Monday, March 16, 2009

Umlaut


OK, this one isn’t even about English but it concerns something that crops up often enough in English newspapers to merit a mention: Sueedeutsche Zeitung is wrong; make it Sueddeutsche Zeitung.

When German words and names containing vowels with umlaut (a pair of dots) cannot reliably be typset (for example, in non-German news reports and in Internet addresses), the convention is to add an e after these vowels: hence Kaese, Loesung and Fruehling for Käse, Lösung and Frühling (meaning, respectively, ‘cheese’, ‘solution’ and ‘spring’).

Hence, Süddeutsche (south German) is spelt Sueddeutsche, even in the online version of the German newspaper (and indeed its URL, http://www.sueddeutsche.de/).

In German, the umlaut indicates that a vowel is fronted, e.g. from back rounded /u/ to front rounded /y/, the result of an historical process of assimilation.

However, in other languages, for example French, the umlaut indicates that two adjacent letters are not digraphs (two letters giving a single sound), but pronounced separately, e.g. naïve, Citroën. This convention was once even extended to English, so that cooperate was typeset as coöperate in order to indicate that the first syllable was not to be pronounced coo. Nowadays, this function is, of course, more commonly served by the hyphen.

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