Krouzek displaces umlaut as Americans’ “most charming diacritic”
25 August 2011
Chalk it up to heavy metal: Americans have long poured out long-distance affection for the umlaut. From Motörhead to Spinal Tap to Bill the Cat’s Deathtöngue (from the late great strip, Bloom County), Americans have imported and used the umlaut incorrectly for decades, even going so far as to create t-shirts to express their delight with this diacritic.
So imagine linguists’ surprise upon discovering that the kroužek (or ring) had become more popular. Public opinion polls from numerous agencies had shown that it had risen sharply in popularity since 2008. For the first time this August, polls from Gallup, Rasmussen, and the Pew Research Center showed that the kroužek had finally topped the umlaut in popularity.
Why the kroužek? Explanations have evaded academics. Some professors have claimed that Americans must be far more attached to Czech literature than previously known. “I always knew that Růžena Svobodová and Petra Hůlová had far more US fans than those Amazon rankings might indicate. Just wait: the haček will soon rise in popularity as well,” trumpeted Latoya Washington, one of only four Czech language and literature professors who still have academic jobs in the United States. “This sends a strong message to budget-cutting presidents that Czech must remain in course catalogues!” she continued.
Other language professors expressed exasperation. “The tilde’s on their goddamn keyboards and in their computer programming languages, yet Americans can’t give it a little love? What about the Spanish upside-down question mark?” fumed Spanish teacher Teodora Mirčić, who blames the relative unpopularity of all Spanish-language diacritical marks on their widespread use within US borders. The frequent appearance of those marks, Mirčić explained, had “de-exoticized” them such that Americans now take them for granted.
Vietnamese language professors concurred with Mirčić’s opinion, but predicted that the kroužek’s popularity would be short-lived. “If Americans want exotic, they’ll soon abandon Eastern European diacritics in favor of East Asian ones,” proffered one professor who asked to remain nameless, explaining that if her name appeared in a news story with a prediction that failed to prove true, she would not get tenure at her university. “Take the ‘hook’ from Vietnamese,” she continued. “Now that’s exotic — and really kind of fun to write.”
If this professor is correct, her insight may mean that Americans are developing new and abiding affections for diacritical marks in general; witness the “diacritic” mug available for sale online, which combines many marks in various incorrect usages designed to charm American coffee drinkers.
Yet professors of popular culture studies have waved aside all this wrangling between language professors. “I’ve conducted limited polling myself, which clearly indicates one reason alone for the rise of the kroužek: actor Alexander Skarsgård, who plays the vampire Eric in True Blood,” explained Đặng Trần Điểm, who teaches the course, “Watching TV Now” at Penn State University and watches the HBO series with a group of other middle-aged female professors every Sunday night. “I mean, c’mon. He’s six-foot-fucking-four, he’s a bad boy, and he’s a vampire. Of course the kroužek has displaced the umlaut. Who wouldn’t vote for that chest? I mean diacritic, or whatever you called it.”
Is she right? If so, this story ends with one final irony. Skarsgård is Swedish (and the son of actor Stellan Skarsgård), and the Swedes and other Scandinavians do not consider the letter with a ring above it to be a diacritic at all but its own separate letter. Thus, opined one Danish language professor, “Americans are so stupid as to think Skarsgård is spelled with a diacritic. Morons.”