Kurt Gödel and Emmy Noether are both prominent mathematicians. And I’m wondering why so many people write Gödel with umlaut but not Nöther. I’ve searched and found here asserting that

Only Noether is correct. She never used an umlaut in her own name, as Goethe never used an umlaut in his.

But then, why do we write Gödel? Is it just conventional or is there any reason I don’t know? Moreover, what do you think is more appropriate, writing with umlaut or with e following after the vowel? I’ve seen somewhere that omitting umlaut can be offensive in some countries, but I’m not sure if that was German. But the same link has also this paragraph:

… the umlaut in German has long been considered an abbreviated form for the same vowel followed by the latter e.

So does that mean rather omitting the umlaut and attaching the additional e is more formal? I’ve learned German before and I was taught that attaching e is only allowed when your keyboard does not support umlauts. I’m totally confused.


What you learnt is correct. You always write the umlaut unless you don’t have it on your keyboard. However especially in names the rules are somewhat flexible. So you might see people using the e behind the vowel instead of the umlaut and if that’s how the name is spelled then the official rule does not apply anymore. This is based on a case by case decision, so the famous Goethe is always spelled with oe however your neighbour might have the last name Göthe. If you want to refer to him you should use the ö, unless the system you use doesn’t allow it.
There is no other way than memorizing these names.

And it’s also true that you should not omit either the two dots or the e. I cannot think of any insulting difference (although I think I read that there are some) but it can change the meaning of a word completely. E.g. nah — close vs. näh — sew.

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    Nowadays the umlauted letters are different letters. Replacing ü by u is no more acceptable than replacing it by y, say. However, the umlauts historically developed out of ue because medieval scribes wrote the e in a tiny form above the u, and the tiny e became two dots. This is why there is an unbroken tradition to replace ü by ue whenever no ü is available. But since ü is a first-class letter nowadays, it may also be used for the sound in words that were never written with ue, and freely replacing actual ue by ü is not acceptable. – user2183 Oct 23 '15 at 6:47
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    Whereas the spellings of names were once completely free and e.g. Goethe is only one of several variants used by a certain 18th/19th century German poet (he also used Göthe and Göte), it is now fixed up to the letter. In Germany (which has stricter name laws than Austria and Switzerland), changing ä,ö,ü,ß to ae,oe,ue,ss in your name is easier than most other changes but still requires proof that the current spelling of your name presents a significant disadvantage to you. – user2183 Oct 23 '15 at 6:51
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    @Taxxi You have to know whether it is supposed to represent an umlaut or not, consider for instance "Statue", "anaerob" or "Aloe Vera". – 355durch113 Oct 23 '15 at 6:54
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    Such transliterations are only acceptable in an environment that does not provide the original umlauts, and those are getting rare today (typewriters come to mind, or perhaps machine-readable passports). Everybody else should use the real thing, and it's really not hard in these days of ubiquitous Unicode support."But my keyboard is QWERTY" really doesn't cut it. – Ingmar Oct 23 '15 at 7:07
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    @Taxxi "implies 'Nöther' is more preferable" -- general preference or official rules carry no weight when it comes to personal names or proper nouns. If a company makes up a word or alters an existing one for a product, that word does not have to submit to official spelling rules and is illegible for transliterations. This is the most liberal case. When we're talking about personal names, the spelling rules do not matter either, and transliteration rules for umlauts are not applicable. (cont'd) – hiergiltdiestfu Oct 23 '15 at 8:19

Proper nouns are not covered by orthographic rules, full stop. That is the essence when asking for why a given person or a given place is spelt the way they are.

Excursion on the use of umlauts

For normal words, the general rule is to have ü for most /y/* sounds, ö for most /ø/ sounds and ä for a certain portion of the /ɛ/ sound. Neither of these rules is entirely strict, as /y/ can also be represented by y (Zylinder) and ö can also be represented by eu (Chaffeur) in words of foreign origin. The spelling of most words is fixed, i.e. *Zülinder is as wrong as *Blyte and *Chaufför (or *Schofför) is as wrong as *Geheur would be. (The former works better, because y can only be /ü/ or /i/ whereas eu is usually /oi/.) There are a few exceptions such as Friseur/Frisör in which two spelling variants are possible, but only for very common loanwords.

It is debated but possible that the umlauts derived from some shorthand form of e above a preceding vowel — in the Middle ages there was a plethora of these shorthands around, all of them unregulated, and since the Latin alphabet in itself does not provide adequate lettering for Germanic languages, it was a logical choice to make. Therefore, at one point it became acceptable to replace umlauts with the corresponding letter plus e. The pre-1901 German spelling rules actively enforced that partially by not allowing capital umlauts: It had to be Aepfel and Oel — a phenomenon still visible in proper nouns such as the town of Uelzen. The reasoning was maybe that umlauted capital blackletters looked less appealing. This was changed, however. Whenever possible, one should write the correct umlauts, capitalised or lowercase, and only if technical restrictions do not allow so is one allowed to resort to letter + e. (The only truely valid context I can think of is naming variables in programming languages that restrict names to ASCII characters — so aepfelzahl would be acceptable there.)

