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A metal umlaut (also known as röck döts) is a diacritic that is sometimes used gratuitously or decoratively over letters in the names of hard rock or heavy metal bands—for example those of Blue Öyster Cult, Queensrÿche, Motörhead, The Accüsed and Mötley Crüe.
Among English speakers, the use of umlaut marks and other diacritics with a blackletter style typeface is a form of foreign branding intended to give a band's logo a Teutonic quality—connoting stereotypes of boldness and brutality presumably associated with Germanic and Nordic cultures. Its use has also been attributed to a desire for a "gothic horror" feel. The metal umlaut is not generally intended to affect the pronunciation of the band's name.
Speakers of languages which use an umlaut to designate a pronunciation change may understand the intended effect, but perceive the result differently. When Mötley Crüe visited Germany, singer Vince Neil said the band couldn't figure out why "the crowds were chanting, Mutley Cruh! Mutley Cruh!"
These decorative umlauts have been parodied in film and fiction; in the mockumentary film This Is Spın̈al Tap, fictional rocker David St. Hubbins (Michael McKean) says, "It's like a pair of eyes. You're looking at the umlaut, and it's looking at you."
The German word Umlaut roughly translates as 'changed sound' or 'sound shift', as it is composed of um-, "around/changed", and Laut, "sound". In standard usage (outside heavy metal) the Germanic umlaut version of a vowel is pronounced differently from the normal vowel; the letters u and ü represent distinct sounds, as do o and ö as well as a and ä. The sounds represented by umlauted letters are typically front vowels (front rounded vowels in the case of ü and ö).
Ironically, these sounds tend to be perceived as "weaker" or "lighter" than the vowels represented by un-umlauted u, o, and a, and thus in languages like German which use it normally, the umlaut does not evoke the impression of strength and darkness which its sensational use in English is intended to convey. Therefore, the foreign branding effect of the metal umlaut is dependent on the beholder's background. Speakers of such languages may understand the intended effect but perceive the result differently from speakers of languages in which umlauts are rarely used.
The first gratuitous use of the umlaut in the name of a hard rock or metal band appears to have been by Blue Öyster Cult, in 1970. Blue Öyster Cult's website states it was added by guitarist and keyboardist Allen Lanier, but rock critic Richard Meltzer claims to have suggested it to their producer and manager Sandy Pearlman just after Pearlman came up with the name: "I said, 'How about an umlaut over the O?' Metal had a Wagnerian aspect anyway."
Another 1970 usage of the metal umlaut was by Black Sabbath, which released a picture-sleeve 7″ single version of "Paranoid" (with the b-side "Rat Salad"), titled "Paranoïd" with a diaeresis above the "i" (as is correct in French, except that in French the 'd' is followed by an 'e').
On their second album In Search of Space (1971), Hawkwind wrote on the back cover: "TECHNICIÄNS ÖF SPÅCE SHIP EÅRTH THIS IS YÖÜR CÄPTÅIN SPEÄKING YÖÜR ØÅPTÅIN IS DEA̋D". To add to the variation, the Danish, Norwegian, and Faroese letter Ø and the Danish/Norwegian/Swedish letter Å are added. The diacritical mark on the last " A̋ " is the "Hungarian umlaut" or double acute accent ( ˝ )—two short lines slanting up and to the right—instead of dots (Hungarian uses neither the ( ˝ ) nor the traditional German umlaut ("Ä") over the letter "A", though, and ( ˝ ) is used only on the letters "Ő" and "Ű"; " A̋ " is, however, used in Slovak dialectology for dialects which distinguish long " A̋ " from short " Ä ", although Standard Slovak has only " Ä ".).
Motörhead followed in 1975. The idea for the umlaut came from Lemmy, the group's lead singer/bassist (and former Hawkwind member), who said, "I only put it in there to look mean." (The German pronunciation of Motör, a word that does not exist in German, would be similar to the French equivalent, moteur. "Motor", the correct German spelling, is pronounced similarly to "motor" in English.) Similarly Lemmy advised Würzel to add an umlaut to his name for the same reason. The band Hüsker Dü debuted in January 1979, though they were based in punk and not heavy metal. Hüsker Dü's name is derived from the board game "Hūsker Dū?" which translates to "Do you remember?", although these diacritics are not present in original Danish. Mötley Crüe formed in 1980; according to Vince Neil in the band's Behind the Music edition, the inspiration came from a Löwenbräu bottle. They subsequently decided to name their record label "Leathür Records". At one Mötley Crüe performance in Germany, the entire audience started chanting [ˈmœtli ˈkʁyːə], with a similar pronunciation often used in Hungary as well.
Queensrÿche, who took on that name in 1981, went further by putting the umlaut over the Y in their name (ÿ corresponds to the digraph ij in the Dutch language). Queensrÿche frontman Geoff Tate stated, "The umlaut over the 'y' has haunted us for years. We spent eleven years trying to explain how to pronounce it." In contrast to other examples, the spelling of Queensrÿche was chosen to soften the band's image, as it was feared that the original spelling, Queensreich, might be misconstrued as having Neo-Nazi connotations.
The spoof band Spın̈al Tap raised the stakes in 1984 by using an umlaut over the letter n; i.e., over a consonant. (This construction is found in the Jakaltek language of Guatemala, in some orthographies of Malagasy, a language of Madagascar, and in Cape Verdean Creole.)
In the world of heavy metal, the umlaut - otherwise known as röck dots ...