It must be some four decades since I saw François Truffaut’s film The Bride Wore Black (1968), but there is a trivial detail that remains in my memory: the fact that, while the action takes place in France and the characters are French, they have mostly English-looking names such as Corey, Fergus and Bliss. The reason is that the movie is based on a novel by the American writer Cornell Woolrich, and Truffaut, for some idiosyncratic reason, decided to keep the original names in spite of transplanting the action into France. He did not do the same with another Woolrich adaptation, Mississippi Mermaid (based on Waltz into Darkness), even though the novel’s main character already has a French name, Louis Durand – in the film he is Louis Mahé.
The detail from The Bride Wore Black came to mind when I recently saw another French Film, Queen to Play (2009) by Caroline Bottaro. (The French title is Joueuse, meaning ‘player,’ but the English translation misses the all-important feminine gender of the original.) It is about an uneducated working woman (played by Sandrine Bonnaire) in Corsica who is taught to play chess by a mysterious stranger (played by Kevin Kline), an American known as Dr. Kröger. And it’s the incongruity between name and nationality that brought back the Truffaut detail.
Americans, for one thing, are not normally called ‘doctor’ in their private lives unless they are practicing physicians, dentists or, possibly, pastors, and the Kevin Kline character gives no indication of being any of these; he just seems to be some sort of scholar. (I am a Ph.D. in Engineering Science, but it would never occur to me to present myself as Dr. Lubliner, nor would it, I daresay, to my professional colleagues.)
And Kröger is, of course, a distinctly German name. There are a great any Americans with surnames of German origin, but an American whose surname was originally Kröger would, in all likelihood, be Kroger or Kroeger.
When I checked the film’s credits, I noticed that was based on a novel by a writer with the clearly German name Bertina Henrichs. Aha! I said to myself. He was German in the original, and Mme. Bottaro kept the name!
No such luck. It turns out that while Bertina Henrichs is indeed German, she lives in France and wrote the book in French. Moreover, the action takes place on the Greek island of Naxos, and all the characters are Greek, including the man who teaches the heroine to play chess – an old high-school teacher of hers, named Kouros.
Transplanting the action from one Mediterranean island to another, specifically one where people speak French (very few Corsicans under 70 or so still speak Corsican), is an obvious choice for a French filmmaker. And changing the teacher in to a stranger who seems closer to the woman in age than an old high-school teacher would have been gives their relationship a sexual tension it wouldn’t otherwise have. But why an American with an über-German name?
On further investigation it turns out that Caroline Bottaro is also German by birth. Perhaps she had a high-school teacher named Dr. Kröger (in Germany it’s quite common for Gymnasium teachers to be called Dr. So-and-so). And perhaps she had meant the character to be German, but couldn’t pass up the opportunity of casting a star like Kevin Kline. And since the script was already written, she didn’t feel like revising it with respect to a detail that only a stickler like me would care about.
Anyway, back to a point I already made: names of German origin are extremely common in the United States, but if they have an umlaut in the original form, it is not kept. Immigrants with umlauted surnames generally took one of three options.
The most radical option was to anglicize the name, either by replacing it with a cognate English name (so that König became King, Grün became Green), or by respelling it so that it looked English: Schäfer → Shafer, Schröder → Shrader, Kühner → Keener. Of course, this option is not limited to names with umlauts, and so many a Schmidt became Smith, Koch became Cook, as well as Klein → Kline or Cline, Bach → Baugh, Hauser → Houser or Howser, Obermeyer → Overmire, Pfeiffer → Phifer, Sieferle → Siverly (my wife’s surname). Some names were only partly anglicized, most notably Steinway (from Steinweg) and Eisenhower (from Eisenhauer).
The second option was simply to drop the umlaut. That’s how we get people named Schafer, Hofstadter, Schroder, Muller, Buhler. The droppers’ names, like the anglicizers’, are expected to be pronounced according to such rules as English might have, which means that with a name like Moller (originally Möller) it isn’t obvious whether it should rhyme with ‘holler’ or with ‘roller.’ But such uncertainty is not limited to names with dropped umlauts. My name can be read in at least four ways, and there are just as many ways of avoiding the ‘cock’ pronunciation of Koch, while announcers for the 2004 Summer Olympics had to distinguish between Mia Hamm (‘ham’) and Paul Hamm (‘hahm’). Nor is it, of course, limited to German names. Even British names have not always kept their sound on crossing the Pond.
The third option, the most conservative one, is to replace the umlaut with an added e – an option that exists in German as well (for example Goethe) – leading to Schaefer, Boehner, Goetz, Weyerhaeuser, Mueller. This option is most problematic with regard to pronunciation. For ae there is a tradition, probably derived from the use of this digraph in Scots, of treating it like a “long a” (though not in Latin words). Thus if someone is descended from an immigrant named Dätz (pronounced in German like ‘dets’) who was a dropper and is therefore named Datz, the name will sound like ‘dats,’ but if the immigrant ancestor was an e-adder so that name is spelled Daetz it will probably be read like ‘dates’; aeu (originally äu, sounding like ‘oy’) is usually treated the same as au and pronounced ‘ow’. For oe there is no rule at all – witness ‘shoe,’ ‘goes,’ ‘does’ (verb), ‘coed,’ ‘subpoena,’ not to mention ‘foehn‘ and ‘loess’ (originally Föhn and Löss) – and ue is ambivalent as well (‘sues,’ ‘suet’). And so people named Goetz may be variously known as gets, goats or gates, while Mueller may be muller, mewler or miller.
With the advent of computer printing, diacritics are no longer a problem, and Hispanic Americans, in particular, have made a point of reclaiming them. In California there are, at present, politicians named Hernández, Pérez, Núñez and Gascón. But Americans with a German background have by now been almost been completely absorbed into the Anglo-American population – my wife, for example, did not know about the German origin of her name – and I don’t expect anyone named Dr. Kröger to be ever taken for an American. Except, perhaps, in a French movie.