Answer Man

Little umlaut makes a world of difference in German pronunciation

Close-up detail of the keys of an old German, pre-war typewriter.
Close-up detail of the keys of an old German, pre-war typewriter.

Q: First, I’d like to thank the BND and reporter Will Buss for finally spelling the name of Belleville’s new German restaurant and beer hall correctly last Wednesday — Hofbräuhaus — with the umlaut correctly placed over the first a. In fact, I am taking the article to my German class tonight to show my students how the BND does listen to its readers when they point out mistakes. I have also emailed my fellow area German teachers about the umlaut appearing. This is a big deal for a little group of teachers!

Now, can you do me another favor? Could you tell your readers a little about the history of the famous German beer hall and, most important, how to correctly pronounce its name? This would 1). make local German teachers happy, 2). likely please German visitors no end and 3). help Mayor Mark Eckert say it correctly at the ribbon cutting next summer! Danke sehr!

David Braswell, of Belleville

A: As you obviously realize, many non-Deutsch speaking residents would be like one of my old college dormmates, who used to come into my room, pick up my German textbook and proceed to butcher the language aloud until I chased him off. So, given the chance, he likely would have pronounced it “hoff (or hawf)-brow-house.”

Take it from someone whose last name mystifies most everyone (and who started learning German in the third grade): If you pronounced it that way in Munich, you’d be looked at as if you might have been raised in some remote area of the Schwarzwald. So let’s take it syllable by syllable:

First, probably because there’s only one f, the first syllable has a “long” o. It’s hofe (rhymes with loaf), not hoff or hawf.

Then in the second syllable, we get to those two dots, a diacritical mark known as an umlaut. In the German language, you frequently find them over the a, o and u. In fact, back in the old country, my name was actually Schlüter. The way I was always taught to say that letter is to form your mouth to say “u” and then say “e.” (Or say u while pursing your lips to kiss someone.)

If you do that, my last name should be something close to Schlooter, which is how people still often pronounce it. But over the years, my family anglicized it. They changed that confusing ü into a ue combination and eventually started calling themselves “Schleeter.” Yes, it’s terrible Cherman, but at least people don’t have to do oral contortions to say it.

However, if you want to be authentic, “bräu” does not rhyme with “frau,” the typical German word for woman or wife. While frau is pronounced “frow” (rhymes with how), you have to remember that the umlaut affects the pronunciation of the a in bräu. So, if you combine it with the u, you’ll be toasted by Germans if you say “broy,” not brow.

Those were the two toughies. The final syllable is just like its English counterpart — house. So, repeat after me: “Hofe-broy-house.” Practice that 10 times a day for the next few months, and you’ll deserve to lift a stein at the grand opening.

You’ll also be ready to enjoy a tradition that is now well into its fifth century. It was in the 1580s when Wilhelm V, the duke of Bavaria, was trying to slake the thirst of his thirsty — and demanding — household. They were dissatisfied with the beer brewed in Munich, so they had beer carted in from Einbeck, more than 250 miles to the north. This, however, was an expensive proposition, so Wilhelm sought an alternative that would cut costs without sacrificing pleasure.

Voilá, on Sept. 29, 1589, Wilhelm’s chamberlain and four counselors suggested he build his own brewery. Wilhelm was so delighted with the idea that on the very same day he recruited the brewmaster of the Geisenfeld Monastery, Heimeran Pongraz, to plan and supervise the construction of Hofbräuhaus (the “ducal brewery”) just around the corner from ye Royal Residence.

Just over a decade later, Maximilan I, Wilhelm’s son and heir, found he did not enjoy the dark, heavy Braunbier that the brewery was pumping out, so he ordered his brewmeister to start producing lighter wheat beers. Not only that, he forbade all other private breweries to brew Weissbeer, thus ensuring a monopoly for his ducal brewery.

With that kind of official state power behind it, the brewery flourished like foam in a freshly poured stein. So when Ludwig, the son of King Maximilian I Joseph of Bavaria, married on Oct. 17, 1810, the Hofbräuhaus played a major role in providing food and drink for the first Munich Beer Festival, a grand gala with 40,000 wedding guests. Two years later, the brewery cooked up a special brew for the now annual affair — a beer with a deep golden color, stronger original wort and higher alcohol content that it called Oktoberfestbier.

Now is there any German restaurant or festival fan who hasn’t joined in a lusty rendition of “In München steht ein Hofbräuhaus — eins, zwei, g’suffa!” (In Munich stands a Hofbräuhaus, one, two, down the hatch!”)?

That popular drinking song came along in 1935 from composer Wiga Gabriel and lyricist Klaus Siegfried Richter, who wrote it in, of all places, a Berlin café. But after Wilhelm Gebauer from Leipzig published it, it debuted at the Dürkheim Sausage Fair in 1936 and became almost an immediate German standard.

Mix it all together — drinking and singing in a massive beer hall — and it’s little wonder that the Hofbräuhaus became Munich’s top tourist attraction. American soldiers stationed there after World War II began arriving home with their beer steins sporting the now world-famous “HB” logo. (It was certainly a place that I had to down a brewski during a 1983 European tour — even if it was July and not October.)

Now, as we are about to experience, the Hofbräuhaus has been going international for the past 50 years. It started in 1968 when Helmut Meyer opened one in Melbourne, Australia. It crossed the pond in April 2003 when the first Hofbräuhaus opened in Newport, Ky. Soon, schnitzel and noodles will become some of our favorite things when the eighth opens across from the National Shrine of Our Lady of the Snows.

Remember: Hofe-broy-haus. Prost.

Today’s trivia

The Greek warrior Achilles is said to have died after being shot in the heel with an arrow. What Indian deity met the same fate?

Answer to Friday’s trivia: If followers of Christ are called Christians and the Buddhism faithful are Buddhists, why are Islamic worshipers known as Muslims? It becomes perfectly clear if you know a little about the Arabic language. Most of their nouns and verbs are based on a root of three consonants to which you add vowels and other consonants to form different words relating to the same root. In this case, both Islam and Muslim are based on the s-l-m root. “Islam” means “submission (to the will of God).” Muslim means “one who submits.”

Roger Schlueter: 618-239-2465, @RogerAnswer