A.K.A., “The Umlaut Story.” Told Feb. 23, 2014 at the MN Encyclopedia Show, Kieran’s Irish Pub.
First, I am so delighted. I just had a bowl of hot cheese, overheard that the famous scene from the “Warriors” where Luther from the Rogues calls out the eponymous gang was improvised, and found myself surrounded by cunning linguists. I’ve also been billed as an “expert.” As an editor, I suppose that’s true. Sometimes I do like to talk about grammar and punctuation in public. I’m just not used to the rebuttal portion.
Anyhow, I want to be real, you guys. The umlaut is not punctuation. I’ll give you a second to recover. The question that follows, naturally, is why am I here, at the Encyclopedia Show on punctuation night, talking about umlauts? Easy: sibling rivalry. But we’ll get to that.
Let’s get the whole “What the hell is an umlaut?” thing out of the way. It’s a diacritical or accent mark. Beyond that, as a not-so-inspiring Greek professor once said of Greek on the first day of Greek, the umlaut is “unknowable.” Luckily, we can’t fail at the umlaut—or, it turns out, at Greek. The professor told us all we’d get As or Bs. If we got a C, it was, and I quote, his indication that we should never attempt Greek again.
But I digress. The umlaut. How to capture the umlaut? Like a wave upon the sand. Why yes, that was a “Sound of Music” reference.
I asked a few friends how I should approach the topic tonight. Most replied, “No seriously, what the fuck is an umlaut?” It’s those two little dots over the vowels in Nordic words, for starters. (That, by the way, is an “air umlaut,” the forward-facing “air quote.” It’s catching on.) Now the umlaut is usually used just to show that two consecutive vowels should not be pronounced together and to lend Ikea items a certain gravitas. It’s replaced the adorably-named tiddle, and sometimes I think it’s a weird sort of super-passive-aggressive colonialist remnant, because it tends to displace whatever interesting accent mark other languages have simply because Americans can’t be bothered to figure out the keystrokes for the real thing. This would be the point at which my friends glazed over. They lovingly tolerate me.
But they did give me some suggestions for tonight’s show. These included: play Hüsker Dü for seven minutes. Say Hüsker Dü for seven minutes. See if you can create a super awesome DJ mix of Hüsker Dü, Motörhead, and Motley Crüe (which, come to think of it, might be pronounced Crew-ie) that lasts about seven minutes. Play said super awesome DJ mix while silently constructing a small but complex piece of Ikea furniture and wearing a black shirt with white pasties. When the music stops, triumphantly present the Skjörn-kübben, or whatever weird ass bookshelf-cum-bunkbed I’ve just made, and throw down the Allen wrench in mic-drop triumph.
My friends are rad, but perhaps not super helpful in this endeavor. So, short form: the umlaut is typography’s snake eyes. Two piercing little dots that can mean just about anything. For the awesomely fuddy-duddy New Yorker, pretty much the only major publication that still uses umlauts, it’s put to service in helping readers parse words like naïve and coöperation (lest you think, say, Russia and the U.S. are kindly working together to keep some chickens—yes, that’s a coopin’ joke). Everyone else (give or take Williamsburg) is over the umlaut. It’s like they think we’re running out of pixels.
I, however, am NOT OVER IT. Let’s get back to that sibling rivalry. Look, my brother and I are closer than most. He’s nearly six years older than me, and he spent a good portion of our youth raising me as a sort of single parent in some years of feral-boxcar-children livin’. This isn’t to say we didn’t have an overly privileged youth, because we did, just not one with a lot of… oversight. He took great care of me. For every Spin Doctors CD I brought home, he made sure there was a PJ Harvey disc and a tape of “Dope, Guns, and Fucking in the Streets.” He introduced me to computers as early as possible, setting me down in front of a Kaypro and a Commodore 64 and skipping my 7th grade band concert—good move, brother, I was not a talented flautist—to set up the first computer that was wholly my own (a Mac Classic, for the record).
Together, we grew up with a degree of parity, somehow making a whole, pretty rad person. As I like to say, he’s got the good hair, I’ve got the good figure. About even. He’s got serious boyscout skills—he can not only make a fire, he can tell you the city codes regarding how close that fire can be to a permanent structure. I… can type real fast. He can teach you the etiquette around receiving a knife as a gift (you have to pay for it, as it turns out); I can teach you how to properly employ a semicolon. He’s got street smarts and marketable skills. I’ve got a lot of degrees in the humanities. We’re good. We’re balanced. We love each other.
Except. Björn, as it turns out, has an umlaut. That fuckin’ guy!
I didn’t know until maybe a decade ago. He’s just Bjorn to me. We both got named carefully, in that our mother didn’t like our last name, Christianson, but was convinced that we’d grow up to be writers (apparently she thought he was New Yorker quality, Mr. Fancy with the umlaut and all). But so, she gave us names where we could remove the last name and still sound “like writers” (those are air quotes, not to be confused with the “air umlauts”, by the way). I’m Letta Wren, he’s Björn Skye. We both got silent letters, which is pretty cool, and, again, kept things equal.
Until I saw an announcement of my brother’s birth B. J. O. TWO DOTS. R. N. What in the good goddamn? He’s had an umlaut all these years—mysterious, slightly hard to type but incredibly distinguished dots—and he’s been so privileged, so casual, he’s just been all “Eh, I don’t need it.” I repeat: this fuckin’ guy.
He rolls the snake eyes, then just walks away. That’s how cool my brother is.
Another guy with an umlaut in his name once wrote a book in which he said of my brother, “Bjorn was a snarky blonde.” Really? He may be snarky, but he’s certainly not blonde. And if you’re gonna talk shit about my big brother, the man who made me play goofy-ass big man Larry Bird in Lakers versus Celtics computer basketball, the man who made sure my first show was Fugazi when I probably wanted to see Counting Crows, the man who helped me turn our backyard into a “mud bath” after reading a particularly awesome National Geographic issue, the man who has parented me and kept me out of trouble and gotten me into trouble and taught me how to joust with Roman candles on bikes? Oh, you’re SURE as hell going to have some respect and use his umlaut. I know Björn, and you sir, are no Björn.