The heavy metal umlaut is the gratuitous or decorative use of an umlaut over letters in the name of a heavy metal band, such as Mötley Crüe or Motörhead. The use of umlauts and other diacritics with a blackletter style typeface is a form of foreign branding intended to give a band's logo a Teutonic quality. It is a form of marketing that evokes stereotypes of boldness and strength commonly attributed to peoples such as the Vikings; author Reebee Garofalo has attributed its use to a desire for a "Gothic horror" feel. The heavy metal umlaut is never referred to by the term diaeresis in this usage, nor is it generally intended to affect the pronunciation of the band's name.
Heavy metal umlauts have been parodied in film and fiction. In the mockumentary film This Is Spın̈al Tap (spelled with an umlaut over the n), 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." In 2002, Spin magazine referred to the heavy metal umlaut as "the diacritical mark of the beast."
Umlauts, or visually similar graphemes, are used in many languages, including Estonian, Finnish, German, Hungarian, Icelandic, Swedish and Turkish. The sounds represented by the umlauted letters in these languages 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 the languages 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.
The English word diaeresis refers to a diacritic graphically similar to the umlaut; the name comes from a Greek word meaning "divide or distinguish". This diacritic is used in languages such as Greek, French, Spanish, Dutch, and Brazilian Portuguese with varying purposes. Occasionally English and moreover Dutch employ a diaeresis to indicate that two vowels are to be pronounced separately, as in the names "Chloë," "Zoë" or the word "naïve". Although spellings such as reënact and coöperate have largely fallen into disuse, this use of the diaeresis mark, or trema, is still used in some English-language publications.
The first gratuitous use appears to have been either by Blue Öyster Cult or by Black Sabbath, both 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." In that same year, Black Sabbath's record label, on a rare picture-sleeve 7" single version of Paranoid (with the b-side Rat Salad), for no apparent reason, retitled the song "Paranoïd" with a diaeresis above the "i" (as is correct in French).
On their second album In Search of Space (1971), Hawkwind wrote on the backside of the cover: "TECHNICIÄNS ÖF SPÅCE SHIP EÅRTH THIS IS YÖÜR CÄPTÅIN SPEÄKING YÖÜR ØÅPTÅIN IS DEA̋D". To add to the variation, Danish and Norwegian letter Ø and 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"). This was before Lemmy, later of Motörhead, had become a member of the group.
Motörhead followed in 1975. The idea for the umlaut came from Lemmy, the group's lead singer, who said, "I only put it in there to look mean. (Interestingly, the German pronunciation of Motör, a word that does not exist in German, would be similar to French equivalent, moteur. "Motor", the correct German spelling, is pronounced similarly to "motor" in English.) The band Hüsker Dü debuted in January of 1979, though they were based in punk and not heavy metal. Hüsker Dü's name is derived from the name of a Danish board game which translates to "Do you remember?" 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 "Meutley Crew-eh" — a 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. (In French, the ÿ is used very rarely, e.g. in the placename L'Haÿ-les-Roses (la.ˈi.lɛ.ʀoz), etc.) 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 in fact found in the Jacaltec language of Guatemala and in some orthographies of Malagasy, a language of Madagascar.
In the mid-1980s, cartoonist Berkeley Breathed parodied the heavy metal umlaut in the comic strip Bloom County with the fictional group Deathtöngue. Breathed eventually had Deathtöngue change their name to the umlaut-free Billy and the Boingers following pressure, in the strip, from congressional hearings on "porn rock."
In 1988, Jim Henson and General Foods released a breakfast cereal, Cröonchy Stars, based on the popular Swedish Chef muppet. In addition to the gratuitous umlaut in Cröonchy, most of the cereal's labelling and promotional material used the idiosyncratic spelling "Swedïsh Chef".
In 1997, parody newspaper The Onion published an article called "Ünited Stätes Toughens Image With Umlauts", about a congressional attempt to add umlauts to the name of the United States of America to make it seem "bad-assed and scary in a quasi-heavy metal manner". Journalist and author Steve Almond coined the term "spandex and umlaut circuit" in 2002 to describe the heavy metal touring scene. Rock critic Chuck Klosterman subtitled his 2001 book Fargo Rock City, A Heavy Metal Odyssey in Rural Nörth Daköta.
Webcomic artist Scott Kurtz drew a series of cartoons about a fake band called Djörk in his PvP Online webcomic. Apart from satirizing the heavy metal umlaut (the original band name was to be Umlaüt), this name also refers to the Icelandic singer/songwriter Björk, whose diacritical marks are genuine. The term nu metal is sometimes spelled as "nü metal". The video games Guitar Hero 2 and Guitar Hero 3 contain the character "Lars Ümlaüt". In the 2006 book "To Air Is Human", New York Times writer Dan Crane describes competing in the 2003 Air Guitar World Championships under the name Björn Türoque (a play on "Born to rock"). In October 2007, LucasArts alumnus Tim Schafer announced his newest project, the heavy metal adventure game Brütal Legend.
In Terry Pratchett's Discworld series, one of the major towns of the Überwald region (which contains many allusions to German culture, or the anglo-saxian perception thereof) is called Bad Schühschein. This name is obviously intended to be read like shoeshine and has the umlaut ü as well as the German spelling of the sound sh (IPA:/ʃ/) and the german word Bad, (meaning bath or spa, in German speaking countries commonly prepended to town names that get official recognition as spa town), added as allusion to the German language and the name being of supposed Germanic origin.