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A Thought…

The universe is under no obligation to make sense to you.

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The umlaut and the dieresis

Posted on 2020-Oct-16 at 21:29:54 (last update on 2022-Jul-08 at 11:07:00) by Phil

That double-dot you see above some letters — they’re the same thing, right? No! Although they look the same, the two are actually very different, and not at all interchangeable.

An umlaut is used in Germanic languages, and merely means that the primary vowel (a, o, or u) is followed by an e. It is a shorthand for (initially) handwriting: ä is more or less interchangeable with ae (not to be confused with the æ ligature*), ö is oe (again, not œ), and ü is ue. This, of course, changes the pronunciation of the vowel, just as adding an e to an English word (at the end) shifts the vowel sound (e.g., mat to mate). Some word spellings, especially for proper names, may prefer one or the other form (usually _e). Whether to use the umlaut form or the two-letter form is usually an arbitrary choice in electronic typesetting, unless the chosen font lacks the umlaut form (as well as a combining “dieresis” character). It is more common in English-language cold metal typesetting to lack the umlaut form, and require the two-letter form. A plain ASCII keyboard (without accented letters) and no way to form accented letters (e.g., a “Compose” key or equivalent) when doing WYSIWYG text entry, is a somewhat reasonable excuse to use the _e form. See also thorn and “ye”, where the “e” was originally written as a superscript to the thorn (þ).

* The æ and œ ligatures are more favored in British English than in American English, appearing in such words as encyclopædia, pædiatrician, and fœtal.

A dieresis is of French origin, and primarily is used in Romance languages. Its basic meaning is that the two adjacent vowels are to be pronounced separately: naïve is pronounced nī-EVE, not nāve. Noël is no-el, etc. You sometimes see this diacritic used in English text, such as naïve and coöperate. The latter is sometimes hyphenated instead: co-operate. Or, the author figures that readers should be smart enough to know it’s not pronounced “coop-er-ate”.

Interestingly, typesetting sometimes confuses these two. If you are using HTML entities, such as to properly spell naïve, you would normally be specifying the i-umlaut character (ï), rather than an “i” and combining dieresis (ï). This, and i+umlaut doesn’t even technically exist in German! On the other hand, font collections usually refer to the double-dot ¨ diacritic alone as a dieresis (or diaersis) even when it is being used to form an umlaut!

A good read on the subject.

Posted on 2020-Nov-07 at 09:02:12 by Phil

Another use for the diaeresis (or dieresis): to show that a final “e” is pronounced, rather than silent, e.g., Brontë is pronounced Bron-tay, not Bront. See this page for more on the subject.

Other than that, a diaeresis can be used any place there could be confusion over whether a pair of vowels is pronounced as a single unit (e.g., “reel”) or should be pronounced as two vowels (e.g., “reelect” or “re-elect” or “reëlect”). In most cases, it appears to be a matter of personal choice and/or editorial practice.


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