Landfall Essay Competition Winner: Umlaut

Literature

05.12.2016

Landfall Essay Competition Winner: Umlaut

Airini Beautrais won the 2016 Landfall Essay Competition for this essay exploring the way names reveal our identity, histories, and sometimes our ignorance. 


My children’s father was the first person I ever dated. By this I mean that until we met, I had done what I presume most of my peers did: got drunk or stoned and got into bed. I had never gone to a movie beforehand, or planned a picnic, or gone out for coffee. There was something antique about sitting there in the pub in the five o’clock sunlight, potted palms drooping around us, plastic jug being evenly poured into two smeary glasses. This person wanted us to get to know each other.

It was quiet in there. It had the feeling of an empty theatre. In the daylight the red velvet drapes looked dusty and sad. The wooden floors looked like well-trodden wooden floors. Things would transform into other things when night fell. At the time, that particular pub was where the hipsters went, and after the hipsters the sort-of-hipsters, and after a certain hour the generic, severely drunk drunks who went wherever they saw crowds. You’d get sticky legs from the constant slosh of beer; there’d be unsolicited frotting. The owner had the unfortunate task of stopping the band at midnight so the neighbours, who’d bought apartments in the middle of the city’s small zone of nightlife, would not force the pub to close permanently. He’d stand on stage reasoning into the microphone while intoxicated groupies yelled, ‘Play another one!’, oblivious to his pleas. The final closure was effected a few years later.

I did not particularly want to get to know anyone at the time. I had come out of a badly executed relationship, and wanted a lover, or several, who would hardly talk to me. I didn’t feel ready to meet my children’s father. We made small talk. He told me about the autobahns back home. ‘Sometimes when my brother is driving I look over and see he’s going at 200ks. But you don’t notice it, it just feels normal.’

And then I thought it would be proper to find out, like I hadn’t, always. ‘What’s your last name?’ I asked him. He smiled at me, said, ‘Wait for it …’ drummed on the table, clicked his fingers, pointed into the air and announced, ‘Grübsch!’
     ‘What?’
     ‘Grübsch.’
     ‘How do you spell that?’
     That was the difficult question.

*

When a letter arrives for Mr Grubsch, I am disheartened. Something is missing; something small but vital. A grub is a juvenile insect. Or a filthy person. When my partner was doing relief teaching he used to tell the kids his name was Mr Norman, because it was easier. When he relieved for a German teacher, he allowed himself to be Mr Grübsch. ‘Sir,’ a boy asked him once, ‘why do you have a smiley face in your name?’ Ü. When you handwrite it on a whiteboard, it’s two dots for eyes and a quick bendy mouth. It makes a sound like the ‘oo’ in ‘food’. Take away the dots and it sounds like the ‘u’ in ‘pudding’. But the ‘u’ in pudding isn’t the same as the ‘u’ in ‘grubs’. Food. Pudding. Grubs. If I were Norman I’d wish for a dollar for every time I’d been Grubs.

Bird, person, work, lurk: same vowel sounds, different vowels.

The English language has some weird mongrel vowels, and that’s fascinating, like a tapestry, or a painting with many layers of paint. Bird, person, work, lurk: same vowel sounds, different vowels. Deutsch doesn’t do this. As much of a pain in the arse as it is learning German, as much as genitives and datives and gendered nouns can tie a native English speaker’s brain into knots, at least the language is phonetic. Learn the sounds the letters make and you’ll be able to read a word and pronounce it correctly. One of our German lecturer friends told me the hardest word for a learner to master is ‘Eichhörnchen’. Eiche: an oak tree. Eichhörnchen: a squirrel. An Eichel is an acorn, or the head of a penis. This quietly alters the experience of walking in parks in the autumn.