Back to proper nouns

But the question was about proper nouns. Assuming a person could write, nobody could tell them how to properly spell their name. Not even the emperor tried to do that when accepting the 1901 spelling reform and the uproar would have been enourmous had they tried it in 1996. And remember that pre-1876, there were no official spelling rules at all. So people generally wrote freely — it has been mentioned that the well-known German poet and playwright spelt himself Goethe, Göte and Göthe on different occasions. Therefore, a lot of different spelling variants of identically pronunced names turned up, once literacy increased in the population. (And probably even before that, think christening lists in churches.) When finally people accepted a standard orthography for common nouns, there was a desire to also stick to the same way to write the corresponding common nouns. Since these were never regulated, many different variants still exist.

So in a nutshell, we write Gödel because Gödel’s ancestors used an ö in their name when it was fixed while we write Noether because Noether’s ancestors preferred oe. The surname Schmidt also exists as Schmied, Schmitt, Schmid and probably more although they all derive from Schmied. With Meiers it is even worse: each and every of the eight possible combinations is out there (Mayr, Mair, Meyr, Meir, Mayer, Maier, Meyer, Meier) sometimes in compounds sometimes not. Müller and Mueller are both common as is Hoffmann and Hofmann. I would imagine that apart from the reformator’s way of spelling (Luther) that Lutter and Luter should exist, too. You cannot even necessarily predict the pronunciation from the spelling: the novel of Thomas Mann is called Buddenbrooks although Buddenbrocks would have been a lot more logical in Lübeck, mainly because he didn’t want half the world to mispronunce their name (so urban legends say). A classmate of mine called Kroiher could have been spelt Kreuer by pronunciation, but a teacher once tried Kroher in analogy to Grevenbroich. And let us not forget the towns of Uelzen, Itzehoe and Buchloe, pronunced with an Ü, long o and o-e (two syllables), respectively.

And before you lean back please show me a language with not entirely phonetical spelling (i.e. Finnish doesn’t count) where you can immediately spell a person just from hearing their last name. Mr Davis/Davies? Mrs Brown/Browne? Mr Raymond Luxury Yacht?

*: I use the IPA symbols in a very generic way here, just to symbolise the sounds ä, ö and ü can make. I am well aware of the phonemic distinction between long and short vowels in German.

  • I asked this question not because I think every person's name is strictly governed by a certain law, but because from my prior knowledge in German, I couldn't remember using 'oe' in any nouns. So it was natural for me to think the original name is Nöther but people just might have written Noether. And I don't know a language satisfying your condition.. – Taxxi Oct 23 '15 at 11:59
  • @Taxxi If that was your reason for a downvote, I think you are downvoting too laxly. Downvotes on answers should be reserved for misleading or wrong answers. Afaict I gave no wrong information, merely misunderstood your motivation for asking the question. If you did not downvote the answer, please ignore. – Jan Oct 23 '15 at 12:20
  • Taxxi seems to read things into texts which are not there, anyway. – Carsten S Oct 23 '15 at 12:27
  • I downvoted your answer, not because you provided wrong information, but because my question was not about randomness of the naming itself. The first half was helpful, but the second half is just about how spelling could vary. If that was lax, edit you answer once so that my vote lock-up will go away. I actually considered it a lot though. – Taxxi Oct 23 '15 at 12:30
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    And don't forget the Westfälisches Dehnungs-e in places' names like Soest, Coesfeld, etc. where the e is silent and makes the o a long vowel, not an umlaut. – yunzen Jun 23 at 7:30

A even more famous example is Goethe: The grandfather of the famous German poet

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

did not have the Name Goethe. His name was

Friedrich Georg Göthe

(with ö instead of oe).

It would be wrong to write the poets name as Göthe, because this is not his name.

Friedrich Georg Göthe decided to change the writing of his name, and so his son (and his sons son) inherited the new name Goethe.

So when ever possible, you should write the name of the poets Grandfather F. G. Göthe, the name of the Austrian mathematician K. Gödel and my name H. Schölnast with ö. Only when the umlaut causes technical problems, you are allowed to replace the Umlaut (which is a relatively modern element of language) with its old and primordial version.

So, when you want to encode those names in 7bit-ASCII code, you should not only eliminate the dots (Gothe, Godel and Scholnast are definitely wrong!), but you should replace the dots by an e following the original vowel, which makes Goethe, Goedel and Schoelnast, and this is why the domain-part of my email-adress is not schölnast.at and not scholnast.at but schoelnast.at. (When I registered my domain in 2001 there was no way to use umlauts in domain names. Now it is possible.)

So, under special conditions (which are in most cases of technical nature), ö -> oe is allowed. But the other way (oe -> ö) is not. This is never ok. So it is an error to write the name of the poet J. W. Goethe with ö, and it is an error to write the name of Emmy Noether with ö.

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