Diacritic midges

Today’s One Big Happy:

Those itty-bitty dots are a diaeresis, a diacritic that has largely disappeared from use in English-language materials, except (famously) in The New Yorker.

Mary Norris in a 4/26/12 piece in The New Yorker, “The Curse of the Diaeresis”, beginning:

The special tool we use here at The New Yorker for punching out the two dots that we then center carefully over the second vowel in such words as “naïve” and “Laocoön” will be getting a workout this year, as the Democrats coöperate to reëlect the President.

Those two dots, often mistaken for an umlaut, are actually a diaeresis (pronounced “die heiresses”; it’s from the Greek for “divide”). The difference is that an umlaut is a German thing that alters the pronunciation of a vowel (Brünnhilde), and often changes the meaning of a word: schon (adv.), already; schön (adj.), beautiful. In the case of a diphthong, the umlaut goes over the first vowel. And it is crucial. A diaeresis goes over the second vowel and indicates that it forms a separate syllable. Most of the English-speaking world finds the diaeresis inessential. Even Fowler, of Fowler’s “Modern English Usage,” says that the diaeresis “is in English an obsolescent symbol.”

But her magazine persists.

From the Wikipedia entry on the diacritic:

Examples include the given names Chloë and Zoë, which otherwise might be pronounced with a silent e. To discourage a similar mispronunciation, the mark is also used in the surname Brontë. It may be used optionally for words that do not have a morphological break at the diaeresis point, such as naïve, Boötes, and Noël. However, it is far less commonly used in words such as coöperate and reënter except in a very few publications — notably The New Yorker.

As for Chloë and Zoë, they now appear most frequently without the diaeresis, but bearers of these names (and parents giving these names) are free to use it or not. So: in Ruthie’s friend’s household, the name is Chloë.

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