BRUNO: UMLAUTED BY DESIGN
Guest Buzz by Costa Tsiokos
If you haven’t seen the first marketing salvos for Sacha Baron Cohen’s upcoming flick Brüno, you will soon enough. The above photo of a taxicab rooftop-signage placement has been a common-enough sight in New York for at least the past month.
What I like about it, and indeed, about much of the movie’s ad placements so far, is the presence of those two little dots above the “u”. That would be the umlaut, an accent-like diacritical marking that comes in for some heavy derision in North America:
You think you’re so damn cool, huh? Just hanging out, chillin’, above all those vowels. You’re all, “Ooh, look at me, I’m a chic umlaut. I make girls’ names look modish, like Zoë and Chloë… God, you’re such a poseur, umlaut. You’re nothing but two measly dots. You’re a Eurotrash colon lying down. Nobody thinks you’re cool.
This is precisely the effect that Baron Cohen is going for. Because it makes only the rarest of appearance in English (I believe “naïve” is the only word that uses it, and it routinely goes without the double-dotting), its appearance is an instantly-recognizable signifier of foreignness — and snooty European (if not Scandinavian) foreignness, to boot. So not only does Brüno employ it in the very title of the film, but also plants that umlaut freely among the promotional language, like a comedic badge. Thus does the theatrical release date in July become “Jüly”, and so on.
This joke wouldn’t work if umlaut usage wasn’t already pretty trod upon on this side of the Atlantic. Despite being actually useful in Germanic grammar (basically, the mark is a space-saving substitute for a following-letter “e”, so “Brüno” can also be spelled “Brueno”), its most common manifestation here has been as purely stylistic embellishment for pretentious rock band names.
So really, Brüno’s wanton use of the umlaut is only reinforcing the established tradition of diacritical mis-marking in American pop culture. It’s a visual cue that we all pick up on, and laugh with. Which is the whole point of this type of comedy. It just so happens that, as a result, no vowel is safe.
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