker article.

    I find it interesting that the author likes Zoë but thinks reëlection is silly. Maeve, are you suggesting it should be re-election instead? I don’t know if anyone spells it that way.

    Re-enable? Reënable? Reenable? The spell checker likes the first and third, but doesn’t like the diaeresis version. I actually think the third spelling can be hard, especially with my old eyes when they get tired. A little extra punctuation helps.

    I consistently spell naïve with the dots; it’s the only word in English that I give a diaeresis, and I thought I was doing it because it came from French. I don’t know how many times I’ve done a search to understand if the dots went over the a or the i, but now that I know what a diaeresis means in English, I’ll never have to look it up again.

    Anyway… Interesting article. I think some of the people posting are correct. Most people aren’t going to go through the work of finding the dots. (On a Mac, it’s easy. Option-U-i lets you type naïve. I remember it’s opt-U because to me, it’s a German umlaut. Is it ironic that umlaut is spelled without an umlaut?)

  11. JP Larson,
    Actually, yes. I would spell it re-election.

    I looked up “reenable” in the OED and found it spelled “re-enable.” I looked up both “re-enable” and “reenable” in my online M-W and received the message that neither word is in the dictionary.

    As for the dieresis, I agree with Venqax that—ideally—native speakers would know how to pronounce words like “Zoe” and “Bronte.” They would have learned to do so in elementary school. However, I know from listening that many native speakers have not learned these pronunciations in school. So yes, I’d hang on to the dieresis for at least a few words. I’d especially like to see it used with the word “daïs,” which a great many university degree-holders pronounce and spell as “dias.”

    The AP Stylebook has this to say about the use of the hyphen in this context:
    AVOID DUPLICATED VOWELS, TRIPPLED CONSONANTS: Examples: “anti-intellectual, pre-empt, shell-like.”
    Three rules are constant, although they yield some exceptions to first-listed spellings in Webster’s New World College Dictionary:
    —Except for “cooperate” and “coordinate,” use a hyphen if the prefix ends in a vowel and the word that follows begins with the same vowel.
    —Use a hyphen if the word that follows is capitalized.

  12. The only great thing about American English is whatever subjective notion you find admirable about it on that given day. There is nothing inherently ‘great’ about any given language, they’re all just agreed upon rules deemed efficient for the communicative purposes of a given culture.

    To the people who think it’s too difficult to type:
    CTRL + SHIFT + :

    Then just type whatever vowel you want the diaeresis to go over. No need to go hunting for special characters. Done.

    You can Google other methods if you don’t have Microsoft Word or if you have an Apple or whatever. The methods of quick and easy diaeresis are nearly endless depending on your word processor.

    Thank you for coming to my TedTalk.

  13. Ariadne,
    Cool! your comment had me look up the way to do it on a Mac. Easy peasy. OPTION +u release Option and hit whatever vowel is desired.
    ï ë

  14. Ariadne,
    Cool! your comment had me look up the way to do it on a Mac. Easy peasy. OPTION +u release Option and hit whatever vowel is desired.
    ï ë ö

  15. My dear Ariadne,
    Aren’t you missing a diaresesis in your name, to achieve the correct signalling of preferred pronunciation? Thus: Ariadne. (Oh, well, MS Word will put the 2x-dot over the second ‘a’, as your earlier comment above revealed, but the processor built into this website won’t. Too bad.) Otherwise, one might well pronounce your name ‘aria-knee’ with a silent ‘d’. No?

  16. So…. Do you suppose in the New Yorker’s style guide there’s a section on “diëresis”? I bet if they could get one over an æ they would use that, heh.

    Seriously though, thank you for this. My daughter’s name is Brontë. She’s almost 30 years old and I never knew I was using the wrong term until now.

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