Umlauts vs. Diaeresis

I love learning new things. It’s both a compulsion and a passion, which is probably why I own more encyclopedias than a library and a very well-worn copy of the 2,230 page behemoth <span style=”text-decoration: underline;”>Webster’s Encyclopedic Unabridged Dictionary of the English Language</span>. I was so bored one summer between colleges that I memorized a large chunk of the <a href=””>Star Wars Database</a>, which I remember being far more fact-filled than it is today. I digress, however.

Today I learned the difference between umlauts and diaeresis.

<!–more–>Apparently, <span style=”text-decoration: underline;”><a href=””>The New Yorker</a></span> and I are the only ones left who uphold these fine diacritical marks. I for one am a huge fan of diacritical marks. They not only allow a reader to know instinctively how to pronounce sometimes unfamiliar words, but they just plain look cool. The trick is, though, in using them correctly and knowing the differences between them.

The umlaut is a mark symbolized by two horizontal dots over a vowel, it indicated that the marked vowel sounds different than that same letter without the diacritic. For example: über, which is pronounced oober or the name Schröder, which often becomes anglicized as Schroeder. Often in other languages than English, words have a completely different meaning if you leave off the umlaut because they change the way a word is pronounced in that language.

Diaeresis, however, tell you that a diphthong is not a diphthong. Take a look at the word cooperate. Now, look me in the eye and tell me that the first time you ever saw that word you didn’t think it was pronounced cooper-ate. Properly written with the judicious application of diacritical marks, the word should be spelled coöperate. The “ö” lets you know that the second “o” is pronounced, not absorbed into a “oo” diphthong. Other such words include: Noël, naïve, Chloë, and reïgnite. The trema (what the dots are actually called) are like little flags saying, “Hey, pronounce me! I’m important, too.”

What’s your favorite diacritical? Perhaps the acute or grave accent? The daring circumflex? The fussy cedilla? Maybe you have a secret love of the tilde. Let me know!