Saturday, March 3

The Dieresis: Not an Umlaut

Updates to the language may come slowly and without fanfare, but... I try to keep my eyes open.

Let me share something I've learned recently. When I was very young, a board game came out that was themed on the Star Wars burgeoning movie franchise. It was a simple game in which you moved from one end of the board to the other, collecting objects and overcoming obstacles. My love for the game came not from the complicated game engine, of course, but that it kept me in the spirit of the film. Playing this jejune pass-time, which had no more to do with Star Wars than the images printed upon it, gave my impressionable imagination the sensation of prolonging my existence within the Star Wars universe for that much longer, in intervals of ten minutes as I played with my cousins.

But the world of language intruded here, ever so slightly. One of the instruction cards a player could draw ordered them to dedicate all moves to arriving at Yavin-4 starbase, with the imperative "coördinate." We debated briefly as to what that meant, that single word that seemed redundant among the instructions: of course we were going to coördinate with the order just passed to us. Why that iteration?

I was bugged by something further: those two dots over the second "o". I had only seen anything like that in the word "naïve," but I didn't know what those dots were doing there, either. This was a rare application that never turned up in any other form of printed literature I had access to, as a child, and when I described it to my elementary school teachers they had no idea what it meant either. Instead, they simply assumed I was mistaken.

Years later, when I began studying German, I was made familiar with the umlaut. I thought it was cool, this extra adornment added to vowels to make an additional sound. And if you didn't have an umlaut on your typewriter, it was acceptable to tack an "e" on after the vowel that would've worn it. Our German exchange student came from Bühl, which I could've written as Buehl, and someone else had for the title Ferris Buehler's Day Off. One from Bühl would be a Bühler, just as those little sausages from Wien (Vienna) are called wieners. Oh German, is there anything you haven't thought of?

But in "coördinate," that is not an umlaut. It's called a dieresis (diaeresis in UK), and it is used to indicate that the second in a pair of vowels will take on a markedly different sound. According to Random House's The Mavens' Word of the Day, The New Yorker Magazine adheres to the strictest implementation of this convention, making it unique among all other U.S. print publications. Why they opt to retain this antiquated stylistic function is unknown to me, but I can't say I disapprove at all. Once in a while, I'll even implement it in a letter or postcard I'm writing, just to shake things up.

1 comment:

Princeaeneas said...

Suddenly, I've a desire to subscribe to The New Yorker; until now, I've considered myself loyal to The Atlantic.