Thursday, January 26, 2017

Zoe vs. Zoë: Or, Not a Lot of Umlauts

We begin today's post with a shocking discovery, which we're going to address, then pretend I never made.
What I've always thought was an umlaut is actually a diaeresis.
Take a few deep breaths if you need to.
These two diacritical marks are typographically expressed the same way, that is, two dots over a vowel, but are meant to indicate two different types of pronunciation. The umlaut occurs often in the German language and lets the reader or listener know if, for instance, someone is saying schon (already) or schön (beautiful), two different words. Here's a stereotypical German husband (husbands in Germany are ready to go before their wives, too) telling his wife she's making them late by saying, "Lass uns gehen. Du bist schön, schon!" (Let's go. You're beautiful, already!)
A diaeresis, on the other hand, is meant to show when to pronounce the second vowel when two vowels appear side by size, as in Zoë.

Umlauts and other accent marks

My Zoe's name is not spelled with this accent mark. Which is something you might not know because I don't think I've ever used accent marks in any of my previous posts. Mostly because I assumed I wouldn't be able to do it. That's how I roll---on a wheel of technological knowledge that dates from the invention of said wheel.
I think most accent marks in English words are superfluous. If you don't know how to pronounce naive or cafe without the accents over the "i" and "e," respectively, then I have no pity for you. There, I said it. 
Of course, people often behave in ways that thwart my finer sensibilities, and so it is I've met those who, upon reading Zoe's name, pronounce it: Zō, with a long "o" sound (indicated by the line above the letter called a macron). There's even one person who pronounces her name Zoo.
Even so, I eschew the umlaut.
And, yes, here's where we forget all about "diaeresis" because it sounds like something biological that happens if you have too much or not enough water in your diet, and let's just say umlaut because it's a more pleasing word.
I don't use umlauts or most other accents in my writing, not just because I'm lazy but because, as I've said, I think people should be able to pronounce words from context or just life. However, because I work in publishing, I often must use them, and I admit I delight in knowing all their names.
Shall I list the most common accents? Is that your heart I hear beating wildly in anticipation?
First is the acute accent, which looks like a line over a vowel that starts low and angles up to the right. Here's an example: 
"If a white girl orders a PSL in a Starbucks café, is she a cliché?"
(Yes. Sorry, me. I'm afraid it's true, but don't let it stop you.)
The accent mark that goes the opposite way, i.e., a mark that starts high and angles down to the right is called a grave accent:
"Stepping on a Lego, the mother cried, 'How is it this blessèd child has cursèd my life?'"
(Upside, there are no Legos in the grave---non-accent meaning.)
Then there's everyone's favorite, the party accent of piñatas and jalapeño poppers, the tilde, as in:
"I love piña coladas. However, I'd prefer not to get caught in the rain."
Next up, the circumflex, which looks like a vowel got chilly and decided to wear a little hat .
"Chapeau means hat and yet the similar word château is the one with the circumflex."
(The Husband says he thinks the circumflex also looks like a tiny roof so that's fair.)
Finally, I really like the word cedilla even if I refuse to use one.
"Did that pretentious guy just ask for a soupçon of vichyssoise? His education is a façade."
There are many other accents besides these, but they mostly involve other languages.
Now, for the pièce de résistance, I will share a brief tête-à-tête between me and Z, my raison d'être, my cause célèbre, my bête noire.
The other night, I waited for a break in her long scientific exegesis on whether it's possible to have diarrhea while vomiting, and when she finally paused I said, "Zoe, I have a very important question for you. Do you prefer your name with an umlaut or without?"
"Mommy," she answered slowly, after giving the matter the same amount of thought she gave to her scatological musings, "you can call me anything you want, just don't call me late for pie à la mode."
Touché, Zoe, touché.

Zoe: 154; Universe: 0
If you enjoyed this post, you may like this one, 
in which Zoe confronts all things phonics.

For more of Zoe's hijinks, follow me on Facebook and on Twitter at @zoevsuniverse
I need a win here, people. 

Hasta mañana (but really semana), click here to subscribe.


  1. Loved this. Thank you. My daughter's name is Zoe and has always been called out as Zo. Teachers, doctor's office, really anyone who doesn't know her. We get really excited when some one actually says it correctly. I started feeling that maybe we should legally change the spelling and add a "y". She decided against it. We are just going to add the two dots.