It was a man named Griebsch who suggested to Norman what his name might mean. He lived on the floor below; the names sat on nearby intercom buttons. A Grübsch is probably the same thing as a Griebsch: the core of a fruit. Gräbsch is another variant. Apfelgriebsch. My children are not grubs. They are the core of an apple. Like Johnny Appleseed, blessed by nomenclature with some divine botanical purpose. Griebsch, Gräbsch, Grübsch: all these are regional names. It’s hard to know where Herr Müller might be from. But Herr Grübsch will, at least at some point, have ties to a small triangle of villages just north of the city of Leipzig. Oma and Opa Grübsch live in a house built by a Grübsch and inhabited by Grübsches for five or six generations. When you walk down to the local Konsum you might see a Grübsch cycling past. A distant cousin who barely recognises you. You’ll pass a number of Grübsch letterboxes. Some you’ll know, some you won’t. Drive for half an hour and you won’t find any. 

*

The answer to my question, in the dusty red velvet evening in the pub, was that there are two spellings. One is that you put an umlaut—those two little dots— over the u. The other is that you write an e after the u. So ü and ue are phonetically the same, while ü and u are not. Food, food. Food, pudding. An umlaut is written the same as a diaeresis, but doesn’t have the same effect. Similar diacritical marks are found in a range of languages, with a range of different purposes. ‘Umlaut’ is the name for the symbol as used in Germanic languages, where it indicates that a vowel sounds as though it is followed by an e. Perhaps it originated in Middle High German at a time when writing the letter e felt like too much of an effort. 

Fortunately for this barely lubricated conversation, I knew what an umlaut was. This is because one generation back, there’s one in my family. This umlaut arrived in New Zealand on a boat in around 1900, worked in quarries, had a daughter (whose married name, appropriately, is Stoney) and four sons. Like Norman’s surname, it’s regional. In the Swiss village of Küssnacht you can walk past any number of doors labelled ‘Gössi’. In the local town hall there are family records dating back to the sixteenth century. These are meticulously kept: in the 1980s the authorities were disgruntled with my mother for not writing and notifying them that she’d got married and had three children. 

Typing the ö is a nuisance. Was this even possible on a typewriter?

Perhaps, unconsciously, it was this sort of common ground: the sharing of a diacritic, like finding you’ve been told the same folktales, that helped Norman and me connect with each other. Perhaps it was similar when my parents met, and without even discussing it fell into some kind of groove cut by the shared pain of being constantly, sometimes wilfully, mispronounced. Gössi, like Grübsch, loses its diacritic in an Anglo spelling environment. Typing the ö is a nuisance. Was this even possible on a typewriter? So the little e which in the olden days had been written above the a, o or u, and which morphed over time into the two dots, was re-inserted. Goessi. ‘Goosey! Go-Easy Rider!’ the kids at school used to taunt my mum and her sisters, over and over. By the time she married my dad, Mum hated her name so much she would have changed it to just about anything. Beautrais was acceptable, despite being similarly ‘foreign’. All the things we’ve been called over the years, all the names on envelopes: Beauchamp, Beetroot, Beatrice—even, once, Beautyanus—what the fuck did it matter? She was no longer Easy Rider, or a goose.

*

What is different for a person in an Anglo-dominated culture with a non-Anglo name? What makes it different for children growing up? You look different, I’ve been told. You sound different. Where are you from? How long has your family lived here? Do you speak French? Your ancestors must have settled in Akaroa? Do I? Do I? I was born in Auckland. Between four and six generations. No, I never learned. No, my French ancestor came by himself and went to Taumarunui. ‘You had better ring the schools when you apply for jobs,’ said my teachers’ college lecturer, ‘so they know you can speak English.’ As a Pākehā, though, I can still slip quietly into the coat pockets of white privilege. I do not have to deal with the everyday systematic racism that a non-white New Zealander faces. It’s only a name, after all. But my experience, my family’s experience, my partner’s experience with names is like a little hole in the seam of that coat pocket, shedding a small light on the fabric of cultural superiority.

A kiwi is a bird, or a hairy fruit, or a person who identifies as a New Zealander. In the latter instance, that is the surface meaning. On another level, a Kiwi is a white New Zealander of British extraction. This was the silent suggestion in Don Brash’s election campaign billboards, half blue half red, labelled Iwi/Kiwi. This was implied in Paul Henry’s buffoonish jokes about Anand Satyanand. In every comment about what is or isn’t Kiwi. There are degrees of Kiwi. Some of us are more Kiwi than others. Never mind the goddamn bird being just about extinct. Or the Psa bacterium. The T-sauce, the pav, the black singlet, the jandals, the All Blacks, the hokey pokey, the red and black Swanndri, the quarter-acre section. Does this apply to anyone? 

