Taking The Heavy Metal Umlaut Seriously (Or, Why Motörhead Are Azerbaijani)

Riffing on the themes he explores in his new book The Babel Message: A Love Letter to Language, Keith Kahn-Harris shares his love of diacritics and explains how the heavy metal umlaut might be less teutonic than it first appears

Detail from the Motörhead logo

If the heavy metal umlaut demonstrates anything, it is a simultaneous dissatisfaction with English and an inability to escape it.

To adorn an English band name or album title with an umlaut reveals an unspoken or open anxiety that English letters do not signify enough. Blue Oyster Cult, Motorhead or Motley Crue are not sufficient on their own, they must become Blue Öyster Cult, Motörhead or Mötley Crüe if they are to fully articulate… whatever it is they are supposed to articulate.

Who exactly it was who made the fateful decision in the umlauting of Blue Öyster Cult – the first known instance of what would become known as the heavy metal umlaut – is disputed. One account has rock critic Richard Meltzer suggesting it to frontman Sandy Pearlman since, as Meltzer puts it, "metal had a Wagnerian aspect anyway". That implies the chain of associations: metal – heavy – Wagner – Germanic – umlaut. To hear metal as a ‘heavy’ music that bears comparison with Wagner is fairly unremarkable today. Yet the teutonic coding of the heaviness of metal (and, indeed, the heaviness itself) had to actively be willed into being for it to become ‘obvious’ to later generations. And those later generations have lapped it up: As well as appearing in bands including The Accüsed, Assück and Deströyer 666, the umlaut has been used in album titles, most famously Voivod’s Rrröööaaarrr and Dimension Hatröss

The umlaut leverages awareness amongst English speakers that this diacritic is a mark of German writing, without going so far as to actually write German. Similarly, bands like Motörhead use typefaces for their logos that look as if they might be gothic, without being so gothic that they are unreadably culturally specific. One of the accomplishments of this vagueness is to allow for the frisson of association with the great unmentionable evil of the Nazis, without actually becoming a Nazi. It’s notable that both Meltzer and Pearlman were Jews, who – like Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons’ use of something that looked like the Nazi SS sign in the Kiss logo – might have enjoyed flirting with such symbolic transgressiveness without wanting to go the whole hog (Slayer on the other hand…)

Aside from this semiotic flirtation, there may be something else going on with the use of the heavy metal umlaut. In my book The Babel Message: A Love Letter To Language I admit to envying speakers of languages that use diacritics like the umlaut. There is something about English writing that seems plain, unadorned, neutral and dull. Diacritics make writing look not just more lively, but also more meaningful – even if you don’t actually understand the meaning itself.

A few years ago, an article of mine on metal was translated into Hungarian. On ‘reading’ it, the language struck me as the perfect one in which to write of the more extreme end of the metal continuum. Nothing is familiar to an English speaker (Hungarian, a Uralic language, is unrelated to Indo-European languages like English, German or French); the long compound words and proliferating accents lend it an almost belligerent quality. One suspects that SunnO)))’s track ‘Big Church (Megszentségteleníthetetlenségeskedéseitekért)’ was so titled not just because the vocalist, Attila Csihar, is Hungarian, but also to signify an intimidating hermeticsm. Even knowing what the word means – For your repeated incapabilities of having been ‘unholified’, is how they put it on their website – doesn’t erase its otherness.

Still Hungarian’s greatest glory is missing from that particular word. The double acute accent – as in ő or ű – sometimes known as the ’hungarumlaut’, is one of the most distinctive signs that a text you don’t understand is written in Hungarian. It is used to indicate an acute accent on an already umlauted vowel, thereby lengthening it. I describe the hungerumlaut in my book as "an umlaut gone a bit bolshie" but it might also be understood as an upping on the ante on the heavy metal umlaut. Just as a band like SunnO))) takes metal to new fundamentalist places, so the hungerumlaut might be a more accurate signifier for those forms of metal that have outgrown the cod-Wagnerian pretensions of the genre’s youth.

In The Babel Message I show how an utterly dull text – the warning message found inside Kinder Surprise Eggs – can be a thing of wonder when translated into languages you don’t understand. The aesthetic delights of reading a language you do not understand have always been underestimated. Yet even though umlauts – Hungarian or Germanic – and other diacritics thrill me, I am always aware that the meanings are my own. Whatever I think of the esoteric violence of written Hungarian, I also know that an actual Hungarian would see it as just mundane writing. After all, a Hungarian fries fish in a serpenyő just as a German with haemorrhoids inserts a zäpfchen. And what I see as the dull neutrality of English writing may signify to non-English speakers as anything from chilly imperialist authority to glamorous Americana.

