Admit it, if you remember the 70/80’s British rock band ELO you might’ve started to hum the posting’s title. I did, and yes, that reveals my age – oh the memories! Ahem, I digress, back to the topic “Umlaut”.
The modern German alphabet consists of the basic Latin twenty-six cardinal letter alphabet. However, there are several Umlaut letters that English speaking people rarely use (if at all): ä, Ä, ö, Ö, ü and Ü.
An umlaut is a diacritical mark consisting of two dots placed over a letter to alter pronunciation. The “ä”, “ö”, “ü” and their uppercase forms do NOT substitute their “ancestral forms” “a”, “o” and “u” though. And to make it even more interesting, they looked differently throughout the centuries.
How did the Umlaut letters develop?
Let’s start with late medieval times. It all started with an “e” placed after a vowel like “a” (like in “hard” or “father”) to indicate a change of pronounciation to ä (like in “bad” or “care”). At that time people mostly used Latin letters and the “ä” was written “ae”. That’s how most people without a German keyboard substitute the “ä” nowadays.
During the 16th century the script changed from Latin letters to the German Kurrent letters. The “e” in Kurrent looks like two vertical strokes starting with a diagonal upstroke and being connected by a short diagonal upstroke.
Over time the “e” became smaller and moved upwards. At first it stayed close behind the “a” until it finally ended up superscripted above the “a”. And because people are lazy they started to skip the upward strokes and simply used the two vertical dashes. And even those were further reduced to dots, no matter whether handwriting or typesetting. Have a look:
That way the Kurrent “e” still left its marks on the modern day Latin letters as the diacritic dash or dot mark over three of our Latin vowels.
Is an Umlaut letter identical with its respective vowel?
No, it’s not. The “ä”, “ö”, “ü” and their uppercase forms are letters of their own.
- They do NOT substitute their “ancestral forms” “a”, “o” and “u” in any way.
- The pronounciation is different.
- They might add a different meaning to an otherwise identically spelled word without an umlaut.
- In any case dropping the dashes or dots will be a spelling error.
Let me give you some examples:
- The verb “fallen” is the English verb “to fall”
while the verb “fällen” means “to fell” or “to cut down”, like a tree for example.
- The verb “nahen” is an old German verb and means “to approach” or “to come closer”
while the verb “nähen” means “to sew”, like buttonholes or a dress.
- The substantive “Bar” is a bar or tavern, the adjective “bar” means “cash” or “cash-based”
while “Bär” is a bear, like a brown bear or polar bear.
The same is true for names. Since 1871 German names have to be written exactly as the clerk recorded them in the Standesamt at the time of birth. They cannot be changed without an official decree (and an extremely good reason to apply for that). So if you have a Muller family, a Mueller family and a Müller family after 1871, they almost certainly are not identical. And even for surnames before that you need to be very careful not to mix up two unrelated families.
But I don’t have a German keyboard…
Yes, that seems to pose a problem to transcribe old German words and names properly if you don’t have a keyboard which is capable of the umlaut letters.
If everything else fails you may transcribe “ä”, “ö”, “ü” as “ae”, “oe” and “ue”.
do NOT make the mistake of re-converting ae”, “oe” and “ue” to the regular umlaut letters again. You see: there is a problem with that! There are quite a few words and names in German correctly with “ae”, “oe” and “ue”! If you mention the cities “Moenchengladbach” and “Moers” in your family history and re-convert those names to “Mönchengladbach” and “Mörs” you’d be correct on the first – but the second town name would be wrong.
Luckily we live in modern times and don’t have to buy a second typewriter or to fiddle about with a ballpen to produce umlaut letters.
Computer encoding to the rescue! Microsoft Windows for example offers the possibility to create special letters by pressing the ALT-key together with a certain number.
- Ä ⇒ ALT + 142
- ä ⇒ ALT + 132
- Ö ⇒ ALT + 0214
- ö ⇒ ALT + 0246
- Ü ⇒ ALT + 666
- ü ⇒ ALT + 129
How do city directories treat the Umlaut letters?
It would be nice’n’easy if directories had always treated the umlaut letters the same way, no matter what. But actually there are several options to consider if you want to find a certain name in a German directory.
Nowadays most (but not all) directories treat “a” the same as “ä” when listing names, “o” the same as “ö” and “u” the same as “ü”. In earlier times it apparently depended on the opinion of the editor how to deal with umlaut letters in direcory sorting.
Let’s see where you might find a Muller family, a Mueller family and a Müller family.
- Muller: sorted under M-U-L, like Mukich – Muller – Mumpitz
- Mueller (a): sorted under M-U-E, like Muder – Mueller – Muffen
- Mueller (b): treated like Müller, like Mukich – Muller – Mueller – Mumpitz
- Müller (a): treated like Muller, like Mukich – Muller – Müller – Mumpitz
- Müller (b): treated like Mueller (a), like Muder – Mueller – Müller – Muffen
So… if you have a surname with or without the dots, you need to check several places in a directory to be sure you didn’t miss it. Annoying? Yes! But it is necessary for a thorough research or else you might overlook your ancestors’ names.
Do you have ancestors with umlaut letter names? How did you deal with those letters so far? Does your genealogy program support them?