Thursday, February 2, 2006

Apple #145: The Umlaut

Quite some time ago, Faithful Reader Jim F. asked me by e-mail (he struggled with the Comments feature) if I would do an Apple on the Umlaut. He said that though he wanted to know about its true purpose, he was less interested in serious-heavy-linguistic concerns, and more interested in how it has been used in pop culture, mainly by heavy metal bands.

As requested, the umlaut:

  • The umlaut is primarily known as a diacritical mark, or a notation made to a particular letter within a word. Specifically, it's two dots like a colon but horizontal instead of vertical, printed above a vowel, as in ü. "Umlaut" is also a more general term for changes in pronunciation that happen to words as they move through parts of speech, but for our purposes, I'll just talk about what happens when you put the mark over the vowels.
  • Mainly the umlaut is used in German, although it appears in other Celtic and Germanic languages, too. In German it is used primarily as a way to indicate a plural noun. To make a German noun into its plural form, put an umlaut over the last vowel before the end of the word, and then add an -e or an -er as a new suffix at the end. This doesn't happen to every noun, but it happens to a lot of them.
  • The umlaut is also used in the same way to make comparative forms of adjectives. For example, in English, the adjective long becomes its comparative form, longer, with the addition of an -er at the end. In German, this is written as lang and länger.
  • The umlaut is also applied to verbs, and it is one way of indicating that the verb is changing tenses. From what I'm reading, it's a little more complex than what happens to nouns and adjectives, so I'll just tell you the umlaut can show up in verbs too, and leave it at that.
  • Phonetically, the umlaut changes the way you pronounce the vowel, so that you make it sound more like the next vowel that comes after it. As with our lang and länger example, the umlautted ä would sound more like the e that's been added.
  • It is also sometimes used over two vowels next to each other. Normally, when you put two vowels next to each other within a word, they become a dipthong, which means they make a new sound together, as in pronounce. But, if you put an umlaut over one of the vowels, this tells people to pronounce the vowels separately, as in coöperate. But most people don't us this notation much anymore.
  • To type umlauts on a PC, hold down the ALT key and type a series of numbers. When you lift up the ALT key, the number will appear on the screen. Umlauts are not used over vowels e or i.
    • ALT+132 = ä
    • ALT+142 = Ä
    • ALT+148 = ö
    • ALT+153 = Ö
    • ALT+129 = ü
    • ALT+154 = Ü
  • Now that we know these facts, let's look at the names of some bands that employ the umlaut. Are they just throwing it in there willy-nilly, or are they actually using it appropriately?
    • Motörhead -- Many sources quote the band's front man as saying that he added the umlaut to make the name look mean.
    • Blue Öyster Cult -- May have pioneered the unnecessary umlaut in 1970.
    • Mötley Crüe -- If you actually pronounced the vowels the way the umlauts are telling you to, you'd wind up with something like "Mertley Crew-e."
    • Queensrÿche -- the umlaut over the y is actually something that does happen in Dutch and is meant to indicate the IJ sound.
    • Lörihen -- they're from Argentina, and all the band members except one have Spanish accents somewhere in their names, and I can't find any translation for this word.
    • Infernäl Mäjesty -- Obviously unnecessary use of the umlauts by this Canadian thrash metal band.
    • Blöödhag -- super unnecessary use of two umlauted o's, but they get points in my book for this categorization of their music: "library/sci-fi metal."
    • Hüsker Dü - without the umlauts, this phrase means, "Do you remember." With the umlauts, it doesn't.
    • Mëtal Slüdge - a heavy metal webzine, but the site is meant to be a parody, so it's a joke.
  • The much-discussed Wikipedia page Heavy Metal Umlaut goes into this investigation in greater depth.
  • P.S. Did you know if you write Dusseldorf without the proper umlaut, instead of indicating the town on the river Düssel, you are actually saying dimwit village?

(Photo from hit-a-lick-hez's blog)

Lynne Cahill and Gerald Gazdar, The PolyLex Web Pages, Morphology of German nouns, Umlaut
Wikipedia, Umlaut, umlaut
McKinnon Secondary College, How to type German Umlauts
Jon Udell's, Heavy metal umlaut and Wikipedia's Heavy metal umlaut

1 comment:

  1. I'd like to see an entry on the "tittle."


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