That’s what ‘Kiwi’ means to me—an odd kind of half-arsed point-missing fairytale.

What does it all add up to? To me it’s like a weird imperative to throw oneself in that problematic melting pot, the moulding of a shape into which people can be pressed and tested, and fit or not. You are welcome. You aren’t. The poll tax. The dawn raids. Our pathetic refugee quota. There’s a series of kids’ books currently in production called Kiwi Corkers, full of faltering anapaestic lines, improbable dated slang, fudged rhymes, mangled reo. The Gebrüder Grimm meets Footrot Flats, no irony intended. Cinderella marries a footy player. The little red hen is a little blue duck. She milks cows by hand and owns an Edmonds cookbook. That’s what ‘Kiwi’ means to me—an odd kind of half-arsed point-missing fairytale. One that’s increasingly difficult to maintain as populations become more urbanised and more multicultural, but don’t we ever keep trying. 

*

The first Gössi generation born in New Zealand were born in the 1930s. They became young adults in a time when anything Germanic was suspicious. German biscuits became Belgian biscuits, German shepherds Alsatians. There’s an old piano at my son’s Playcentre, walnut veneer, with a brass inlay reading ‘Made in’ and then a scratched-out shape that starts with a ‘G’ and ends with a ‘y’. There are photographs in our local museum of bricks through butcher shop windows. The longstanding mis-association of a regime with a people. Mr Norman, when his carefully practised accent cracked, when his country of origin was made known, was enthusiastically greeted with the Nazi salute. His Aussie friend listed him in his mobile contacts as ‘Hit’. When my grandfather started school in 1937, his English wasn’t fluent. By the time he left school he’d lost Schweizer-Deutsch. His parents spoke it to each other, and a mixture to their children, but somehow the children lost their grip on it, or it lost its grip on them. When we sift through old family letters, Norman has to translate. He gets excited and races ahead of us, photographs everything with his phone. What is he tapping into? What is he preserving? 

One of my granddad’s brothers trimmed his name, changing it by deedpoll to the more palatable Goss. No dots. No ‘e’. No diminutive ‘i’ as in Müsli, Röteli, Käselädeli. Another brother just rolled with the pronunciation his friends and acquaintances gave him, Gossey. ‘Who the fuck is Daniel Goessi?’ his son Darryl was heard to exclaim, when by some unlikely chance a caller hit upon the original vowel sound. It’s a little like the men named Rangi who ended up rhyming with ‘tangy’. Remove a person from family and culture, take down the struts of a language—by a Native Schools Act, by garden-variety xenophobia, by sheer inconvenience—and a name is quickly unsettled. Sometimes it’s better just to go by an initial. 

Hans eked out a living in Helensville growing carnations and flicking on the odd bottle of contraband moonshine.

But you can get a name back. Sometimes this means going home. Sometimes this means going to the other side of the world. My Aunt Jane waitressed in a small ski town in Switzerland. After years abroad she came back via Europe and Asia by motorbike, with a Swiss man named Hans. And an umlaut. Jane Gössi. Hans got dropped fairly quickly. The umlaut persisted, two black jewels in a little floating crown. Hans eked out a living in Helensville growing carnations and flicking on the odd bottle of contraband moonshine. He and Jane distilled a few batches together. ‘Jane make good Schnapps,’ Hans told me and Norman, as we sat at his kitchen table in Chur, many years later, sampling his friends’ Pflümli and Kirschwasser. It seemed like months, years, followed the evening in the hipster pub, where we would find ourselves shifting from table to table, raising our glasses. Sampling the regional spirits of the Western world. About three years on from that early pub date we found ourselves with a fat, spirited baby, going through the ropes of getting him two passports. If the umlaut had been fascinating to me before, it now became something of a furious obsession.

