The umlaut is the word used to described the two dots you sometimes see above the letters a, o and u in German. On a German typewriter keyboard there are separate keys for all these letters with umlauts and they are considered separate letters. It’s not just a u with two dots on it, it is a “ü”. To the German ear it has a distinctly different sound to a normal u. In the IT world, before umlauts were possible, you would represent a ü as ue – so the name Müller is usually written as mueller when it is part of an e-mail address.
Sometimes the use of those two little dots can completely change the meaning of a word. For example Küchen means kitchens. But Kuchen means cake. The rest of the world doesn’t really get this. Writing an umlaut on a computer means I have to find some weird symbol hidden in a menu somewhere so I just ignore it. As far as we are concerned, Müller is Muller – pronounced like a Yorkshireman might say mullet, but with an r. Some sports presenters will attempt to have ago at the correct pronunciation by saying Mueller and pronouncing the first bit of the name like mule. But this is also wrong – the correct pronunciation lies somewhere in between and is difficult to get right if you are a non-native speaker (I haven’t mastered it).
When I was in Manchester Airport last week I noticed that the departures screen obviously didn’t have an umlaut option. The flights for Düsseldorf were shown as Dusseldorf. Most people probably didn’t give this a second thought. But my daughters were on the ball, and thought it was very funny. Let me explain…
Dorf means village in German. I am not sure what Düsseldorf, correctly spelled, means but I do know what Dusseldorf means. A Dussel is a stupid, slightly awkward and somewhat clumsy person. It’s not a nasty word and I can’t think of a direct translation for it but perhaps an affectionate use of the word “idiot” isn’t too far off. So Manchester Airport was announcing the departure times for flights to Idiot Village. I am sure the residents of Cologne like to read this – they have a traditional rivalry with Düsseldorf.