The Dots Are Watching You …

Although the English language is rich in many ways, it is distinctly lacking in one aspect: diacritical marks. In fact, most of the commonly used words in English that feature accents, cedillas, and tildes are loan words from other European languages – née, façade, jalapeño. When you consider that other languages get to pepper their words with creative letters such as ø, ô, ž, or even ķ, it’s easy to see how an English native speaker could start to get a bit envious.

Perhaps this is the reason why one particular diacritical mark has managed to make its way into our cultural lexicon: the (superfluous) umlaut. Why have English speakers developed such a unique relationship to these two dots? Technically, we are allowed to use them from time to time in the form of a diaeresis, which alerts the reader that the second vowel in a pair is not to be pronounced as a dipthong, and is now considered outdated and stuffy. The best example of this is the New Yorker, which has managed to cling to this grammatical practice for decades, despite it being long out of fashion. The German umlaut, on the other hand, changes the sound of a vowel and can change the meaning of a word, for example, Kuchen (n.) cake vs. Küchen (n.) kitchens, or nähen (v.) to sew vs. nahen (v.) to approach.

Yet in the case of the superfluous umlaut, the point is not to change the way the name is pronounced, but rather to make a name stand out in some way. Perhaps the most well-known usage of the superfluous umlaut is the “metal umlaut,” pioneered by hard rock band Blue Öyster Cult in the 1970s. Possibly taking inspiration from the Krautrock band Amon Düül II, they added the Ö to emphasize “the Wagnerian aspect of Metal.” Other rock and heavy metal bands such as Motörhead, Mötley Crüe, and Queensrÿche later followed suit, using an umlaut (or two for added effect) in combination with a blackletter font in order to lend the band’s name a Teutonic or Nordic quality, associated with strength and boldness, in order to make them seem more intimidating – more “metal” (which is ironic, considering the fact that to a German native speaker, an umlaut makes a vowel sound softer and lighter). The metal umlaut was parodied in the film This Is Spın̈al Tap, in which fictional rocker David St. Hubbins says of the umlaut placed over the n: “It’s like a pair of eyes. You’re looking at the umlaut, and it’s looking at you.”

The umlaut is looking at you ...

Mötley Crüe know how to work those dots …

Yet umlauts don’t always necessarily mean scary. Usage of the umlaut in English has evolved as more and more companies choose to “Germanify” their brand names in order to capitalize on a Teutonic association that has shifted from representing something threatening to being a marker of quality and efficiency (except for the occasional article in The Onion). For example, Möben Kitchens, a now defunct British company, were even forced to defend in court their right to use an umlaut in the company name following a complaint to the Advertising Standards Authority. It was claimed that the umlaut misled consumers by implying that the company, based in Manchester, was German. Other British companies such as üutensil and Gü have also adopted the umlaut in order to sound vaguely Nordic. According to an article in the Guardian, the founder of üutensil, Gavin Reay, wanted the brand to be associated with “Scandinavian and Swiss engineering excellence.”

So what does the future hold for the superfluous umlaut? Will our case of umlaut-envy eventually subside? With one American professor positing that the umlaut could be the reason why Germans have a “reputation for being humorless and grumpy,” maybe we’d be better off leaving it öut.

Rachael Torkar