*

The difficulty in keeping an umlaut is a symptom of the difficulty in keeping a language. Besides Schweizer-Deutsch, my ancestors lost two further languages in New Zealand: French and Gaelic. What do we have left of those languages? A surname. A gravestone. A one franc piece. Two recipes for biscuits, a recipe for rösti. (Without the umlaut, they’re ‘roasty’.) A small museum. Some dubious tartans. Is that really all? Where did the rest go? Time after time, Norman would have the same conversation with my grandfather. You spoke German as a child? So why can’t you speak it now? 

In the womb the children heard me calling biological facts across a lino’d lab. Out of it, they heard my half-remembered lullabies, my English baby nonsense.

Before our children were born we were so sure times had changed. Before our children were born we were sure they’d be one hundred per cent bilingual. We hadn’t taken into account the hidden weight, in a family where a mother is the primary parent, of the term ‘mother-tongue’. In the womb the children heard me calling biological facts across a lino’d lab. Out of it, they heard my half-remembered lullabies, my English baby nonsense. German came home from work in the evening, sometimes not until very late. It was a paternal T-shirt tucked into a bassinet, a wide rising chest to fall asleep against in the wee small hours. German was on Skype, on a plane ride, on holiday. It told them to stand up, to put on their jackets, to brush their teeth. Nowadays they speak to their father in a mongrel mixture. Sometimes this is funny. Sometimes it’s infuriating. They’ll pick it up quickly if they ever live there, we tell each other. Sometimes it feels like standing next to a swimming pool pipetting in a tiny drop of something other than water. A drop of Pflümli. What are the chances? 

The New Zealand passport office did not appear keen for anyone to leave the country, even if only for a few weeks’ holiday in Australia. This photograph has a shadow under the chin. The baby’s lips are slightly parted. Then there were my fuck-ups: the writing on the back of the photograph does not match the witness’s handwriting. The parent has forgotten to sign the form. Back and forth went the documentation, with time running short, and the ex-pat parent, stressed by travel in general, becoming increasingly panicked. Then came the call explaining that the passport was now held up because ‘the name on the passport does not match the name on the birth certificate’. 

You may not have a umlaut in a New Zealand passport. In fact, you may not have any diacritic. You may not have an acute, a grave, a breve, a cedilla. You may not have an ogonek or a háček. You may not have a circumflex, or a macron. 

A macron. One of our official languages, the indigenous language of Aotearoa, is, in its written form, full of macrons. And you may not have a macron. 

...an envelope arrived from the passport office addressed to their daughter, Hoeng?rangi. The start of her association with the state, they joked.

Some friends of ours found this out when an envelope arrived from the passport office addressed to their daughter, Hoeng?rangi. The start of her association with the state, they joked. The state, that great big bottle of homogenised milk. That Kiwi Corker bureaucracy. Have a beaut day. The solution to not being allowed an umlaut, was, of course, to insert an e. No, said the passport office; then the name will not be the same as it is on the birth certificate (where it was spelled with a ü). Master Lukas Grübsch would just have to lose his dots and be Grubsch. But that’s WRONG, I argued. What was I supposed to do? I would have to find some way of proving that there were two ways of spelling the name, I was told. 

After a period of intense rage, I rang the German embassy. They answered, of course, in German. I did what I always do when faced with brisk, official High German—said ‘Guten tag,’ and then fell back on English, blabbling my story. I am not German—but my partner is German—my son was born here— but he is also a German citizen—we have this problem with the New Zealand passports office—about an umlaut—what do I do?

The man at the embassy, in the kind of clear, impeccable English used only by second-language speakers, and maybe the Queen at Christmas, said: ‘You will need to bring in your partner’s passport which will show both spellings, as proof. Along the bottom of the passport on the first page it will show the international spelling.’ Whew. I did not need to write to the local council in Schkeuditz. I did not need to compile a family history going back a thousand years. I did not need to write an essay on the umlaut. 

So my son got to be Grübsch on his birth certificate, and in his Playcentre profile book, and on his school uniform and lunchbox and socks, and Gruebsch on his passport and at the doctor’s and anywhere where an ‘ü’ on a hand-filled form might be swapped for an ‘u’ on a computer file. It would all work out somehow. But slowly, imperceptibly, as years went by, I was getting madder. I was no longer mildly annoyed about speaking to an audience to whom I’d been introduced as Aarony Bewtriss. I no longer let people spell my first name ‘Irene’ if they felt like it. I would carefully sound out ‘Kroopsch. Kroopsch.’ The ‘g’ is more like a ‘k’. The ‘b’ is more like a ‘p’. There’s a ‘sch’ at the end. Like in school, but it’s not ‘sk’, it’s more like ‘shh’. It is not funny. It is not unusual. It is my family’s name. It is no more different than Smith. One of you is an apple core. The other makes horseshoes. Both those things are equally irrelevant.

