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.
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.
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.
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.
Yet the U also has a large space in the centre which can (and often is) pressed into service as a vessel for diacritics.
Serifs can also complicate matters, and it is not unheard of to remove the inner portion of the serifs to accommodate an umlaut.
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.
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.
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.
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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