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The Ündeniable Ümlaut

The English language has plenty of quirks, but accented letters aren't among them: no tildes, circumflexes, breves, or cedillas for us unless we're borrowing a word like "façade" or "doña." That dearth of diacriticals hasn't stopped quite a few brands from accessorizing their names with dots, slashes, and lines imported from other alphabets. In general, there's no linguistic rationale for the accents: they're simply sprinkled on logos like pepper on gulyás or cherries on Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte.

Of all the orthographic garnishes to be found among American brands, the most popular by far is the umlaut, the double dot that's common in German, Turkish, Swedish, and Finnish — and nonexistent in English. We can't help wondering: What's üp with that?

Most sources trace the American fad for gratuitous umlauts back to Blue Öyster Cult, the rock band founded in 1970 in upstate New York. According to the band's Wikipedia entry, the music critic Richard Meltzer suggested the umlaut "because heavy metal is Wagnerian." Motörhead followed suit in 1975 ("I only put it there to look mean," the group's lead singer said of the umlaut); the double-umlauting of Mötley Crüe, formed in 1980, is said to have been inspired by the label on a Löwenbräu beer bottle. These "metal umlauts," or "rock dots," were spoofed in 1984 by the parody band Spinal Tap, whose Gothic logo contained an umlauted N.

Languages with umlauts over consonants aren't unheard of, but they're rare. Usually, an umlaut appears over a vowel to change its sound. Indeed, "umlaut" means "sound shift" in German; the word was coined in 1774 by a poet, Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock, and popularized in 1819 by Jakob Grimm, the linguist and compiler of German folktales.

The heavy-metal umlauts were intended to make the bands seem more Teutonic and menacing. But Häagen-Dazs, the ice-cream brand founded in 1960 by a Polish immigrant to the Bronx — and bought by food giant Pillsbury in 1983 — had a friendlier goal. The name was invented "to convey an aura" of "old-world traditions and craftsmanship" — specifically those of Denmark, despite the fact that the name is meaningless in Danish (which lacks an umlaut) and all other Scandinavian languages.

This foray into "foreign branding," as advertising researchers now call it, was so successful that umlauts became almost de rigueur for the frozen-dairy market. Häagen-Dazs unsuccessfully sued one competitor, Frusen Glädjé, to stop it from using a Scandinavian marketing theme. (Spelled without the acute accent, Frusen Glädjé actually means something in Swedish: "frozen happiness.") Frusen Glädjé subsequently disappeared, but umlauted dairy-brand names proved to have staying power. Freshëns ("fuël for the body and mind") opened its first soft-serve-yogurt shop in Atlanta in 1985; Yogen Früz was founded in 1986 in Toronto and now operates in 25 countries.

The umlauted U offers a special advantage to brands: in logos, it can look like a smiley face.

Füd, a vegan restaurant in Kansas City, Missouri, and Güd, a new brand of lotions and hair products from Burt's Bees, also turn their logos into smiles — a long way, conceptually, from the threatening glower of Motörhead. For an even bigger semantic leap, you can't beat Söfft, a footwear brand (based in Greenwich, Connecticut) that stands for — well, softness, along with vague promises of "European design." The umlaut, like the double-f, is simply there to attract your eye.

European-ness is also the message of Seäsonal, an Austrian restaurant and "weinbar" near Carnegie Hall in New York City. "Seasonal" is an English word; the ä is a semaphore that announces the cuisine's provenance without, one hopes, affecting the pronunciation. (What would that pronunciation be, anyway? "See-eh-so-nahl"?) And Melōränge, a new variety of melon developed by a Dutch company, exoticizes its logo with an umlaut and a macron — neither of which occur in the Dutch alphabet.

The diacritical marks may make for spiffy logos, but they have a downside: they don't show up in the web address, and they're rarely reproduced in newspaper stories. Sometimes the brands themselves don't bother with internal consistency: Bed|Stü, a footwear brand meant to evoke New York's Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood (but based in Southern California's Ventura County) appears variously in web copy as BED|STU, bed|stu, Bed|Stu, and Bed Stu.

YogaMöm magazine's logo has not just an umlaut but a yin-yang symbol; thankfully, both symbols are absent in text.

While umlauts are the most popular way to give a brand name a little orthographic oomph, they aren't the only accent marks on the shelf. Børn Shoes, a brand of men's and women's casual footwear, has no apparent Scandinavian connection other than the slashed vowel: the brand shares a parent company with is Söfft. In Danish or Norwegian, "ø" is pronounced something like the "i" in "bird," but I've never heard Børn pronounced in any way other than "Born." As for its intended meaning, the company's website is mum.

