Touch. Couch. Cough. Course. Croup. Are we having fun with our overburdened vowels yet? I could ask how you pronounce “route,” but I think you see the point: We use only six letters to represent some 16 different vowel sounds. That’s what we get for borrowing it all from European languages.
At least we left it to the Europeans to carry on with their goofy umlaut. “Their, umm, what?” you might ask. That’s the two-dot diacritical mark above a vowel. With “naïve” and “coöperation” being our most common exceptions, they’re seen very rarely on this side of the Atlantic. Or that’s what I thought before I looked closely at some of the product names on my latest trip to the grocery store.
I found a yogurt-fruit shake with the uncapitalized name “früsh,” made in nearby Iredell County. “göt2b,” a hair-care product from California, utilized similar lack of capitalization, while a sinus wash kit called “Lavï” from a company in Tulsa, Okla., went with the title case. A Colorado woman named Lara (yes, she has no umlaut) Merriken invented a granola bar named “Lärabar.” Lara goes nuts with umlauts, if she’ll pardon my pun, in naming what is evidently a high-octane version of her product, the Lärabar Über. Here, she’s added the German word for “over” to the name, but it’s still sourced in Colorado. Lastly and not yet on the shelves but coming soon from Burt’s Bees of Durham is a new product line named “güd.”
So, what’s with all the, like, umlauts, dude? I address my question to the closest 20-something because most, if not all, of these products seem aimed at the younger crowd. Polygrip and Depends and other such items targeted for the older demographic seem to get by without the umlaut. They also appreciate proper capitalization, but I’m not here to sound grump.
Instead, I’m going to make an educated guess: This trend in giving domestic products faux European names began in 1960, when Polish immigrants in the Bronx developed not only super-premium ice cream but what they hoped was a super-premium-sounding name. Pleasantly dactylic and assonant, Häagen-Dazs was the ice cream man’s attempt at something Danish, though to me it looks more like Hungarian or Turkish.
In these pages, a critic recently reviewed a hotdog restaurant named FireWürst. It’s closer to German than Häagen-Dazs is to Danish, though it’s neither the singular Wurst, “sausage,“ nor the plural Würste. But let’s hope that their wieners follow the “Danish” dessert in rising to levels of marketplace success that transcend linguistic exegesis.
All of these products make me wonder if the umlaut will become part of our backlit, 1080p language? Will we all have to learn how to type them? Consider the obsolete orthographic and grammatical artifacts surviving in “Ye Olde Antique Shoppe.” The umlaut could become a similar cultural artifact, a diacritical dinosaur femur for future philologists to decipher. Or it might live on to help out our hard-pressed vowels. That would be fine, I suppose, as long as we don’t get carried away with it.