You’ve probably seen a lot of umlauts in your lifetime. They’re common in German, and look like this: ö. Those two little dots over a little vowel. English of course also has an identical diacritic, the diaeresis. But I already told you that. What I want to look at today though is the umlaut, and one type of umlaut in particular: the metal umlaut.
Even if you’ve never heard of the metal umlaut, you probably know what I’m talking about. Blue Öyster Cult. Motörhead. Mötley Crüe. A lot of metal bands have used umlauts in their names as a stylistic device to give their name a more Teutonic look. The thing is though, they’re not really using umlauts.
Of course! you say. You’ve already told us that in English it’s called a diaeresis. Well yes, but no. That’s not why. Let me explain.
In German, an umlaut changes the sound of a vowel, like accent marks in French. The word umlaut in fact effectively translates into changed sound or sound shift. A diaeresis in English indicates that a second vowel in a pair is pronounced separately from the first.
But the mark in all those band names isn’t performing either of those functions. It’s just decorative, so strictly you could say it’s not really either an umlaut or a diaeresis: it’s purely visual.
And that’s fine of course. They’re free to do whatever they want with their own names. It strikes me as a very Anglophone thing to do though (though there are bands with other mother tongues who use the umlaut similarly). Apart from a few loanwords, we only use the diaeresis as our sole diacritic, and even then it’s used quite rarely. So we get a bit liberal with other language’s diacritics. Sure, why not throw an umlaut here, or an accent grave there: they look cool, don’t they?
Well yeah, but if you’re a pedant and a bit of a language snob like me, it seems a bit rude, and arrogant to just use aspects of other languages casually without considering how they’re supposed to be used. But I don’t really want to complain too much: live and let live! Still though, if you’re in a heavy metal band, remember that not everyone will assume your umlauts are purely decorative.
I read recently that when Mötley Crüe played in Germany for the first time, they were quite surprised when, before going onstage, they heard the crowd shouting Mutley Cruh! Mutley Cruh! Their German fans you see, had never conceived of an English-speaking band using umlauts without also changing the pronunciation of the vowels involved!