Some of the residents of Lindström MN, did not even realize that the umlauts were gone.
For decades, the cheerful twin dots had hovered over the “o” in Lindström on the green highway signs that welcomed visitors to the small hamlet—population, 4,442—that had been settled by Swedish immigrants in the 1850s.
After a highway project in 2012, the signs came down and were replaced with new ones. According to a city official, the Minnesota Department of Transportation denied the town’s request that the umlauts remain, citing a rule that road signs have only letters in a standard alphabet. So in a change that irritated some Sweden-adoring people here, Lindström became Lindstrom.
But in an announcement that was indignant, a little quirky and very Minnesotan, the governor intervened on Wednesday, releasing a statement that promised that the umlauts on the signs would be restored, and fast. “Nonsensical rules like this are exactly why people get frustrated with government,” Governor Mark Dayton, a Democrat, said in the statement. “Even if I have to drive to Lindström and paint the umlauts on the city limit signs myself, I’ll do it.”
Lena Norrman, a lecturer for Swedish and Scandinavian studies at the University of Minnesota, said that linguistically, the loss is significant. “These are not just two little dots,” said the Swedish native. “It’s a significant letter with its own sound. You can’t just take them away.” She added that while the term umlaut is often used, many linguists consider the “ö” in modern Swedish to be a distinct letter.
(The New York Times generally uses accent marks only with French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese and German words and names. It does not use them for Slavic, Scandinavian and other languages that are less familiar to American editors and readers, as such usage would more likely lead to errors.)
Minnesota wears its Scandinavian roots proudly, serving traditional foods like lefse on holidays, decorating homes with handmade Nordic crafts and cheering for its Vikings in football. Nearly one in three of the state’s 5.5 million residents claim Scandinavian roots.
In Lindström, 40 miles from downtown Minneapolis and surrounded by lakes, the Swedish influence is unmistakable: a blue-and-white water tower near the highway bids visitors “Välkommen till Lindström.” The town was named after Daniel Lindström, its founder, and it still receives 3,000 to 4,000 visitors from Sweden every year.
Vernon B. Lovdokken, an optometrist in Lindström, said he recalled, many years ago, “mentally making a note” of the umlauts in the highway signs.
“I thought that was kind of neat because you don’t see that very often,” he said. “Then I remember seeing that they weren’t there anymore.”
John Olinger, the city administrator, said that he did not see the umlaut situation, which became widely known in the town after The Star Tribune ran an article on Sunday, as funny or trivial. Restoring the umlauts, he said, “is a gesture of something we respect, our history. For us, history is important. We had a major contribution from a country, Sweden, which helped build us.”
But he acknowledged that it was easy to make fun of the umlaut. To American eyes, it can appear superfluous or just silly. In an essay in The New Yorker in 2010, Nora Ephron riffed on the ubiquitous umlaut in “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” conjuring a scene in which Mikael Blomkvist shows up at Lisbeth Salander’s apartment seeking help for an umlaut-related malfunction on his laptop. (“I need my umlaut,” Blomkvist said. “What if I want to go to Svavelsjö? Or Strängnäs? Or Södertälje? What if I want to write to Wadensjö? Or Ekström or Nyström?”)
Kevin Gutknecht, a spokesman for the Minnesota Department of Transportation, said the department would be “happy to make the change.”
“It’s a very easy fix,” he said. “We can probably do it within a week.”
Julie Bosman is a national correspondent covering the Midwest for The New York Times.
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PS: Lindstrõm got it’s umlauts back. Mark Dayton, as the scion of one of Minnesota’s wealthiest families, is used to getting what he wants—but as the governor of the state, the highway department scurried to keep him happy, too.
The only hitch is, according to language experts at the University of Minnesota, all the fuss hasn’t been about umlauts at all. In the Swedish language, the letter Ö is not an O with an umlaut over it. An umlaut is a modification of an existing letter, in the German language, to indicate a sound change. In Swedish, it’s a completely separate letter.
”Just because something looks like an umlaut does not mean it is one,” said Anatoly Liberman, a professor in the German, Scandinavian and Dutch Department at the University of Minnesota. “This is not a letter with an umlaut on it like it would be in German, where it’s considered a version of an ‘o.’ In Swedish, the ‘ö’ is a specific, distinct letter of the alphabet.”
Swedish uses the same letters as English, but adds three more: “Å,” “Ä,” and “Ö.” They follow “Z” in the Swedish alphabet.
You learn something new every day.