Not An Umlaut
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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