Monthly Archives: April 2015

Minnesota’s Umlautgate

The post comes from my Big Show pal David Leveille.

The Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton issued a quirky executive order on Wednesday concerning the spelling of the name of the small Minnesota city of Lindström (population, 4,442).

Somehow, it seems when highway crews last updated the road signs leading into town, they removed those little twin dots that hover over the O. Lindström became Lindstrom. The transportation department defended the decision, citing federal policy that highway signs include only letters in a standard alphabet.

The omission wasn’t much noticed, though, until a Minneapolis Star-Tribune reporter spotted it. Soon enough, many of the town’s Swedish American residents were up in arms. They wanted the dots restored to reflect their heritage.

Keep in mind that the city of Lindström is nicknamed America’s Little Sweden. Many locals speak Swedish when buying Scandanavian donuts at the local Swedish bakery. A sign near the city center reads “Välkommen till Lindström.”

So on Wednesday, the governor predictably set things right by ordering the umlaut to be put back on the green highway signs that welcome tourists. “Nonsensical rules like this are exactly why people get frustrated with government,” Dayton said. “Even if I have to drive to Lindström, and paint the umlauts on the city limit signs myself, I’ll do it.”

“Underbar, and that means wonderful!” said local historian and tour guide Sally Barott reacting to the governor’s order. “We are ecstatic he’s making the umlauts come back.”

Barott says the dots affect the pronunciation and, more importantly, express the region’s cultural history and link to Swedish immigrants. “It’s important,” she says. “We have the old and the new. The blend is happening all over America, but I believe being able to retain our history and cultural ways, and to recognize and be traditional, honors the way we were taught and the way it was meant to me.”

Barott regularly escorts tourists around the city that was founded by Swedish immigrants back around 1850. One of her favorite stops is the Lindstrom Bakery where she orders Swedish glazed donuts and Swedish gingersnaps, called pepparkakor.

The Lindstrom Bakery does not use  an ö in its name. Go figure. (Photo courtesy of Lindstrom Bakery)

The Lindstrom Bakery does not use an ö in its name. Go figure. (Photo courtesy of Lindstrom Bakery)


Those gingersnaps have likely just come out of the oven, thanks to baker Bernie Coulombe, the woman behind the counter.

“This is a Swedish town. It has always been known for the Swedish settlers who first came here. So it is important to our customers and people who live here,” she explains. She says the town proudly shows off its heritage to tourists with a statue of Karl Oskar (a character in Vilhelm Moberg’s novels about Swedish emigration to the United States) that honors the early Swedish immigrants. There’s also an old water tower that’s in the shape of a coffee pot and a small Lutheran church that’s “strictly Swedish.”

But Lindstrom isn’t just hanging onto the past. “This is the way we were brought up, this is our Swedish inheritance, and you’ve got to keep your inheritance going,” says Coulombe.

This case of what might be called Lindstrom’s “umlautgate” is on the radar of The World’s language editor Patrick Cox. “Generally speaking English is thought of as the language where diacritics go to die.” All of the accents and the dots usually disappear, he says.

“America is the place where when you come to America, you sort of drop your clothes from the Old World and you embrace the New World. Names, surnames get changed, also the names of towns and cities get changed, and generally speaking the accents go.” But keep in mind, he says, “there are no rules in the English language right? I mean nobody’s going to stop the governor of Minnesota from saying ‘throw in some Cyrillic letters if you want to do that.’ He has every right to issue a decree like this.”

Strictly speaking, the Swedish ö does not use an umlaut. It is considered a separative letter in the Swedish alphabet. The umlauted o is a German thing.

But if you want to learn more about the linguistic difference between Lindstrom and Lindström, or the distinction between an umlaut (which has its origin in German) versus the happy twin dots that show up in Swedish words, and hear why rock bands ranging from Blue Öyster Cult to a Ukrainian band named Flëur like to play with umlauts, then you really must listen to Patrick’s podcast, The World in Wörds.


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The play Lincoln was watching when he was assassinated was both British and American

Photo courtesy of Finborough Theatre

Photo courtesy of Finborough Theatre

Get ready to hear this tired joke a few times: “Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you like the play?”

April marks the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. The president who won the American Civil War and abolished slavery has rarely left public discourse since then, but the play he was watching when he was killed has largely vanished. You could say it died, along with the famous guy who was watching it.

