Any similarity to actual German or Swedish words is purely coincidental


Earlier this year, the Advertising Standards Authority (the UK's advertising watchdog) ruled that the use of umlauts in the name of kitchen furniture manufacturer Möben is purely decorative and not intended to mislead consumers into believing that the company is German or Scandinavian. The fact that the name is only one letter away from both the German word ("Möbel") and Swedish word ("möbel") for "furniture" is not intended to mislead but rather is simply a coincidence.

This appears to be a variation of the heavy metal umlaut. (Not to be confused with a diaeresis. I used to use diaereses, but you mocked me so I stopped.) It troubles me to see the umlaut being treated as a decorative element, for it dooms another generation of language students to treating umlauted and non-umlauted vowels as just typographical variations of each other rather than being distinct vowels with different pronunciations. An "ö" is not an "o" with dots over it any more than a "Q" is an "O" with a squiggly tail. Treating umlauts as just decorative dots is sort of the German version of the tattoo consisting of meaningless Chinese characters that "look pretty".

Comments (25)
  1. uber says:

    You mentioned the tattoos of Chinese characters and that reminded me of a time when I saw someone that apparently thought they were getting the ever-trendy character for "strength/power" tattooed on the back of their neck, but one of the strokes was twisted and it actually said "nine."

  2. George Jansen says:

    Perhaps somebody at Microsoft could set a trend for the heavy-metal diaresis, rescuing it from mockery. "The Boökkeëpers" or "Loüd and Obnoxioüs" would be possibilities. Of course, then how would we distinguish them from the heavy-metal umlaut?

    If the generation of language students is learning about umlauts from Motley Crue, then I must agree, it’s doomed. Let’s hope the students really aren’t.

  3. Fred says:

    anyway, you can be Mister Möbel, be english and launch your compagny having your own name.

    Just to say that the british familly is in fact germanic and the Queen could have such a name

  4. Russians and Greeks face even more dire straits:

    • people using Russian ‘Ya’ as a flipped English ‘R’
    • people using Russian ‘F’ as an English ‘O’ with a stick down the middle

    • people using Russian ‘i’ as a flipped English ‘N’

    • people using Greek ‘L’ as an English ‘A’ with a bar

    Bah.:P

  5. Michael says:

    But Raymond, a diaresis looks just like an umlaut. Who’s to say it isn’t a Heavy metal diaresis?

  6. Jonathan Wilson says:

    Then there are all the people using the greek W as an Ohm sign :)

  7. dave says:

    Why single out the umlaut?

    The world is full of idiots who abuse punctuation for effect. There’s "accenture" with a greater-than sign over the "t".  There was the DEC x86-to-alpha translation engine called "fx!32".  AMD with "3DNow!".  And on and on.

    Bah!

  8. HitScan says:

    Well, 3DNow! at least gives the impression of some degree of emphasis. "You can do 3D now!" I’m at a loss on fx!32 though, that’s just silly looking.

  9. James Kew says:

    See also Häagen-Dazs — a completely manufactured name "to convey an aura of old-world traditions and craftsmanship"…

    http://www.haagen-dazs.com/coibrh.do

  10. Gunnar says:

    More than the heavy metal umlauts, what annoys me is when otherwise literate english-speakers get too clever and believe that they can use a diaresis over an o, as in the ‘word’ coöperation.

  11. not a writer for the New Yorker says:

    More than the heavy metal umlauts, what annoys me is when otherwise literate english-speakers get too clever and believe that they can use a diaresis over an o, as in the ‘word’ coöperation.

    I believe the use of the diaresis in that case is intended to echo its use in French, in words like naïve, where it indicates that the two vowels are to be pronounced separately.  These days it does come across as something of a smarmy "look at how educated and high-brow we are" affectation, though.

  12. Cody says:

    Except that naïve is still commonly spelled with the diaresis while cooperation is not.

  13. Mike Dunn says:

    … and that’s The Wørd.

  14. kbiel says:

    >>It troubles me to see the umlaut being treated as a decorative element, for it dooms another generation of language students to treating umlauted and non-umlauted vowels as just typographical variations of each other rather than being distinct vowels with different pronunciations.

    If we are talking about students of English, well, [*shrug*].

