Wednesday 19 January 2005


The first sentence of Seymour Hersh’s current New Yorker article, The Coming Wars, caught me by surprise:

George W. Bush’s reëlection was not his only victory last fall.

Not that I believed that Bush had enjoyed only a single victory in the autumn of 2004. Rather I was astonished to see the “e” with an umlaut in the English word “reëlection.”

Except in this case it wasn’t an umlaut but a diaeresis, whereas I had always assumed that the two were synonymous. Not so, according to the Wikipedia entry for umlaut:

In linguistics, the process of umlaut (from German um- “around”, “transformation” + Laut “sound”) is a modification of a vowel which causes it to be pronounced more to the front of the mouth to accommodate a vowel in the following syllable, especially when that syllable is an inflectional suffix. This process is found in many—especially Germanic—languages.

For example, the German noun Mann (man) with the a pronounced as in English “father” (but short), becomes Männer [m’En@r, m’En6] in the plural, with the ä pronounced like the e in “edit”, a front vowel sound that is assimilated to the vowel in the -er suffix.

The word is also used to refer to the diacritical mark composed of two small dots placed over a vowel ¨ to indicate this change in German. A similar mark is used to indicate diaeresis in other languages, but the umlaut dots are very close to the letter’s body in a well-designed font, while the diaeresis dots are a bit further above—in computer screen fonts the difference is usually not noticeable, but in printed material it is.

Whereas, regarding the diaeresis, the Wikipedia says:

In French, Greek, and Dutch, and in English borrowings from them, this is often done to indicate that the second of a pair of vowels is to be pronounced as a separate vowel rather than being treated as silent or as part of a diphthong, as in the word naïve or the names Chloë and Zoë. Welsh also uses the accent for this purpose, with the diaeresis usually indicating the stressed vowel. French also uses diaeresis over “i” [and “e”?] to indicate syllabification in, for example, Gaëlle and païen. It is called trema or deelteken in Dutch, tréma in French.

The diaeresis is also occasionally used on native English words for the above purposes (as in “coöperate”, “reënact”, and the surname “Brontë”), but this usage has become very rare since the 1940s. The New Yorker magazine is noted as one of the few sources that still spells “coöperate” with a diaeresis.

Mystery solved! In the Seymour Hersh article, the diaeresis is used not only in the word “reëlection,” but also in “preëmptive,” “coördinate,” and “coöperation.” Interestingly, “cooperating”—as in “Most have been cooperating in the war on terrorism”—appears without a diaeresis, which suggests either an editorial error or that the diaeresis is not used in a present participle. (Perhaps Language Hat can clarify this apparent inconsistency or advise whether he is aware of a different New Yorker rule that specifies the use of a diaeresis when “cooperating” appears as a gerund.)

Why am I interested in this? Because for a long time, I used the umlaut/diaeresis or the circumflex as a substitute for the macron ¯, to indicate long vowel sounds in Romanized Japanese:

A macron (from Gr. μακρός makros “large”) is a diacritic ¯ placed over a vowel originally to indicate that the vowel is long. The opposite is a breve ˘, used to indicate a short vowel. These distinctions are usually phonemic.

In modern Old English transliterations, the macron has been used in this way. In Latvian it is also used to indicate long vowels. In Hawaiian (where it is known as the kahakō) it is again used to indicate long vowels, which in turn influence the placement of accent stress in words. Early writing in Māori did not distinguish vowel length. Some have advocated that the double vowel orthography be used to distinguish vowel length. However, the Māori Language Commission (Te Taura Whiri) advocate a macron be used to designate a long vowel. The use of the macron is now wide spread in modern Māori writings, though many people use a diaeresis mark instead (e.g. Mäori instead of Māori) due to lack of support on computers.

It is also used in many dictionaries and textbooks to mark vowel length in languages that do not feature this diacritic in everyday use; for example it is used in the Hepburn transcription of Japanese to indicate a long vowel, as in kōtsū (交通) “traffic” as opposed to kotsu (骨) “bone” or “knack (fig.)”.

As it happens, I first found the Unicode character entities for the various macrons when a Google search for “macron characters” led me to this Māori macron characters in XHTML page. I was absolutely delighted since I had never been happy using the umlaut/diaeresis or circumflex and I’ve always hated the wapuro style—rendering ö as ou and ü as uu, which is how one enters long vowels into a Japanese word processor (wapuro) or an input method editor on a computer with CJK support.

But, back to the umlaut, whose most fascinating use is revealed by the first result in a Google search on “umlaut”—the Wikipedia entry for Heavy metal umlaut:

A heavy metal umlaut is an umlaut over letters in the name of a heavy metal band. Umlauts and other diacritics with a blackletter style typeface are a form of foreign branding intended to give a band’s logo a tough Germanic feel. They are also called röckdöts. The heavy metal umlaut is never referred to by the term diaeresis in this usage, nor does it affect the pronunciation of the band’s name.

The entry goes on to explain the history of the heavy metal umlaut, its use in popular literature, and other usages of diacritics in band or album naming, thus demonstrating one of the things I love most about the Wikipedia: a scholarly attention to detail applied to an arcane or trivial aspect of everyday life:

At one Mötley Crüe performance in Germany, the entire audience started chanting, “Moertley Creuh!” Queensrÿche frontman Geoff Tate stated, “The umlaut over the ‘y’ has haunted us for years. We spent eleven years trying to explain how to pronounce it.”

If anyone tells you they regard the Wikipedia as lacking authority, just point them to the Wikipedia entry for Heavy metal umlaut.

Permalink | Technorati


The ÿ (y-umlaut) character in the latin encoding is a mistake - it was a dutch ij that was mistranscribed long ago.

Do get this keyboard layout if you want a mnemonic way to do diacritics:

Posted by Kevin Marks on 19 January 2005 (Comment Permalink)

Kevin, thanks for the clarification. I assumed that the ÿ character was OK because it was listed on the Evolt Simple Character Entity Chart:

And thanks doubly for the pointer to the US Academic keyboard layout. I'll be downloading and installing it as soon as I get back to my Macintosh. (I didn't even know there was a US Extended keyboard layout, let alone this more powerful one.)

Posted by Jonathon on 19 January 2005 (Comment Permalink)

The New Yorker's lone stand in favour of the diaeresis is one of the reasons I am fond of it. It's sad to hear they let slip an opportunity to put one in (coöperating).

Posted by Anthony on 20 January 2005 (Comment Permalink)

I have a particular fondness for typography and am always glad to learn that there are others in the world who can seize on something like a diaeresis (which I suppose in proper form ought to be "diæresis," but we'll leave ae-ligatures for another day) and find it worthy of such a discussion.

One of my favorite books (at the moment) is Robert Bringhurst's The Elements of Typographic Style (3d ed.).

Posted by Tim Hadley on 20 January 2005 (Comment Permalink)

"Perhaps Language Hat can clarify this apparent inconsistency or advise whether he is aware of a different New Yorker rule that specifies the use of a diaeresis when “cooperating” appears as a gerund"

Language Hat is pretty sure this is an editorial slip, and is distressed at the typos that have been creeping into what was once an exemplary publication from a copyediting standpoint (as well as from others, of course).

Tim: I've got to get a copy of Bringhurst -- I've had too many enthusiastic recommendations to ignore.

Posted by language hat on 21 January 2005 (Comment Permalink)

This discussion is now closed. My thanks to everyone who contributed.

© Copyright 2007 Jonathon Delacour