The heavy metal umlaut, at least in its best-known uses by English-speakers, offers a pretence of understanding Germanic writing. Yet not only does it completely decouple the umlaut from its sound, it assumes that it is a universal, near-mythical, signifier of teutonic heaviness and will always be recognised as such.

In fact, it isn’t just German that uses the umlaut. It’s found in a number of other Germanic languages, in Hungarian, Finnish and related languages, the Turkic language family, the indigenous American language Hopi and other languages unrelated to German. Semiotically-speaking, Motörhead may be invoking Azerbaijan or Arizona.

The heavy metal umlaut floats free from German then; indeed it is sometimes used on letters on which the umlaut doesn’t appear in German. The ‘ÿ’ in Queensrÿche is not only absent from German, it is rarely found in any writing system, although it is occasionally used in Dutch and French.

It is this ignorance that the creators of Spinal Tap famously satirised by writing their logo as Spın̈al Tap. Just imagine a band so dimwitted that they think that an umlaut could go over an ‘n’! Yet the joke is actually on the satire itself, because the ‘n̈’ does exist in some writing systems. The most widely-spoken is Malagasy, the official language of Madagascar, spoken by over 25 million people. The dotless ‘ı’ in the Spinal Tap logo may reveal a similar blindness.  A further dig at nonsensical metal typography, it is in fact a feature of Turkish and other Turkic languages. So we are left with a much stranger joke in which an attempt to produce a teutonic heaviness explodes into a bizarre global typographic hybrid, existing beyond any simple parsing.

While it would be unreasonable to expect metal bands to have detailed knowledge of multilingual diacritics, the heavy metal umlaut is inevitably Anglocentric; encoding an English-speaker’s set of associations. However much metal today is heavily globalised, with thriving scenes not just outside the English-speaking world, but outside the ‘west’ as well, the heavy metal umlaut remains as foundational as its English-speaking acts do.

At the same time, the umlaut has been used in more playful ways that, at the very least, suggest an awareness of its clichéd status. The fictional band Dëthkløk signal diacritically to Scandinavia as well as Germany. Gwar festooned the song titles such as ‘Timè fôr Deäth’ on the lyric sheet to their 1998 album Hell-O! with umlauts and other gratuitous diacritics. Bands who come from countries where umlauts are used, sometimes incorporate it as a kind of ironic gesture, such as Insidiöus Törment, who are variously attributed as hailing from Germany, Denmark or Lichtenstein. The name of the Finnish children’s metal band Moottörin Jyrinä is Finnish, but the umlaut on the first word (which means ‘engine’) is not required in the language whereas the one in the second word is. The German punk band Die Ärzte actually added a third dot to the umlaut on the logo for their name.

Perhaps the greatest problem with the heavy metal umlaut is that it ‘frees’ the diacritic from German only to bind it more tightly to an Anglicised construction of the Germanic. But true diacritical liberation is more possible when the umlaut is used as a way of making signification deliberately unclear. The use of the umlaut by the avant-hip hop act Dälek, while it nods to the dark heaviness of their music, avoids cod-Germanicisation; rather, it reinforces the cross-generic confusion inherent in their sound. A similarly productive confusion can be found in the industrial act G̈r̈oẗus̈ or in the name of the Kobaïan language used by Magma. Death In June have also experimented with umlauts, walking a narrow line between opaque nods to the teutonic-authoritarian and the purely esoteric.

Users of the heavy metal umlaut and other faux-diacritics have intuited that band names and song titles have a synaesthetic quality. Music is seen as well as heard. The meaning of music is cobbled together from elements that go beyond sound. The potential of diacritics to trigger synaesthetic reactions can be more fully actualised if they are not based on assumptions of what they signify in a particular language. Only specially constructed diacritics that are never found in any other written language can avoid reinforcing cultural prejudices. Maybe we need a written language, replete with diacritical wonders, just for writing band names and song titles. The heavy metal umlaut is only the first step along a very long road to a language that is entirely other to us.

The Babel Message: A Love Letter to Language is published by Icon Books on 4 November

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