    If we are talking about students of German (or other Germanic languages that use the umlaut) then hopefully they are learning the difference in pronounciation between "o" and "ö".  They should also be learning the difference between "o" and "oe" (a perfectly acceptable alternative to the umlaut in situations where the umlaut is not available).

  15. peterchen says:

    This guy has a long list of chinese/japanese tatoos gone wrong:

    http://www.hanzismatter.com/

  16. Chris Nahr says:

    "More than the heavy metal umlauts, what annoys me is when otherwise literate english-speakers get too clever and believe that they can use a diaresis over an o, as in the ‘word’ coöperation."

    Actually they are more "literate" than you can imagine. The use of the diaresis to indicate a separate pronunciation of consecutive vowels has a long tradition in English typesetting that was only recently abandoned.

  17. Gunnar says:

    "Actually they are more "literate" than you can imagine. The use of the diaresis to indicate a separate pronunciation of consecutive vowels has a long tradition in English typesetting that was only recently abandoned."

    I know that. It is just that they should be literate enough to know that two dots over an o turns it into a completely different letter.

    Regarding heavy metal umlauts, the first was in Blue Öyster Cult, where the umlaut over the O is not too much in the way (unless you read it as a diaresis). Maybe they knew what they were doing, but Møtley Crye didn’t.

  18. Einar says:

    Somewhat amusingly, the "Dazs" in Häagen-Dazs evokes, in my Scandinavian mind, an image of a toilet bowl.

  19. Frederic Merizen says:

    "An "ö" is not an "o" with dots over it any more than a "Q" is an "O" with a squiggly tail."

    Oh, I wish I had thought of that explanation when I was trying to convince French learners of German that umlauts matter – French accents (éèêùàâî) are almost decoration and didn’t offer a very convincing analogy.

  20. Georgicus Plimptonicus says:

    "An "ö" is not an "o" with dots over it any more than a "Q" is an "O" with a squiggly tail."

    In German?  In o mit umlaut it considerably more like an o than a Q is like an O with a squiggly tail.  It’s a modified ‘o’.  It’s moved in the mouth, that’s all, and further, it’s moved in the same way all the mit-umlaut vowels are.

    btw headz– coooperation is spelled with a diaresis commonly.  IN THE NEW YORKER!!! Oh, New Yorker, where would we get our laffs without you?  Nice online archives btw.  Psyche.

  21. Wallie says:

    "I know that. It is just that they should be literate enough to know that two dots over an o turns it into a completely different letter."

    In Swedish, yes. In Dutch no. Unless can you see any difference between an umlaut and a trema/diaeresis.

  22. Sudsy says:

    For a good example of diacritics gone astray, head over to your local Ikea store. I’ve never seen so many meaningless Swedish looking words.

  23. sandman says:

    " two dots over an o turns it into a completely different letter.’

    In Swedish, yes. In Dutch no."

    Excatly . The rules are dependent on the langauge. Thats way the ASA’s ruling isn’t completely barking.

    Enlgish isn’t German, so if Moben is an english word then they are decoration – if not they are part of the spelling.

    Seems quite childsish to me. I mean unless the advertises comes with a language type META tag how are supposed to know……

  24. Johan Thelin says:

    Well, in Sweden things moved in the opposite direction a long time ago. Skåska became Skanska to be able to entre new markets easier…

  25. TCLIU says:

    This is something that you just have to be aware of when considering internationalization. In Swedish ö and o are completely different characters – in the sort order, ö is last while o is right between n and p. In German, ö is different, but is sorted as an o (kinda). In Swedish, w and v are considered almost equal in sort order. V is, of course, pronounced F in German. Their neighbors the Dutch pronounce ij as y, and that’s *before* they smoke grass. For French the pronunciation and the spelling parted ways long ago and are no longer on speaking terms. Further south, the spanish pronounce LL as J and J as H.

    What’s the relevance of all this, then? Well, I’ve noticed that when searching for words with these characters on Google, the engine will helpfully treat ö and o the same, which messes up the results, as sometimes the ö is the single distinctive character that separates the extremely uncommon word I’m searching for from some extremely common word.

    So – when trying to decipher intent from what the user types in, be careful about what assumptions you put in, because those assumptions are far less universal than you think (even if they work in close to 100% of the cases in your normal life). If you’re from the US, your program will probably end up inferring what a native English speaker would infer from the user’s typing. Which may or may not be right.

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