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Peter Adler

What strikes me as curious about the use of foreign words with original diacritical marks in printed English texts ("aperçu" is a favorite of mine) is the unevenness with which the original rules are applied. The case of über-whatsis happens to stick in my head as a former student of German. It's become an American middlebrow affectation, since it often combines the German prefix "über" (over) with some American noun. But I have never seen the über- formulation handled as all German nouns are handled, by capitalizing the noun. "überpundit" should be "Überpundit", and "übermensch", an entirely German word, should be "Übermensch". To handle it any differently is like the names of all those extinct punk and metal bands (see: Mötley Crüe): The content-free application of umlauts to indicate foreignness, with complete indifference to their actual pupose.

Perhaps the most important effect of such techno-orthographic trends may be to halt the abandonment of language-specific diacritical marks in the native languages themselves. I last studied German as an academic subject in college, more than 20 years ago; at the time, my favorite wierdo German letter, the ß (pronounced ESS-tset), was being replaced in printed German texts by a double-s (ss), primarily because of the wide distribution of inexpensive American typewriters and the practicalities of setting moveable type. When my German Jewish grandfather typed a letter to friends in Frankfurt or Berlin, he always typed a capital B and handwrote a little tail on it afterwards.


I am a new grandmother, my son's father is Icelandic. I am called amma but am not sure what the correct spelling should be and I really don't want to be spelling it wrong for the next 40 years.

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