Umlauts in The New Yorker

Posted by Pierre Igot in: Language
November 27th, 2003 • 2:37 am

I’ve just noticed something that I had never seen in print in English before. In the The New Yorker, the umlaut (¨) is used as a diacritic to mark the distinction between a succession of two identical vowels that’s pronounced as a single sound (say, “oo” in “zoo”) and a succession of two identical vowels that’s pronounced as two sounds (say, “oo” in “cooperate”).

On page 35 of the latest issue, for example, in the second paragraph of “Uncrazy California,” we have successively “reëlected” and “uncoöperative.”

This is, of course, consistent with the use of the diacritic in a language such as French, where it is indeed used to make a similar distinction (“mais” = “but” vs. “maïs” = “corn”, for example) — but not with its use in German, where it simply indicates a vowel change (singular “Land” vs. plural “Länder”).

But it’s the first time I see the umlaut used like this in English in print. What is more common is to see a hyphen to separate the two vowels, as in “re-elected” and “unco-operative.” The style guide for our provincial government here in Nova Scotia, Canada, actually recommends the form with the hyphen — which is, presumably, more consistent with UK English usage.

My Oxford Canadian Dictionary, in typical schizophrenic fashion, puts both forms (with and without the hyphen) on an equal footing. There is no mention of the umlaut, though.

I wonder if it’ll catch on.

10 Responses to “Umlauts in The New Yorker

  1. ssp says:

    Interesting. I like playing with funny letters.

    I do think, though, that the New Yorker just want to be posh in this case and show what kind of fancy things they can do. I don’t think you should or can use the diaeresis[*], [**] in this way.

    From your first example, it would be quite funny to see them write zooölogical…. My take on the use of the diaeresis is that it is used when there is (not quite) the end of a syllable and thus pronunciation would be unclear. This is not the case when you just stick a co- or re- in front of a word. Also, that way of using it seems to restrict usage to ë and ï, which luckily are the characters than don’t exist in umlaut versions. If you are used to reading umlauts, reading something like coöperate is just freaky because it’s obvious that there’s a new syllable starting and thus you read co-öperate. This is not the case when reading words like Zaïre, Zoë or Noël.

    A place where a point can be made for use of diaeresis (diaeres?s? diaeresi? diaeresa?) would be words like caffeïne or proteïn, to align their pronunciation with nicotine, say, rather than what you hear most of the time these days.

    Of course that way of writing will not catch on as most people aren’t capable of typing anything into their computer that’s not printed on their key caps. Also, I think there are much worse inconsistencies in the way English is written (e.g. the whole ‘read’ thing).

    [*] I don’t think it’s called ‘umlaut’ in this context. That term is reserved for the vowel change as you describe it later on. Looking at technical documents gives the interesting situation that the character is called DIAERESIS in Unicode (U+A8) but ¨ in XHTML.

    [**] Also note how this word itself is a counterexample for the thing it describes by containing an accumulation of vowels.

    … Just my ?0,02 of un-co-ordinated rambling.

  2. ssp says:

    Right, that ¨ in the [*] comment was meant to read ampersand-u-m-l-semicolon.

    And the question mark in the middle of the word where I wonder about the spelling of the plural of diaeresis is supposed to be U+12B (ī)

    Sod clever software. Sod myself for thinking ‘better preview this one so you can see what the software does to your characters’ and then hitting the ‘Submit’ button. [I blame the imo non-Mac style arrangement of the buttons for that.]

  3. Dan Farrell Davis says:


    My memory may be faulty, but I recall The New Yorker using umlauts for years. Maybe my brain cells need to be reëlected since I know at age 55 I have “half-heimers” and not the full blown variety as yet.

  4. ssp says:

    That’s the point I tried to make earlier – If the English language actually cared about being obvious to pronounce to people who are learning it, many things would be different. But it doesn’t, so that can’t be the point.