And in turn I got madder every time I heard someone else’s name botched. And every time I heard someone say dumb shit about immigrants. And every time a redneck wrote to the local paper and said we had a referendum on this, and said it isn’t pronounced with an h anyway, and said I am a white guy who knows better and Wanganui has always been spelled this way. It’s always been this way.

As I sat down and prepared to explain to the nurse that I was pissing blood, she asked me, ‘Did I say your name right?’

Recently, in the doctor’s surgery, a nurse walked into the waiting room and said my name correctly. A warmth swelled up in me that made me want to burst into tears. Ever so occasionally, this happens. I get a call centre operator who gets it. Or someone says, ‘That was my grandmother’s name.’ Or ‘My daughter is having a baby, I suggested that name.’ As I sat down and prepared to explain to the nurse that I was pissing blood, she asked me, ‘Did I say your name right?’ I affirmed. She said, ‘Oh, that’s just how you would say it in my language, Shona—from Zimbabwe.’ I said my name is Māori and that perhaps the vowels and the rolled ‘r’ are the same in both those languages. Despite my physical discomfort, I was beginning to feel soothed. 

I am a Pākehā with a Māori first name. I was named after Airini Gössi, the quarry labourer’s daughter who married a Stoney. To her Swiss parents, the name didn’t seem difficult. Not all dipthongs are pronounced the same in Māori and German, but ‘Ai’ is. I have a French surname, brought out on a boat by a man of no history. It doesn’t mean shoemaker. It doesn’t mean apple core. It doesn’t appear to mean anything. People said he’d been a fugitive criminal and had made it up, until the internet took off and we realised there were more of us. There are ten people called Beautrais in New Zealand, and the rest are in Nantes. My s might be silent but no one is going to take it off me. 

It is okay to ask. It is okay to make a mistake. And it is okay to be corrected.

Spelling and pronouncing a name correctly is a matter of respect. It is a way of saying I give enough of a shit about you to honour who you are. It is a matter of listening carefully to vowel and consonantal sounds, and how they differ to those of one’s primary language. It is okay to ask. It is okay to make a mistake. And it is okay to be corrected. ‘Whanganui’ does not rhyme with ‘conger’ and ‘Dewey’. Whanganui iwi would like an ‘h’ in the place name given by their ancestors. There’s no valid argument against this. It is their name and their language. It is about acknowledging colonisation, admitting to privilege, and saying we do not have to keep on walking that worn-out path. We can take that coat off and set fire to it. 

And what is the umlaut about? It is two dots, a diacritic, which turn the letter u into a smiley face. But I hope the umlaut, for my kids, is about saying I am tauiwi. I am Pākehā, but I am only a little bit British. I was born here, and I have come here from somewhere else. I have brought a few treasures with me. A coin. A tea-box. These small dots. Some of my waka were sailing ships. They had names like Jocelyn, Margaret, Gertrude, Spray, Baron Aberdare. Some of my waka were steamships. One, my papa’s waka, was a waka rererangi, a Boeing 747 that hit the tarmac in 2005. I know where I am from. I know whose land I live on. I am keeping my diacritic. I will help you keep yours. I will say bird names, tree names, place names as the first people gave them. I carry all this with me at home, and at my other homes, and when I pass ports.



Airini’s essay appears in Landfall 232, which is available from independant booksellers.

In 2017 Landfall will celebrate its 70th birthday. To mark the occasion, Otago University Press are launching the Charles Brasch Young Writers’ Essay Competition, open to writers aged 16 to 21. The competition is named after Dunedin editor, poet and patron Charles Brasch, who founded Landfall in 1947 and was its editor for the next two decades. The competition opened on 1 December 2016. For further details visit the competition website.

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