Umlauts of Berlin, Part 1: Ü

It was madness to think that a single blog post could convey the fantastic diversity of Umlauts in Berlin … so we’ve decided to celebrate the Umlaut over the course of three posts, each devoted to a different umlauted letter. This week we start by exploring the strange and mesmerising world of the Ü.

The word Umlaut does not refer to the two dots above a letter – that particular diacritic is known as a diaeresis – but rather to a linguistic process by which a vowel sound is lengthened or modified so that it comes closer to the sound of a different vowel. The process has been a part of spoken German for centuries and it has been necessary to represent those distinctive sounds in writing.

The simplest way of denoting that a vowel has been modified is to place an ‘e’ immediately afterward: thus, ‘a’ represents the standard sound, while ‘ae’ is the umlauted version. The extra ‘e’, however, functions more as an accent than a vowel unto itself, and in handwritten German it was not uncommon to use a smaller superscript ‘e’ – sometimes placed directly on top of the modified vowel – rather than wasting valuable space with an extra letter.

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The superscript E, suspended in the U.

Over the past two centuries, the diaeresis has become the most common way of expressing an umlauted vowel. Although the ‘ae’ form is still completely valid and not infrequently used – there is a record shop not far from Berlin Typography HQ with a section devoted to LPs by the band ‘Huesker Due’ – the ‘ä’, ‘ö’ and ‘ü’ forms have established themselves as cornerstones of the written language and are, for many, what people think of when they think of Umlauts.

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Two dots above the U … about as classic as it gets.

This cursory linguistic overview is necessary to understand the tremendous variety of Umlauts that appear in the world of German typography. The two dots or the extra ‘e’ should be viewed not so much as unquestionable rules, but as mere guidelines. So long as the modified vowel is distinguished in some way from the regular vowel, pretty much anything is fair game, and on even a casual stroll through Berlin, one will find small dots, large dots, double lines, single lines, horizontal lines, rabbit ears, water droplets, googly eyes and, well, the list goes on.

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If you’re a plumber, and your name is Müller, the water-droplet Umlaut is a natural conclusion.

In blocks of printed text, the convention is to have the diaeresis simply float above the vowel at a consistent height. But in shopfront signs, station platforms or any situation where line-spacing is an issue, it is often necessary to make the umlaut fit in or around the letter. This is where the individual letter forms begin to pose different challenges to the type designer.

Unlike the A and O, which taper upwards at the top leaving room to fit dots around the side of the letter, the U is more of a pedestal, reaching its full width at the top. It is a perfect place for an umlaut to perch, but when a word needs to fit within a confined space, it is not uncommon for the height of the U to be lowered, so that the dots can make up the remaining space.

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There is no room for the Umlaut to extend above the U, so the U is lowered to make room for the Umlaut.

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Here the dropped U arises more from aesthetic choice than physical constraint.

Yet the U also has a large space in the centre which can (and often is) pressed into service as a vessel for diacritics.

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There is enough space within the U for two sharp triangles.

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The Umlaut fits inside the U with geometric precision.

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Here the serifs act as a barrier, trapping the dots inside the U.

Serifs can also complicate matters, and it is not unheard of to remove the inner portion of the serifs to accommodate an umlaut.

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Anyone trying to place an umlaut inside (rather than above) the U of a fat or highly condensed typeface may discover that there is only enough room for a single dot or even sometimes a single thin line.

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The single dot Umlaut.

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A condensed face can call for a highly compressed Umlaut.

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In extreme cases there is only enough room for a single narrow line.

On printed or painted signs, or lightboxes where the letters are cut into metal, it is easy enough to place an Umlaut above the vowel. But when a letter is transformed into a physical artefact for the purposes of, say, a neon shopfront sign, there arises the problem of how to make the Umlaut appear to be suspended. This is a problem common to all the umlauted vowels, but the U offers a very specific set of structural possibilities.

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The Umlaut is held aloft by two recessed pieces of the same material used to construct the sign.

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In this brutalist example, the Umlaut is held in place by a concrete bridge.

When the letters are mounted on a wall, it is of course possible to mount the umlaut separately. But when the letters are freestanding, or when an illuminated Umlaut needs to be connected to the power source of its parent letter, other solutions become necessary.

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The Umlaut is connected to the U to allow for the uninterrupted flow of the neon tube.

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The neon tubes emerge from a bridge constructed across the top of the U.

These are some of the physical constraints that help to determine the form of the umlaut, but the umlauts of Berlin are just as strongly influenced by the whimsical, often flamboyant spirit that permeates all the city’s typography. Even at its most basic, a well-handled umlaut will elicit a nod of respect; at their best, umlauts are perhaps the most inexhaustible of Berlin’s typographic pleasures.

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The lightning stroke approximates the two dashes of a handwritten Umlaut.

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The U has been lowered, yet the Umlaut still sticks its head above the parapet.

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There would have been enough room for two lines, but there is something not inelegant about keeping it to one.

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Umlaut mitosis.

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Zero points for effort on this one.

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Two dots of uneven size.

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Blackletter Us need diamonds for dots.

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The googly eyes didn’t come with the Umlaut, but they make a fine addition. By the way, does anyone else remember the song ‘Barney Google, with the goo-goo-googly eyes’? No? Ok.

If you don’t already, you should follow us at @Berlin_Type on Twitter, for your daily dose of typographic goodness from Berlin.

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