    Figuring out where syllables end is a lot easier than knowing all words (which even native speakers don’t judging from the size of dictionaries) Still, native speakers are supposedly able to at least hyphenate words correctly, which at least in American English goes along syllables as well.

    Just find me that dictionary….

  5. Pierre Igot says:

    Well, I am afraid that there is nothing in the word cooperative itself that says that “co” and “op” are two separate syllables. It’s only because you know that it’s two syllables. :-)

    The point is to try and imagine a foreigner learning how to pronounce the language and not knowing much about where the words come from (i.e. cooperative coming from the latin root oper- etc.).

    In French we also say “tréma” for both the umlaut and the diaeresis.

  6. chithanh says:

    AFAIR the word “Diärese” in German only refers to the phonetic phenomenon (it’s the opposite of “Diphthong”).
    The diacritic “¨” is called “Trema”.
    “Umlaut” is one of “ä”, “ö”, “ü”.

    BTW: Several decades ago, Germans used the macron ˉ (U+02C9) to indicate two consecutive consonants.

  7. ssp says:

    I suppose the word diaeresis originated somewhere in rhetoric, but I don’t have an etymological dictionary to back that theory up.

    My point about the syllables would be that the diaeresis may just be there to indicate the necessity to pronounce a letter separately where it is not obvious. If you have Zoë, say, you need the ë to not pronounce it like Joe. At a boundary of syllables however, there is not an option of merging the two vowels, thus nobody would even be tempted to pronounce cooperative as kuperative (yep, can’t to phonetic alphabet, but you get the idea…). I think that would be a reasonable rule, that in particular rules out the examples you found. Just think hard to try and find a counterexample of a word where the diaeresis is used on the first letter of a syllable.

    (However, I just learned that Encyclopædia Britannica actually gives ‘cooperation’ as an example for a place where a diaeresis (also dieresis) can be used. But frankly, I’d find an honest dictionary entry more convincing)

    Oh, and I just remembered that ‘diaeresis’ is an English-only word. In German (and to the best of my knowledge also in French) it’s Trema.

    Re: Mac-like… that was just a though. On the Mac, the ‘do it’ button tends to be at the right and the unusual one at the left. So I instinctively clicked on the left one as I wanted to do the unusual thing. Being a computer user means that I don’t have to read what’s on screen…

  8. Pierre Igot says:

    ssp: Funny. I knew the word “diaeresis” in the context of poetry, but I didn’t know it was used to describe the mark itself here. It’s different in French, where “diérèse” is only used to describe the phonetical phenomenon (and by extension the poetry rule). But you’re right.

    And The New Yorker editors would definitely have a problem if they wanted to be consistent when it comes to words such as zoological! I am not sure I understand your argument about syllables, though…

    I’m not entirely sure what’s “not Mac-like” about the order in which the “Submit” and “Preview” buttons appear in the comments form. It’s not a dialog box, it’s a form. “Preview” is optional, so I think it’s better if the default button comes first.

    One of these days, I’ll include some information about what’s accepted/processed by the comments form (i.e. by pMachine). But I’ll have to figure it out myself first :). Generally speaking, I think you can use UBB-like tags such as

    url i b em strong code pre

    etc. (all between square brackets, i.e. [tag]…[/tag]).

    But the code tag automatically creates a new paragraph, so it’s not terribly convenient.

    Dan: I’ve been reading New Yorker articles on the web for quite a while now and have never noticed this use of ¨. But maybe they automatically strip such stuff when publishing on the web.

  9. nickshanks says:

    Have a look at and

    The New Yorker is famous for its house style of using a diaresis.

  10. New Yorker debases English language with insane umlaut convention « Mike Love’s blog says:

    […] …my coworker Jason pointed out to me that the New Yorker apparently uses this archaic Germanic umlaut convention whenever they print double vowels.  From Betalogue: On page 35, in the second paragraph of “Uncrazy California”, we have successively reëlected and uncoöperative. […]

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