Friday, July 22, 2011


When Dante Alighieri is Italy’s and William Shakespeare England’s national poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe is recognized as such in my country. He not only was a poet but one of the last universally educated geniuses of German tongue. There is not one place in Germany without a street or square named after him. In Freiburg many consider the Goethestraße as the most beautiful alley in town dating back to the beginning of the 20th century. Freiburg's Goethestraße is lined with beautifully decorated houses built in a variety of historic styles. This is not true for Munich’s Goethestraße running off the main train station where red light premises compete with cheap electronic stores. It was there where it happened. Road construction work around the station called for a detour signaled by panels showing Göthestraße instead of Goethestraße, an obvious mistake that was corrected the following day. A mistake? Hey, not so fast.

Our national poet was born in Frankfurt on 28 August 1749 as son of Johann Caspar Göthe. As a young man Johann Wolfgang changed the spelling of his name to Goethe, in his father's eyes a misdeed; he never pardoned his son. The reason for Goethe’s change is not known. Did he as a young man already think of his international renown? Mind you, umlauts are rarely found in other languages if it is not for the Turks or Hungarians. By the way, the Turks are called Törökök in Hungarian. Those Hungarians not only overdo it with respect to the frequency of their "ös" but in addition to the short “ö” carrying two dots they also know the long “ő” carrying two strokes.

The American keyboards I used during my work and later on the internet forced me to change the spelling of my name from Höfert to Hoefert. My brother working in the UK was so annoyed with the umlaut that he simply dropped the “tüttels” all together. Maybe he did the right thing because when changing from “ö” to “oe” I suffered from the pronunciation of my name by my Dutch colleagues. In their language the “oe” stands for the phoneme “u”. Did Goethe consider this fact when he changed from “ö” to “oe”? and did he really want the Dutch to call him de oude Goede i.e. the old Good one?

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