December 9, 1998
Pablo R. Garcia wrote:
I've noticed, seemingly only in "The New Yorker" magazine, that words such as "preeminent" or "reevaluate" carry double dots (as in German) over the second "e." I assume that this is for phonetic emphasis, and is quite clear in its intent, but I have only seen this in that particular magazine. Is this a stylistic issue? Where else (or when else) does this appear?
The double-dot symbol (¨) has two different functions in English; or perhaps more properly the same orthographic form (¨) represents two different symbols.
The symbol (¨) in German is called an umlaut. It is used over a vowel to indicate that the sound of the vowel is different; a vowel with an umlaut is pronounced more towards the front of the mouth than one without. In English, German umlauts are often replaced with an e following the umlauted vowel; thus the name of the German field marshall and Nazi leader Hermann Göring is often written "Goering" in English. The significance and development of the umlaut in German is beyond the scope of our discussion.
The other symbol having the form (¨), the one that's the focus of your question, is called the diaeresis (or, chiefly in American English, dieresis). The diaeresis over a vowel indicates that the vowel is to be pronounced separately.
This has two manifestations in English. It is used on a vowel that might otherwise be silent to show that it is pronounced, virtually the only example being the family name Brontë, pronounced "BRAHN-tay," not "BROHNT," which you might otherwise conclude if it were spelled without the diaeresis. Usually, though, the diaeresis is used on the second of two adjacent vowels to indicate that the second one is pronounced separately. Thus, naïve, pronounced "nye-EEVE," not a one-syllable word rhyming with dive; coöperate, not pronounced as "KOOP-er-ate"; preëminent, not pronounced as "PREE-min-ent," and so on.
The diaresis is increasingly uncommon in English. Words that can take it are written without it (naive, cooperate), or with a hyphen separating the vowels (pre-eminent). The New Yorker staunchly adheres to this declining orthographic form, but it is often mocked for doing so. It is a stylistic decision, but using a diaeresis often marks a person as a real fuddy-duddy.
The word diaeresis is first found in an early-seventeenth-century dictionary. It is from a Greek word meaning 'a division'.
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