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Two Dots and an Umlaut

Where did that (ä ë ï ö ü) spelling come from?



If you learn German, you learn about umlaut. Same with Swedish, or Finnish or Hungarian and other languages.


I’ve explained how to pronounce them before, but what about the spelling? Why did people start putting two dots over the vowel?


As these umlaut sounds arose in German, Germans needed some way to write them, and what they settled on around twelfth century was to add an -e: ae, oe, ue. This was helped along by the mediaeval Latin spelling < ae > (aesthetic, archaeology etc.); < ae > went from being pronounced like ‘I’ in Caesar’s day to something like “eh” in the Middle Ages, much the same as ä, and if you umlaut a to ae, why not o to oe, u to ue?

You’ll still see that spelling if a German needs to type their name on an old keyboard with no umlaut, or in crossword puzzles, or in the occasional conservatively spelled name:

the German Shakespeare Wolfgang von Goethe

the recently prominent Robert Mueller (Müller = miller) or Boehner

the corporation Weyerhaeuser (Weyerhäuser)


To save space, medieval scribes would often write the e over the vowel, and critically, the medieval spelling of little < e > tilted until it was just two upticks in a row:


The only distinction between e, n and u was that e had two upticks mashed together, n had two upticks further apart, and u was like n but with a dip written over it. In this diagram, you see the progression: ae in Latin, then in medieval German, then the e is tucked atop the a, then the two upticks become two dots, and voila, the two-dot umlaut.


Do not be surprised to see a single dot or even an e over the vowel, that occasionally shows up even into the 1800s. I have encountered it even in rural Norway of the 1800's, even though ø had become the norm.


One thing to bear in mind is that other languages use a double-dot over a vowel to mean entirely different things! Greek invented a double-dot, diaeresis or trema, to tell you not to merge that sound into the preceding one, and it’s still in use in many languages: Noël, naïve, Chloë, coöperate (! for those so punctilious in their spelling!), etc. Sometimes it is used just to indicate that the letter is not silent, as in Charlotte Brontë. Earlier, German did occasionally use actual diëresis in names like Zaïre, and to this day in a few names: Piëch ("PEE-eshh"), von Loë, Noëlle (feminine of the name Noël), so you might seen even these double-dots in an old family letter.



schoen > schőn > schön ('good-looking')

 

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