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Umlauts and Diereses

Jeremy Wheeler and Rabbi Zev-Hayyim Feyer have so far caught what they consider an oversight in our recent Good Word sprachgefuhl. In that writeup I claim that this word is sometimes spelled with an umlaut over the U, which is to say, Sprachgefühl, and explained umlaut as a synonym of dieresis. Although the two are generally used interchangeably, there is reason to maintain a distinction based not on the two dots themselves, but how they are used.

Dieresis comes from the Greek word for “split” and, before English began borrowing words from Modern German, it was used only to refer to an umlaut placed over the second of two successive vowels to indicate that both are pronounced, as in the case of naïve Chloë, Noël, Aïda.

Of course, this alternate spelling is now rare in English and other diacritics serve the same or a very similar purpose. In fiancé, attaché, cliché, communiqué it is the acute that tells us the vowel is pronounced. So the plot, as plots are wont to do, thickens.

I assume the people who named the diacritics did the best they could with what they had to work with. Since we have no word for German Umlaut in English, I still think it reasonable if not preferable to use dieresis for the two dots, regardless of their function.

We do not distinguish between other diacritics on the basis of their use, so far as I recall. Why make an exception here? My use of dieresis followed modern trend of referring only to the two dots placed over some vowels for whatever reason.

3 Responses to “Umlauts and Diereses”

  1. Jeremy Wheeler Says:

    It seems to me that there is some confusion here. Perhaps I might address the points one by one:
    1. ‘…we have no word for German Umlaut in English’, well, actually we do: it’s ‘umlaut’ (attested in the OED as a linguistic term since the 1860s), along with ‘ablaut’.
    2. The trema diacritic (two dots) is used to mark two different phonological phenomena: umlaut and dieraesis.
    3. The description umlaut is applied to the phonological phenomenom of a vowel sound changing to become more like another adjacent sound. In such a case the trema is often referred to as an umlaut.
    4. The description dieraesis is applied to the phonological phenomenom where two adjoining letters that would normally form a digraph and be pronounced as one are instead to be read as separate, either as a diphthong or as two distinct vowels in two syllables. In such a case the trema is often referred to as a dieraesis.
    5. It is just not true that the word dieraesis ‘before English began borrowing words from Modern German, […] was used only to refer to an umlaut placed over the second of two successive vowels to indicate that both are pronounced, as in the case of naïve Chloë, Noël, Aïda.’ Dieraeses have been observed in languages since early Greek at least and the term has long been used in linguistics to refer to the phenomenom, whether or not marked by a diacritic. In contemporary English, dieraeses are almost all unmarked and they do not cease to be such for want of a diacritic. The absence of a trema diacritic does not prevent English from having umlauts, either: mouse and mice, for example.

    I suppose that as it is your page you may call the trema diacritic umlaut and dieraesis interchangeably. It seems a shame, though, that readers who are not by training linguists will not have the benefit of learning the difference between the two constructions.

  2. Robert Beard Says:

    I’m not quite sure what your point is. You have repeated my points and concluded that I am denying my readers of the truth. In fact, the entire article was an attempt at revealing the truth. You explain the difference between the two exactly as I do but omit the points that (1) separating the two on the basis of function is anomalous and (2) that the merging of the two has been long under way. These two points are true, too.

  3. Qjames Says:

    I guess his point is that you made a couple of points which are not supported as facts.

    Strictly speaking it should be Sprachgefuehl. This is the established German way to show, in the absence of the umlaut, the pronunciation. Omitting the umlaut or ‘e’ fails to educate anyone about the origin of the word or its pronunciation.

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