Let’s kill all the umlauts!

We all know the umlaut.  It’s those two dots above the vöwëls in German words.  It also appears in the names of low-grade heavy-metal bands, as a way to seem more Germanic.

But how many of us know that the umlaut is completely fake?

in 1783, G. D. Fuchs issued his Bibliothek der Kirchenversammlungen des vierten und funften Jahrhunderts – Library of Church Councils of the Fourth and Fifth Centuries – in multiple volumes at Leipzig.  Being German, he printed it in a “Fraktur” typeface – that horrible, unreadable Germanic “gothic” typeface.

But modern technology is wonderful, and I’ve been scanning some of it and creating an electronic text.  And I noticed something…

Here’s an example.

At the top is what the OCR software makes of the text.  At the bottom is the image being scanned.

But notice the “Umstände”.  In Fuchs text, the modern umlaut is actually printed as a tiny little letter “e”!!

I’m sure we all remember the fat Nazi Reichsmarshal from numerous war films.  In German, of course, he is “Göring”, with his umlaut correctly in place.  In English we say “Goering”.  It turns out that we are right.  That umlaut, the funny looking vowel with a funny-looking mark, is just fake.  His name really was Goering, and the Germans just wrote it in a funny way that just looked more Germanic on the page.

Longer ago, the German language in German books were rather less, um, Germanic.  I’ve noticed in the past that the spellings in Austrian books in the 1890s are less Germanic than in those produced in the Reich in the same period.  Cologne is not spelled with a K until recent times.  I get the impression that the Germans during the 18-19th centuries must have gone off on a weird tangent.  Probably it’s nationalism or something, but it doesn’t half make their books hard to read.

Thankfully they don’t use Fraktur any more.  I am told that in 1941, in a blow for sanity, Adolf Hitler banned the use of it.   Yes, you read that correctly – we don’t use the words “sane” and “Hitler” in the same sentence that often.  It’s a sign of how mad things had got, that Hitler was the voice of reason.  Today I believe that the modern German governments have been trying to simplify, getting rid of the double-s, and things like that.  It must be welcome.

But all the same… how about all those umlauts really being just an abbreviated lower-case letter “e”?  I bet bands like Moeterhead and Doekken would have been really annoyed.


13 thoughts on “Let’s kill all the umlauts!

  1. Now that’s interesting. I knew the thing about Hitler. He wanted German literature and scholarship available to a wider audience. Even in something sane there was a propaganda motive.

  2. Well, we also have “umlauts” in french ( we call them “tréma”) , and in fact they are not completely useless…

  3. The trema is still the “e” today. It’s just an antiqua printing convention. People say that it developed from mediaeval Kurrent writing, but even the ancient Romans already used i.a. two short vertical strokes (”) for e in their cursive handwriting. When Germans today write with their hands, they normally don’t use the trema, they still use the old cursive “e” (the double stroke) on top of the vowels, very similar to a double accent aigu, and in fluent writing it’s often still the Kurrent-style (conjoined) e, though not as jagged due to modern writing tools.

    But you are correct… “Goering” or even “Gœring” instead of “Göring”—while not hyper-correct, because the latter is how the name is mostly spelled in official documents—is A-OK. It also happens the other way around, e.g. crazy Germans writing “Cäsar” instead of “Caesar”. Yuk.

    What you should never do, however, is write “ss” instead of “ß” (unless you’re a crazy Swiss), because it directly modifies the pronounciation. The above “zuliessen” is actually a tricky case, with the original written as “zulieſſen”, using a double long s (ſſ), which (being Fraktur) is normally incorrect, because the majority Fraktur form was long s plus z, i.e. the ſz ligature. (I assume, however, that Fraktur rules might allow ſſ following a long double vowel like “ie”.) At any rate, the transposition is into Antiqua, and the alternative there would be the deprecated “zulieſsen”, which emphasizes the combination of long & unvoiced “s” consonants, now replaced by the modern ligature ß: “zuließen”. But “zuliessen” would be a misrepresentation of both the original text above and its actual pronounciation.

  4. The Umlauts were originally a small e placed above the letter for pronunciation purposes, because the vowel had a sound shift in certain uses. So the name Froelich is the same as Fröhlich. For some early printers, it was easier (cleaner look?) to do the two dots thing than print a small e above the letter.
    See this for a short history, which you may already know: https://www.babbel.com/en/magazine/the-history-of-the-umlaut-and-the-diaeresis-and-how-to-pronounce-them

  5. You can use the Umlaut or to write the scriptio plena, that Is:. Ä= ae , ö=oe, ü=ue , it’s the same and perfectly acceptable in thé german use.
    As for thé sanity of Hitler, thé reason for dropping the use of Fraktur in those war times Is simply that It was discovered that the Fraktur was an imitation of the hebrew alphabet made in the past centuries! Horrible dictu!

  6. When Germany became a unified country in 1871, Fraktur became the official typeface of the government. However some German writers preferred using Roman type, particularly in scientific writing, and by 1891 about 40% of German books were in Roman type. A proposal to replace Fraktur with Roman type as the official typeface was defeated in 1911.

    Fraktur continued to be used to write and print German until 3rd January 1941, when use of Fraktur in public offices was forbidden as it was declared to be “Judenlettern” (Jewish letters).

    Since 1941 Fraktur has continued to be used to a limited extent, mainly for decorative purposes such as newpaper mastheads, in Germany, Norway, other European countries, and in the USA.

  7. ^ That’s correct… in a way… there was never an argument of Hebrew imitatio, but simply anti-Jewish sentiment… see the article here: https://www.welt.de/geschichte/zweiter-weltkrieg/article223623708/Schwabacher-Judenlettern-Als-die-Nazis-ihre-Schrift-hassen-lernten.html … Bormann invented the claim that the Schwabacher was used by Jewish publishers, who allegedly had hijacked the printing business after its mediaeval inception. In reality, nobody apparently knows the real reasons why Hitler made that decision. The official explanation was just anti-Jewish myth & propaganda.

  8. See “Fraktur” in wikipedia, note n.10 with the original edict by Bormann

  9. I have been taught that the marks of (Swedish) 〈åäö〉do *not* come from Hebrew Tiberian vocalization or from the Western system of Syriac vocalization, where two horizontal dots represent /eː~æɪ/, and a circle represent wau /w/, respectively. I feel radically unconvinced. :]

    For my lect (Scanian) ö is rarely if ever used for older 〈oe〉 as we hardly have any words with that sequence, but for 〈au〉[aʉ] and 〈y〉[̯ʏy], for example from Gothic: aukan > öka ‘increase’, laun > lön ‘wage’, hauhs > hög ‘high’. So, it would be nice to go back to Gothic orthography as it matches Scanian pronunciation. I don’t think it will happen in our lifetime, though.

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