Sunday, March 22, 2009

Umlaut. Trema. Interpunct.

Today I was reading this article by Malcolm Gladwell, published in The New Yorker, in which I saw the word reexamine typed out like reëxamine. Among English speakers, perhaps because there are so few words in English with the "two dot" accent, this accent is commonly misunderstood as a (German) umlaut:

The word umlaut is the name of a type of sound shift in spoken language (phonological umlaut) and of the diacritic mark used to represent it orthographically.... The phonological phenomenon of umlaut occurs in English (man ~ men; full ~ fill; goose ~ geese)... but English orthography does not write the sound shift using the umlaut diacritic. Instead, a different letter is used. Link.

So, if English were German, instead if writing man and men, we'd put an umlaut over the a—män—to represent the different vowel sound, men.

However, in the above example, the accent in reëxamine is not an umlaut, but a diaeresis, or trema. (As I understand it, the trema is typographically smaller than the umlaut, although I have yet to find a source to verify that since its origin is Scandinavian and English ASCII unfairly lumps umlauts and tremas into one keystroke.) The trema is different from an umlaut in that it signifies that the accented vowel should be pronounced separately from the letter preceding it, e.g., naïve, or Emily Brontë. This is why my daughter's name is not spelled Zoey, but Zoë. They are pronounced the same, but without a trema, Zoe would rhyme with toe, not Joey.

Anyway, when I saw "reëxamine" in a mainstream article, I immediately wondered if it were correct, or simply a house style mandated by a haughty Fifth Avenue editor. A Google search returned this wonderful gem, wherein I learned about the interpunct.
22 Jun 2006, 12:44 PM | Archaic Punctuation

I saw this spelling of reexamine in the New Yorker this year. I want to say to the editor, for real, dude? You are spelling reexamine with an umlaut? It's like: Oh. My. Gawd.

Isn't this just an example of pretentiousness gone waaaay too far?

The New Yorker actually mandates this usage in their style guide, along with such wonders as "The New Yorker mandates that authors must coöperate to reëducate our readership." As well as zoölogy, coördination, and so forth. They also point out that the umlaut is no umlaut in this usage but is rather a diaeresis.

The correct punctuation mark to use when breaking up things in this way is the interpunct, or punt volat. It's used in Catalan to distinguish between the standard doble ela 'll' and the ela geminada l·l. This is exactly the same purpose,— to prevent letters from coalescing into a phoneme;— such as these common cases of double letters that could, possibly, be interpreted as a long vowel sound, if read by a space alien who had never read the New Yorker, and was not yet very familiar with English: “Ree-cha-mee-nay, what is that?”

The interpunct reads and flows better, it is not a distraction, people are used to it, and it does not bring the sentence to a screeching halt as it desperately calls attention to itself. Use it well. On the Mac, opt-shift-9 summons the interpunct.

"We, the punctuative literate, ask that the board re·examine its mandate that authors should have to co·operate in re·educating their readership." Link.

I prefer the interpunct to the trema, although I disagree that the interpunct is "correct" English usage. To my knowledge, it's still only used in Catalan for the meaning he posits here. So the author's argument doesn't hold, in my view—even an interpunct would "bring the sentence to a screeching halt as it desperately calls attention to itself."

And besides, no matter how much I love trash-collecting robots from the 28th century, there's not a damned chance in hell my daughter's name will ever be Zo·e.


Anonymous said...

What is wrong with a dash?


Anonymous said...

What is wrong with a dash?


Pantalones said...

A dash is too easily mistaken for a hyphen, whereas neither the umlaut or trema are used commonly in English. The dash also has another regularly used function of connecting words that split between lines on a page.