But this year, “Our American Cousin” is back.

There are several current revivals of the play, including one in Britain — the first production there in more than a century. And that’s significant because it’s a British play. Sort of.

“It was originally written to have the English laughing at Americanisms,” says Lydia Parker, director of the new production of “Our American Cousin” at the Finborough Theatre in London. “Then it became very popular in America.”

Solomon Mousley,  Kelly Burke and Timothy Allsop in the Finborough Theatre's production of  "Our American Cousin," by Tom Taylor.

Solomon Mousley, Kelly Burke and Timothy Allsop in the Finborough Theatre’s production of “Our American Cousin,” by Tom Taylor.

Parker told the BBC that the play started life as a melodrama with a few laughs, mainly at the expense of a naïve but earnest American character. But later, as Broadway beckoned, the play was rewritten as a comedy in which Brits became the objects of mockery.

The play’s 1858 run in New York lasted five months, which was almost unprecedented at the time. It was still going strong in other cities, including Washington, DC. That’s where Lincoln saw it in 1865, just days after the end of the Civil War.

The plot, such as it is, deals with an English family living in the countryside. They receive a visit from a long-lost American relative by the name of Asa Trenchard, who doesn’t shower and uses words like “skedaddle” and “sockdologizing.” British audiences viewed him as coarse; American audiences warmed to his honesty.

“It’s a silly play, entirely predictable,” says Adam Smith, a Lincoln historian at University College, London. Nonetheless, he found the London revival “really fun.”

For one thing, audiences get the chance to witness what made people laugh 150 years ago. One especially pompous English character tickled the American funny bone: Lord Dundreary. Smith says Dundreary is a “ridiculously stupid” caricature of a man, “with a lisp … and great big sideburns.”

All the additional laughs contained in the American version became helpful props for John Wilkes Booth, Lincoln’s assassin. As an actor, he was familiar with the play and knew when the audience would be laughing the most — and that’s when he pulled the trigger. The laughter covered up the cries of Mrs Lincoln.

“It’s that wrench from hilarity to astonished agony that’s incredible,” Smith says. “Has there ever been a leader assassinated while 1,500 of his fans were in fits of hysterical laughter?”

That’s also the biggest problem confronting today’s producers of the play. Most audiences know the scene, and anticipate its arrival with a mix of curiosity and dread. It’s difficult to focus on the comedy.

Smith applauds the Finborough Theatre’s approach to the scene: A female character lets out a farcical scream, just at the moment when Mrs Lincoln was said to have screamed after her husband was shot.

But however you play it, it’s awkward.

The London production of “Our American Cousin” is now sold out through its last performance on April 14. That’s the anniversary of the play’s most famous performance.


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2017 will be a big year for Martin Luther, father of the German language

We will be hearing plenty about Martin Luther over the next two years, as Germans gear up for the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation in 2017.

Luther is best known as the father of the Reformation. But he also wrote anti-Semitic screeds that were extreme—even by the standards of the time. In addition, he revolutionized the German language.

Before Luther, there was no single German language but a series of dialects. Two were dominant: Upper German and Low German. As a child, Luther lived on the linguistic borderlands that divide the two. His family moved back and forth across the boundary several times.

The first page of the Gospel of Matthew in the 1524 edition of the New Testament with a colored woodcut by Georg Lemberger. (Paul K via Wikimedia Commons)

The first page of the Gospel of Matthew in the 1524 edition of the New Testament with a colored woodcut by Georg Lemberger. (Paul K via Wikimedia Commons)


“He was totally bilingual,” says Alexander Weber, a linguist at Birkbeck College, University of London. “It’s a stroke of luck in terms of the development of the German language that the key figure [of the Reformation] would actually be able to address an audience in Low German and Upper German.”

Luther’s bilingualism allowed him to create a national language. But his genius was in his colloquial turns of phrase. Before him, the Bible was a theological text. His translations transformed it into everyday language.

“This language has a new purpose, to speak to everybody,” says Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum, which recently staged an exhibition of German cultural history. MacGregor wrote and hosted an accompanying podcast for the BBC.

Macgregor says Luther’s translations turned the New Testament’s gospels into “conversations you might overhear: Jesus speaking as a German carpenter to German fishermen.”

“He listened to the man in the street, the woman in the kitchen to the child playing,” says Lutheran theologian Margot Kässmann. “Still today…our language is really Luther’s.”


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