May 4, 2020

In Praise of the Diaeresis

I recently encountered a Facebook post that collected several English language quirks. One of my favorite items asked whether the “s” or the “c” of “scent” is silent. (Think about that one.) Another noted that you can drink a drink, but you cannot food a food. (Likewise, you can exit and exit, but you cannot entrance an entrance.)

Most of the observations in the post were clever, but I found one upsetting:
Why are Zoey and Zoe pronounced the same but Joey and Joe aren’t?
By normal English orthographic rules, one expects that the final “e” in “Zoe” should be silent. Thus, “Zoe” should be pronounced as though it were rendered as “Zo,” which, of course, is not pronounced the same as “Zoey.”

There are people named Zoe who pronounce their name using a single syllable. Most people named Zoe, however, pronounce their name as though it were spelled “Zoey.” Other folks render their name as “Zoë.” This last spelling, I assert, is the correct one for the common two-syllable name.

The two dots above the “e” in “Zoë” are not, as some assume, an umlaut, an identical-looking diacritical mark much used in German. English readers most often encounter umlauts in German names, for example, Schröder or Müller. The umlaut indicates that the vowel over which it sits is pronounced differently than it would be in the absence of the diacritical mark. Generally, the sounds indicated by umlauts represent sounds absent in ordinary English. One of the skills one must learn in a German course is how to pronounce these modified vowels. It does not come naturally.

What the unlaut-looking mark in Zoë is is a diaeresis. Rather than telegraphing that the indicated vowel is pronounced in a special fashion, the diaeresis signals that it is to be pronounced individually, rather than being silent or being a participant in a diphthong. Thus, Zoë is pronounced Zo-e. Diaereses are uncommon in English, but the crop up in familiar names such as Chloë and Brotë. Noël, naïve, and naïf may all be seen with diaereses, though the mark is sometimes dropped.

Americans are not fond of odd symbols creeping into their spelling. Thus, words like “rail-road” becomes “railroad,” and “e-mail” becomes “email,” an abomination an electronic neophyte might be tempted to pronounce em-ail. Likewise, “naïve” may be simplified to “naive” out of ignorance, laziness, or inability to render “ï” using a keyboard. Words with which we have become familiar tend to lose their diacritical marks in most writing. Thus, we have the familiar spelling of “cooperate,” which, according to normal English pronunciation rules should be sounded as coop-er-ate. Through repetition, we have learned to ignore the fact that the spelling of this word is actually goofy. The New Yorker and I—and practically no one else— always render this word as “coöperate,” which, I proudly assert, is the only literate spelling. (“Co-operate” is an acceptable alternative for the diaeresis-phobic.)

Although it is seldom called into action, the diaeresis is useful for clarifying how words are to be pronounced, and it is a shame when they disappear. It is worth noting, however, that there are words that would seem to demand the diaeresis but which have never had one. Why isn’t “aorta” written as “aörta”? The answer probably is that “ao” is not recognized as a diphthong, making a-or-ta the only reasonable pronunciation. Tragically, “preaortic“ is also a word, over which the medically naïve might easily stumble.

I conclude with some thoughts about another word. In the world of e-commerce—please, God, do not let this word become ecommerce—one sometimes pre-orders an item such as a book. With increased usage, this word may become “preörder” and, finally, “preorder.” You have likely seen this final form already. Shouldn't the word really be “preörder”?

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