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When an umlaut is not an umlaut

The New Yorker has taken to the Internet to explain that what looks like an umlaut in its pages is not, in fact, an umlaut. It's a diaeresis. On its Culture Desk blog, Mary Norris explains:

The special tool we use here at the New Yorker for punching out the two dots that we then center carefully over the second vowel in such words as “naïve” and “Laocoön” will be getting a workout this year, as the Democrats coöperate to reëlect the President.

Those two dots, often mistaken for an umlaut, are actually a diaeresis (pronounced “die heiresses”; it’s from the Greek for “divide”). The difference is that an umlaut is a German thing that alters the pronunciation of a vowel (Brünnhilde), and often changes the meaning of a word: schon (adv.), already; schön (adj.), beautiful. In the case of a diphthong, the umlaut goes over the first vowel. And it is crucial. A diaeresis goes over the second vowel and indicates that it forms a separate syllable. Most of the English-speaking world finds the diaeresis inessential. Even Fowler, of Fowler’s “Modern English Usage,” says that the diaeresis “is in English an obsolescent symbol.”

That obsolescence proves complicated, apparently, when it comes to auto-correct functions. And it's also troublesome when it comes to readers; many write in, uncoöperatively, to complain about its use.


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