Thursday, May 12, 2011

Umlauts and their friends

Jakob Johann von Uexküll was one of our greatest biosemioticians. With a name like that, you’d probably end up a biosemiotician too. His son Thure did, a chip off the old block he was, and he wore his kull umlaut with pride. Something happened with the third generation, however, a family rift in miniature, it appears: Jakob von Uexküll’s grandson and namesake seems to have lost his umlaut. Where did it go? We know that he studied at Oxford — was it stolen there? Did Jakobjuniorheimerschmidt (his name is my name too) lose it at a boat race? What happened?

Well luckily Jakob is currentlly rumoured to live in London, my own place of residence, so all I would have to do is pay him a visit and ask him, straight-forward like, ‘Where’s your dots?’ Why, I could go this very day. Unfortunately, I know neither where he lives nor where he works, and even if I did, I am very shy, and would most likely be unable to sum up the courage. So I will just guess, and Jakob, if you’re out there, write me a note, will you, and tell me whether I’m close here.

I love a good umlaut myself, particularly over a ‘u’, its natural mate. Looks like eyes and a nose, doesn’t it? Surely you don’t think that passed the Germans by, do you? I also like the sound it requires you to make: ‘euh’, approximately. Fitting, isn’t it, that this is pretty much how you would expect a person to pronounce EU? I’m just typing aloud here, people.

Apparently the ‘diacritical mark’ for umlaut proper is known as a ‘trema’, but really, who gives a toss about that, except for the fact that it could also be a slangy word for an earthquake — but they don’t really have earthquakes in Germany, do they? So let’s move on (except to add that the word ‘trema’ comes from the Greek for ‘orifice’. Creepy, right? I mean, so an umlaut is a symbol for a double orifice. I don’t think we’re talking about nostrils here, and if it’s eyes they’re on about, then you can forget it. My eyes are not holes, not yet anyway, and I’d like to keep it just like that, lest we forget what ‘vowel’ rhymes with.).

Perhaps Jakob the Younger was won over to the side of the diphthongs. He’s a writer, you know. And there is a familial parallel between these two stories, you realize. In a distant age, all vowels were one vowel, and all manner of things was well in the land of light. But there was a terrible rift the details of which history will not release from its grasp, and they split into five (and sometimes a mystical sixth), eventually becoming English. The vowels in this new language were sometimes wedded, and became known as diphtongs, but never again would they know the Edenic unity of their unknown, shared past. Meanwhile, back in Germanic lands, the vowels grew wary and suspicious, and some began to don a pair of eyes in order to keep watch over their new enemies.

I’m winded now with the effort of regaling you with the sad tale of the broken vowels. Jakob, get back to me when you have a moment.

[From the bowels of Knits a stinK.]

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