Curiously, one rising brand with a legitimate claim to the umlaut has chosen not to use it. That brand is Uber, the on-demand car service currently serving San Francisco, New York, and six other cities. Although the name was clearly taken from German über — literally "over," and in US slang "very" or "really" — the company has chosen to Anglicize the orthography. In a world of gratuitous umlauts, that's uber-impressive.


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Nancy Friedman is the chief wordworker at verbal-branding consultancy Wordworking, and the author of a fine blog on naming, branding and more called Fritinancy. Nancy has named a venture-capital firm, a laser hair-removal device, a mobile-money service, and many other companies and products. A former journalist, she still writes or ghostwrites articles, speeches, white papers, and books. Click here to read more articles by Nancy Friedman.

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Comments from our users:

Thursday January 19th 2012, 2:20 AM
Comment by: Mike P. (Seattle, WA)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Of course, umlauts (or more specifically, diaereses) are used in English by the uber-fussy to indicate a hiatus: coöperate, naïve). Anyway, I look forward to a follow-up article someday on the use, or misuse, of accent marks in brands that are intended to evoke something French or Spanish.

A question that maybe Ben can address is whether "uber" (sans umlaut) has won enough of a beachhead in English that it can be added to brand names without any umlaut-foolery.

Incidentally, your point about the limitations of diacriticals in URLs is one of the reasons that Waterstone[']s has given for dropping the apostrophe from its brand. (Sort of; the apostrophe is of course not a diacritical.) And an aside for the indicidentally is that this limitation is in any event changing, because ICANN has approved the use of Arabic and Chinese charaters in domain names -- in effect, this means that browsers now have to accept Unicode characters in URLs.
Thursday January 19th 2012, 5:37 AM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)Top 10 Commenter
I always wondered why I was taught early on to use the umlaut in words like "co-operation"...it certainly wasn't for brand recognition!
Another great, exhaustive article!
Thursday January 19th 2012, 10:51 AM
Comment by: Kristine F.Top 10 Commenter
Thanks for a very interesting and well-written article, Nancy! Your last name qualifies you to launch the discussion (even though it looks as if your family lost that other final n along the way!)!

Having lived in Germany for a while and studied the language there (and back in the states in H.S. and college), and having many other fond connections to the country, I find the fake umlaut uberobnoxious. It feels manipulative, pretentious, dishonest and ridiculous ... "all hat and no cattle." These companies don't have to be ashamed (we are discussing spelling here, not homicide) but they should at least be very embarrassed. Come on, people - schtop it!

The Happy Quibbler
Thursday January 19th 2012, 6:56 PM
Comment by: Lily T. (Mesilla, NM)
Cheers for the umlaut!!! With a dad like mine who is well studied in Russian, German, French, Austrian, and a bit of Italian, I know all about the wonderful umlaut and its many wonderful properties.
In the matters of the fake umlaut, I agree with Kristine F.-it IS "uberobnoxious" and it kills off the genuine use of the REAl umlaut.
Umlauts forever, I say!
Thursday January 19th 2012, 8:04 PM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)Top 10 Commenter
I have always been in favour of the umlaut.
But a problem unrelated raises its ugly head. Why does the spelling software insist on the British spelling when I use my little, folding, iPad keyboard (it's a HiPPiH mfg. from Apple)?
Friday January 20th 2012, 10:53 PM
Comment by: Fiona W. (Portland, OR)
ü
Saturday January 21st 2012, 7:50 AM
Comment by: Orin Hargraves (CO)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
The next thing I'll look for is a celebrity who uses a faux umlaut in his or her name. But this might be a hard sell for common folk, because you've got the problem of answering "would you spell that please?"
Sunday January 22nd 2012, 11:49 AM
Comment by: begum F.Top 10 Commenter
I am so amazed reading this column. A great research indeed!
Approximately twenty years ago, one day I asked my supervisor (who was a Ph.D professor) about the Double Dots on German names on articles (any category). I remember he answered in this way, " Do not worry about those dots, those are simply German culture."
Since then, it was an unsatisfied curiosity. I never asked that question to anyone again.Now I know, Germans,Turkish or Swedish people use those to make a "Sound Shift" in their words in a sentences.
Ms. Nancy's this column is so precious to me that I can not express it by writing any congratulatory remark.
All the VT column writers are my favorite persons.
Wednesday January 25th 2012, 5:51 AM
Comment by: Juan Jose Hartlohner (Madrid Spain)
Nancy,
You missed to mention that spanish too uses the Umlaut, “diéresis”.
So a stork is a cigüeña in spanish and the “u” is pronounced separately from the “e”.

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