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Umlauts, diacritics, Cyrillic and alphabets with more than 26 letters

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Or, it’s all fun and games until the Czechs show up.

Florida Panthers v Chicago Blackhawks Photo by Chase Agnello-Dean/NHLI via Getty Images

Note: for the summer, in lieu of any news on Mondays, I’m going to try to blog about something each week. This is the first go:

It all started, it seems, with an umlaut. The word umlaut means “sound alteration” in German, and refers to how a vowel is pronounced in a certain situation. It’s not actually the all-purpose term for two dots over a letter in all cases.

The diacritic mark of two dots, also called a diaresis, is called an umlaut in many languages, notably German (and notably not Swedish, but that’s getting ahead of ourselves) when it tells you how to sound the vowel.

Tim Stützle has one in his name.

NHL: FEB 04 Senators at Canadiens Photo by David Kirouac/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

And he has it on his jersey. (Note: it’s entirely possible someone got this done before him, but he’s the vanguard of the current trend.)

His teammate Erik Brännström thought that was lovely, and he wanted his name spelled correctly too. Brännström has no umlauts in it. Those are letters of the Swedish alphabet, but the origin of the diacritic that’s part of the letter ä or ö, and what it tells you to do with your month, is the same.

Back when printers had to figure out how to put things like æ or œ into a typeface, some of them started putting the e above the vowel, and over time it evolved to two dots like a diaresis. We have the diaresis in English, we just don’t use it much anymore, but coöperation used to always be written like that to tell you to pronounce the second o.

For Brännström, it tells you to say ö and not o. And I understand why he cares. One is his name and the other is not:

I call this a trend because the Marlies last year had Calle Rosén, Filip Král and Veini Vehviläinen. Finnish has the same alphabet as Swedish, but to make it fun, the common surname suffix “lainen” sometimes has an “a” and sometimes an “ä”. Rasmus Ristolainen is correct, Jarmo Kekalainen is not, and yet that is how it appears on the Blue Jackets’ website. If you speak Finnish and really get the front and back vowel difference and say it in your head (and out loud) the right way, you likely go through life spelling names correctly all the time.

Back to those Marlies. Rosén is a name with a non-Swedish origin so it has that accent, just like the ones we are used to from French class. Those French names are usually easier to remember for Anglo Canadians because, if you took French, you likely have a hazy memory of how those work. And yet, the NHL hasn’t wanted to put those accents on jerseys up to now.

For me, it’s very easy to remember our former prospect’s name was Hållander, because “å” and “a” are wildly different letters, as different as how you’d expect to say Hall and Holl. But then the Czechs show up, and I confess, it all overwhelms me a little.

Ondřej Kaše is not something I’ve ever seen written out until I went looking for it. (David Kämpf, now a Maple Leaf, up there in the main picture is Czech, but his name is German.) The Czech alphabet has a lot of letters in it, and this is where we will run into problems in the international league that is the NHL if we try to have a firm policy of spelling names the way the player would at home with no exceptions.

Even if we figure out the Czech issue, the Russians are lined up next, waiting to trip us up. Russian is written in a Cyrillic alphabet, and what we see on the back of a player’s jersey is a romanization or transliteration into our alphabet. And there’s a lot of different ways of doing it, depending on who that “our” refers to.

Who the heck is Alex Ovetjkin? In a Swedish story about the new contract for Washington's captain, that’s what you’ll see. There is also more than one way to romanize Russian into English, and the NHL routinely uses a method different to what the KHL uses to put names on the backs of their jerseys. To keep you hopping, the official KHL pages in English sometimes use different spellings than the teams do.

Yegor Korshkov and Egor Korshkov are the same Russian name romanized in two different ways, and you will absolutely find pedants who are sure they’re correct to tell you which is right and which is wrong. But essentially, he just wants you to not call him Igor, which works about 75% of the time.

When the player isn’t in the NHL or AHL yet, like draft prospect Yaroslav Askarov, the NHL Central Scouting uses their standard method to decide how to spell it, and he became Iaroslav Askarov at the draft. Usually this isn’t confusing until the two players both named Vladimir Tkachyov are under discussion, and the one with an NHL contract now might spell it Vladimir Tkachev like he did in junior hockey. Their names are absolutely the same, though, and while someone will inevitably roll up to tell you one spelling is right and one is wrong, only the two players can make that call. They aren’t required to agree with each other, either.

That’s what the NHL is slowly inching toward — a system where the individual gets the final say. Not every Yegor loses his “Y” on entry to the NHL these days, and the Swedish letters and German umlauts on the Senators last year will inevitably spread to other teams just like they did to the Marlies.

Right now there are players in the NHL who were never asked how to spell their name. There are some who have chosen something the pedants will call incorrect, and that isn’t how it’s done back home, but they picked it to make it easier to live in North America or to have their name pronounced in a way that’s pleasing to them. And there are players, mostly younger, who live in today’s world where saying who you are and having that respected is becoming normalized.

Todd Crocker, the play-by-play and interview host for the Marlies, likes to quote Timothy Liljegren on this topic. Liljegren told him that if English speakers — and he meant his own family members, not just you and I — tried to say his name the way a Swede would, they’d sound like the Swedish Chef, and it would be absurd. He’s happy with an approximation that works for English tongues.

All of that leaves all of us who write about players in an interesting limbo. Various sites that compile stats about hockey players have various policies, and that runs the gamut from never using a single accent mark of any kind to a scrupulous effort to be so correct, they are more correct than the players themselves. And it’s not like we can ask everyone what they would like.

When David Kämpf was acquired by the Leafs we had about two seconds to decide: umlaut or no umlaut? And we went with it, even though the NHL never has. In a general way, my personal policy has been that they get the name on their jersey, so it’s Topi Niemelä right now, but might become Niemela if he joins the Marlies someday.

And that’s great until you’re suddenly writing about his team in an international event and the official tournament site strips all diacritics. The IIHF does this, and uses the romanization for Cyrillic of their own choosing. They do not care what any player wants. And there you are, having to remember how to spell every player’s name on the team, not just your own prospects. Which Somethingalainen is it? With or without the “ä”? And what about those Czechs? Do they want the hassle of their 42-letter alphabet used in North America, or is it not worth it for them?

Let’s ask Filip Kràl, which is how someone on the Marlies staff spelled it on their Tweeted lineups last season. That’s a mistake that might get you dunked on by social media players of gotcha games, but that seems contrary to the furthering the goal of respecting the players, the international nature of the game and everyone’s efforts in North America to change the habits of centuries. If you don’t know someone whose name was mangled by immigration authorities on entry to Canada against their will, I’d be very surprised. Maybe that someone is you. Just because it’s always been done that way, doesn’t mean we need to keep doing it.

This is not something we can get right every time. But I predict the demand for jersey diacritics will grow and spread around the NHL, and as the next seasons progress, we’ll work out how best to keep up with all the ways to spell the player’s names.

Until then, I think it’ll stay Ondrej Kase, but I’m not sure what Erik Källgren will do on the Marlies.