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A Tale Of Two Dots — The History Of The Umlaut And The Diaeresis

What the heck are those mysterious dots hovering over words in the language you are learning? Don't be alarmed — those funny little diacritic marks are umlauts (or diaereses), and they're here to help.

Illustration by Chaim Garcia

If you’re learning a European language, chances are you will soon be confronted with the diacritic ¨ hanging over vowels. Those two dots occasionally blinking on top of the A, O and U force speakers to conjure ambiguous sounds in one go: Ä, Ö and Ü. They represent a transitional shift from one vowel sound to another; for instance, a sliding from or an amalgamation of "a" to "e" for "ä." This is an umlaut or a diaeresis, and can be found in languages such as French, German, Spanish, Danish, Catalan, Welsh, Dutch, Occitan, Galician, Luxembourgish and even in English.

The umlaut in German

The meaning of the word umlaut is revealing: around sound. It was named by the linguist Jacob Grimm, one of the Grimm Brothers. His "around sound" describes a process of sound-change where a vowel’s sound is influenced by another vowel that follows it in the word. The plural of Hant (“hand") in High German was Hanti, but the i ending influenced the pronunciation of the previous vowel a. So, Hanti became Henti. Eventually, the final i lost its timbre. So, in contemporary German we have Hand and the plural Hände.

The representation of the umlaut in Middle High German was sometimes denoted by adding an e to the affected vowel, either after in regular size or above in a smaller size. The former is still applicable in a name like Goethe — which is never spelled Göthe.

One of the difficulties of pronouncing ä, ö or ü for non-natives can be overcome precisely by being aware of this change. Make an a (“ah") sound. Now imagine there’s an i (“ee") coming up. Keep your lips frozen in a (“ah") position while saying “ee" with your mouth. Your tongue will move forward and up. Hold your lips! It should now sound something like an ä! Letters like ä, ö and ü are simply sounds trapped between two vowels, though they are considered distinct vowel sounds and even have their individual place in the German alphabet!

But what about other languages? Do they have the same two dots blinking at you on top of the the vowels? Actually, yes, some do — though, the purpose is somewhat different.

The diaeresis in French and Spanish

In French, the diaeresis (from the Greek diaíresis [διαίρεσις], meaning "division," "separation," or "distinction") looks exactly the same as the umlaut but has a radically different purpose. Whereas the umlaut represents a sound shift, the diaeresis indicates a specific vowel letter that is not pronounced as part of a digraph or diphthong. In French words such as Noël (“Christmas"), the two dots are there to remind you not to fuse the two vowels into one sound, but to pronounce the o and the e separately.

In Spanish, diaeresis is also used to indicate the need to pronounce a vowel such as u in vergüenza (“shame") or ambigüedad (“ambiguity"), which is usually silent in words such as guitarra (“guitar") or guionista (“scriptwriter"). U is the only vowel in Spanish with an occasional diaeresis or trema (from the Greek trēma (τρῆμα), which means "perforation" or "orifice"). (The same rationale was applied to Brazilian Portuguese until a recent spelling reform removed it from common use.)

English also has its occasional diaeresis, mostly used in surnames or given names, such as Brontë or Zoë. In some words, such as naïve, it is optional. We can consider these loanwords (mostly from French) that have enriched English throughout the centuries. With such a cross-pollinated language, it’s understandable the number of confusing exceptions and double standards regarding spelling. In this way, the consistent use of the diaeresis would not do much to simplify spelling and phonetic consistency.

Equivalent sounds in other languages

I’ve spoken about the use of the umlaut in German. But what about the sound it produces? Does this sound exist in other languages, even if represented differently? Most surely! Here are two selected examples.

The French variant of ö is written down as the ligature œ. Words such as œvre (“work"), cœur (“heart") or œil (“eye") reproduce the exact same sound as ö in German (a handy tip and a great incentive for French natives learning German). A separation of the ligature into two different vowels written one after the other demands a separate enunciation of these vowels, which is audible in words such as coexistence (“coexistence") and moelle (“marrow").

In Danish and Norwegian, we are also presented with the sound of the German Ö in the vowel Ø. In fact, in older texts one could find Ö in place of Ø to distinguish between open and closed sounds. And much like the German Ö, Ø is a development of OE, an evolution it shares with the French ligature previously mentioned.

The use of the diaeresis as a diacritic is present in languages as varied as Afrikaans and Albanian. As for the German sounds of the umlaut, these pop up in languages such as Swedish or Dutch and continue to provide a challenge to speakers of languages where vowels are separate and rarely slide into one another, such as Spanish.

The umlaut should not scare you or put you off German, however. It fact, it is the audible proof that German is far from being the aggressive and teutonic idiom most non-natives take it for. Let the cuddly and fluffy sounds of these German vowels guide you through the phonetic delights of German as you practice words such as öko (“eco"), ähnlich (“similar") and süß (“sweet").

Still frustrated? Repeat after me: Ich würde mich über ähnliche blöde Sachen nicht ärgern!

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