I’m not sure when this phenomenon first caught my attention, but two of my oldest memories of it are tied to the big screen. I didn’t actually see the American horror flick Sorority Row. I couldn’t get past the spelling of the title in the trailers: SORΘRITY ROW. You’ll notice that the instead of an “O” as the fourth letter in the word “sorority” the Greek Theta has been used. I suppose because the movie’s plot centers on members of a Greek sorority and “Θ” resembles “O” someone thought this a clever (even artistic) move. But it’s not clever. This little switch-a-roo fully changes the word’s pronunciation to something like (sawrth’-ri-tee) and renders it meaningless. Sigma’s resemblance to the Roman “E” makes it vulnerable to this gimmick as well. Remember MY BIG FAT GRΣΣK WEDDING? I can’t even begin to try pronouncing this one.
Greek isn’t the only language whose letters are lifted and planted in unfamiliar linguistic soil. The German U-umlaut (Ü) is commonly used in place of the “U.” Art directors and marketing execs believe that adding the two little dots lends European flair. All it really does, however, is reinforce the notion that the U-umlaut and the “U” are the same letter – just on different sides of the Atlantic. I came across this gem on a recent visit to a grocery store:
Pölka Dot Riesling — Germany
While the grapes may come from Germany, the branding certainly does not. The word “polka” itself is Czech in origin and contains no umlaut, and the phrase that refers to the fashion design is decidedly English. The umlaut not only makes the word meaningless, but it transforms its pronunciation in ways that would make it difficult for most English speakers to utter.
I suppose this device of blending random letters from different alphabets is employed to evoke a foreignness that entices consumers; and maybe it works. Perhaps it’s just the word snobs and language elitists who are turned off by these constructions that are hybrids in spelling but not at all in meaning. I think, however, that Americans in general would be better served by really learning other languages. Then, American moviegoers would be content with sorority being spelled αδελφότητα, and wine drinkers would easily recognize Schloß Johannisberger Grünlack as a really good, medium-priced German wine.