Douglas G. Wilson douglas at NB.NET
Thu May 3 06:57:20 UTC 2001

>... (Englishspeaking people seem to have difficulties in understanding
>that in languages like German, Swedish, Danish, Norwegian or Finnish, the
>letters "ä, ü and ö" signify vowels in their own right - Finnish for
>example does not know any "umlaut" at all) ...

Talking about orthography here, and not so much linguistic history,
phonology, etc. ....

Are "é", "è", "ê" in French also "vowels in their own right"?
Theoretically, there is no reason one could not consider them so: they
often distinguish words, they often distinguish sounds ....

Is "æ" in Danish simply an equivalent of "ae" (as it is in modern English,
I think) or is it a "vowel in its own right"? Theoretically, one could take
the Danish vowel as an alternative way of writing "ae", or one could assert
that there is an uncommon vowel "æ" in English ....

The test I would use: how are these treated in native dictionaries, etc.?
I.e., how do native users alphabetize things? The Danish dictionary uses an
alphabet a, b, c, ..., z, æ, ø, å, so apparently Danes consider "æ", "ø",
"å" to be distinct letters. Swedish is similar. But the German dictionary
does not distinguish "a", "o", "u" from "ä", "ö", "ü" respectively in the
ordering of entries, so I would say that Germans consider an umlauted vowel
to be a form of the naked vowel, rather than a "vowel in its own right".
Similarly the French dictionary ignores diacritical marks in ordering --
there's a section for "e", but none for "é" -- so Frenchmen apparently
consider the marked "e"s to be forms of "e" rather than separate letters.
[Maybe there are other dictionaries which do things differently, but this
is my experience.]

Others can propose their own tests ....

Finnish is different, of course, with "a" <--> "ä", "o" <--> "ö" [, "u"
<--> "y"] on the basis of "vowel harmony" rather than ablaut as I
understand it, but -- as in German and Scandinavian -- the pair of dots
characterizes a fronted vowel which often has a systematic relationship to
the unfronted naked version; e.g., "a" in an inflectional suffix becomes
"ä" when the suffix is attached to a word containing front vowels. So is
Finnish "ä" a form of "a" or a separate letter? My answer: look in a
Finnish dictionary and see whether these are distinguished in alphabetization.

In German or Finnish or Romanized Chinese the pair of dots generally
denotes frontedness, so I think the term "umlaut" -- referring to the
*orthographic* feature -- is satisfactory (assuming one is speaking *in
English* about these languages), taking the more superficial sense of the
word "umlaut". In French or Spanish or English the pair of dots generally
denotes not frontedness but separateness, so I think "dieresis" is the
correct term. In some other cases -- e.g., "ë" in Russian or in "Brontë",
promiscuous dotting in rock-group names or H. P. Lovecraft -- I don't know
what is correct ... but I would say "umlaut". (¨^_^¨)

-- Doug Wilson

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