What’s in an umlaut?

This post was contributed by Professor Penelope Gardner-Chloros, Department of Applied Linguistics and Communication

It sometimes seems as if the news is made up of either cataclysmically large or vanishingly small issues. There are quite enough of the former to worry about at the moment, you might think – and the latter – the ‘human interest’ stories – are just there to sell newspapers.

UmlautIn theory, they do not get much smaller than the argument, reported in this week’s papers, which is raging in a small town in Minnesota.

Lindström was founded by Swedish immigrants in the 19th century. The reason for the current battle is that the Minnesota Department of Transportation has decreed that the town name should consist only of ‘standard English characters’. Therefore the umlaut, i.e. the two dots above the o, has been omitted from the sign. The inhabitants are up in arms over this – apparently petty – issue.

It is interesting to look beyond the apparently trivial casus belli and consider the deeper issues at stake. Is it possible that someone in the Transportation Department is ‘anti-immigrant’, or at least very right wing (in European terms)?

They may be a supporter of the ‘English Only’ movement, which argues that immigrants should integrate linguistically. Rather than being encouraged to maintain their language of origin, which linguistic studies have shown time and time again to be beneficial to their OVERALL linguistic proficiency AND to their wellbeing, in some states they are instead obliged to take additional remedial English classes.

In this case, the immigrants in question have long ago been eaten by the worms; the umlaut-supporters are merely symbolically honouring their distant ancestors, and their own origins.

The kindest interpretation of the Department’s refusal to add the umlaut is that they just want an easy life and cannot be bothered with the idiosyncacies of the local population, which necessitate additional signwriting resources. But I suspect the issue is related to their convictions about what it means to be American.

Whichever it is, the importance of the umlaut for the population clearly goes well beyond its tiny presence on the town sign. Like so many linguistic issues, it can only be understood in terms of the link between language and identity. Crush my language, my accent, my alphabet, my name, and you deprive me of my individuality, my history, my sense of belonging to a particular group.

In Alsace under the German Occupation, Jean had to become Hans and François had to become Fritz – on pain of serious punishment. Europeans joining Islamic State change their names to Islamic ones. In this case, a Swedish name which indexes the heritage of the town is being bleached into an English name. Perhaps next year it could have an e added at the end, then why not remove the ‘str’ and replace it with an h? ‘Lindhome’ would sound as American as apple pie.

Of course none of this matters a single jot compared with the big issues in the news – until you start to realise that language is one of the main ways in which our identity is expressed. Languages, words, names – and people’s expressed wishes about them – should not, and cannot, be swept under the carpet – or painted out on signs.

Find out more about Professor Penelope Gardner-Chloros

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