dieresis: was RE: Scilla maderensis

Jim McKenney jimmckenney@starpower.net
Fri, 01 Jul 2005 19:17:40 PDT
The two little dots on the e of Autonoë are an example of what is known as
dieresis. Don't confuse them with the umlaut. A dieresis is typically used
to separate (in pronunciation) the two vowels which make up what under
ordinary circumstances would be a diphthong. (For the curious, an umlaut
changes the sound of the vowel it governs.)

During my lifetime, the preferred spelling has shifted from the older
diaeresis to dieresis. The word literally means "to divide" or "to tear

In textbook Latin, the letter combination oe is a diphthong and represents
the English sound oi as in oink. When it is written oë, the o and the e are
to be pronounced separately. Thus, Autonoë is (or should be) a four syllable
word, not a three syllable word. 

I think, but I'm not sure and will check, that the use of the dieresis is
optional in formal botanical nomenclature. Europeans are more apt to use it,
probably because the underlying sound changes it signifies agree with the
way their languages work. Not so English. 

Note that the letter combination oi is not a diphthong in Latin. If you are
coining a new Latin word and want to indicate the English sound oi, you
write oe. Also, in Latin and latinized words with this letter combination,
the oi is not pronounced oi as in oink, but rather as the o sound followed
by the i sound. This is almost universally ignored in spoken English, with
the curious exception of the word coitus, learning the "proper"
pronunciation of which is an adolescent rite of passage. To have had the
temerity to use the word in the first place, only to be humiliated by being
told that you are mispronouncing it, leaves such a bad taste for most of us
that it no doubt is one reason that the f word is now all but ubiquitous. 

The other related pitfall centers on scientific names ending -oides and
related words. The o and i in these words properly are pronounced
separately, i.e. not as oi in oink. About a decade ago, the editor of a
nationally known gardening magazine printed botanical names with this -oides
ending with the dieresis. For instance, the word abrotanoides would have
been written abrotanoïdes. This is poor form. Why? Because oi is not a
diphthong in Latin; the use of the dieresis in that case is redundant. Had
that editor used the dieresis in the cognate English words, he would, in my
opinion, have been dead right - and hopelessly quixotic. 

As you know, there are loads words in English with the oid ending. Here
again, the battle was lost long ago; most native speakers of English are
clueless about this. Ideally, these words should have been written, for
instance, androïd and pronounced as a three syllable word. An additional
complication is that words like android are adjectival in spirit but are
used as nouns. Remember Alberto's bulboid?

Caffeine and cocaine are similar: they should have been written caffeïne and
cocaïne (i.e. caffe + ine and coca + ine). I wrote "should", meaning that to
do so might have caused them to be pronounced in a way which made their
meaning more obvious - or at any rate nod courteously to tradition. Those
horses have been out of the barn for a long time, too long a time.  

In the English speaking world, the use of the dieresis is obsolescent, both
in everyday English words derived from Latin and Greek and in scientific
terminology. In the English speaking world, the battle has probably been
lost for Aloë, Kalenchoë, Daboëcia, Cloë, Danaë and others. When I made a
wiki entry for Hymenocallis 'Sulfur Queen', I mentioned one of its parents:
Hymenocallis amancaës. On the other hand, its use persists in words of
French origin such as naïve. That's presumably because if we English
speaking people omit it, the French are there to remind us that we can't
spell. Cicero and Homer, on the other hand, have not had much to say for a
few thousand years. But I do remember hearing about a Monty Python routine
which suggested that if the Romans were still around it might be different. 

This obsolescence is presumably why IPNI ignores them. Most botanists and
professional horticulturists I've known have pronounced botanical names as
if they were some weird sort of English. We English-speaking people are very
ethnocentric about these things, and we have a long tradition of being
bamboozled and scammed by things decked out in phony Latin and Greek. We
seem to like it.

Incidentally, what say our Spanish-speaking members about the word amancaës.
Do you pronounce it as a four syllable word as I do, or do you pronounce it
as a three syllable word the way most (I assume) speakers of English do? 

The above gives you an idea of why I think spelling contests are silly.
English orthography is a bag of tricks.  

This could go on and on. 

Jim McKenney

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