Saturday, May 19, 2012


Today we ponder the age old question: what the heck are those two dots that appear over that first “ä” in Hägar? An abbreviated answer along with some history of that name as relates to this writer - follows. First, the history.

Once upon a time, not long ago, there was a first generation American named Robert Alexander Swanson (1925-1993). Bob’s parents, Alex and Margaret were native Scots who immigrated from Wick in Caithness to New York then to Medicine Hat, Alberta, Canada and ultimately back to the United States and Fort Dodge, Iowa. Bob was essentially raised in a Scottish household forming the basis for his Friendships in later life, a keen appreciation of his origins and no doubt the impetus for his long lasting legacy in the American-Scottish Community.

Following World War II Bob set out to make his way in life and ended up in Birmingham, Alabama and soon discovered a few folks that shared his Scottish pedigree along with Jeanette who became his Queen. Bob was a motivator and natural leader and as we say now, a real people person. Bob was a co-founder of the Alabama Caledonian Society and soon gathered a sizeable group of folks of the same ilk – an organization that continues to this day. This was just the first chapter in his way too short though thoroughly distinguished life.

In the 1970’s Scottish Highland Games and Festivals were sprouting up all around the United States and Canada fed by the enthusiasm generated by the olde established, venerable Highland Games at Braemar, Scotland (1832), the Cowal Highland Gathering in Dunoon, Scotland (1894), Grandfather Mountain, North Carolina (1955), Santa Rosa/Pleasanton, California (1865), Antigonish, Nova Scotia, Canada (1861) and many, many others. People were searching for their Scottish roots and looking to have a good time with those with the same soul and spirit. Then, as now, they have many opportunities to, “Find that Inner Scot” – probably more so than any other culture or ethnic group on the face of our planet.

Soon many were celebrating their Scottish origins to include Bob with his primary family connection – The Clan Gunn. Bob also celebrated his MacKay (Norse-Pictish) and MacFarlane (Gaelic) roots but his Daddy’s clan with its even more diverse Celtic heritage and strong Norse connections seemed to inspire him to his greatest heights. Mind you, a smart man he mostly wore his Mother’s MacFarlane tartan kilt to church…

That Gunn Norse connection would have a long lasting effect on Bob and ultimately, the Scottish Community worldwide.

Right about this time (1973) cartoonist Dik Browne created the very popular Hägar the Horrible comic strip which, then as now, is distributed by the King Features Syndicate. Hägar the Horrible proved to be a dead ringer for a stout, courageous and moustached/bearded Bob. While some folks relate that Bob adopted the persona of Hägar, his resemblance and uncannily similar mannerisms were noted by many others who encouraged Bob to embrace that role. When Hägar creator Dik Browne offered his support in that endeavor, it was a fait accompli.

Truth be known, the comic strip was all about creator Dik Browne. The character was born in the minds of sons Chris and Chance who early on called their Dad, Hägar the Terrible. After years of illustrating and writing for Hi and Lois, Dik resurrected Hägar who became… the Horrible. We note that son Chris now writes and illustrates Hägar the Horrible while son Chance draws Hi and Lois. Lots of creative genes there…

This writer met Bob and wife Jeanette Swanson at the Savannah Highland Games in 1978 and from that point we were great, if not, Best Friends. But that’s another story that’s been written and will soon be published (Himself & Friends). That meeting and others of our ilk ultimately set up the Gathering at the Grandfather Mountain Highland Games and the ultimate birthing of the Kingdome of Räknar in 1979. Again, another story…

Hägar and Räknar for us always insinuated strong Norse/Viking origins though the Danes did ultimately play a part in the evolution of Scotland. Many have wondered and asked me about that pesky umlaut - those pair of dots above the ä in Hägar. We also see the ö and ü umlauts used over those vowels in languages to include German, Swedish, Finnish and others.

School Is In: Some have attempted to educate this writer stating that those two dots over the first ä in Hägar are called a diacritical mark. Indeed, all marks including accent graves, the circumflex, breve and the umlaut are, among others, diacritical marks. In German the two dots are called an umlaut and refer to the mark itself and its function. In other languages the two dots are called a dieresis only when it serves the function of indicating that two consecutive vowels are to be voiced and inflected differently. For our purposes we will assume a Germanic perspective and call the two dots an umlaut, that being expedient since we are not dealing with two consecutive vowels.

Simply put, the umlaut tells us how to pronounce that word. The umlaut literally denotes a change of sound moving the syllable sound to the front or back of the mouth. For example, in German “ooo” becomes “oh” from the long to the short. Yes, we also understand that the Danish and Norwegian “æ” is equivalent to the umlaut ä we now see in the Swedish and Finnish alphabets and languages. It becomes obvious that this is a far more complicated issue than this simplistic explanation and we plead guilty to ignorance and apologize especially to our grammarian/linguist Friends. The science of language is a credible and impressive pursuit. We cannot carry your bags…

Given our lack of scholarship though understanding the Norse “ae” rule, we really can’t figure out how the ä umlaut was pronounced in Old Norse. The conundrum is that the umlaut denotes different sounds in different languages and has changed over the last millennia. Our table is now set in 21st century America so what’s the rule now? My futile research has been inconclusive though I look at the revered Häagen Daz (yes, its a diaresis) and note the pronunciation of that first “ä” is as in “hog” a long way from our accepted “ä” in Hägar as “hay”. Not surprisingly, then, we find that Häagen Daz is a totally fictitious name created by some incredibly talented Jewish-Polish immigrants in the Bronx, New York. The fabricated name was meant to look Scandinavian – like Hägar.

This has prompted us to finally, thankfully, realize that our attempt at scholarship and explanation probably has no real bearing or significance on the evolution of Hägar the Horrible as presented in the comic strip by Dik and Chris Browne or the persona adopted by the late Bob Swanson. We will agree that the umlaut makes Hägar a little more “quirky and oddly quaint” and, yes, Scandanavian.

Supporting our gob smacked marketing-driven epiphany we find that Hägar the Horrible in America is known as Hagbard in Denmark, Harald the Terrible in Finland, Olaf the Bitter in Mexico, Hagbard the Strong-Handed in Sweden and Hårek the Hardy in of all places – Norway. No umlaut but a strong long a…

Chris Browne recently shed some light on our topic, thusly, “I pronounce it Hay-gar. My brother, Chance, who draws Hi and Lois and I came up with it as a nickname for Dad when we were kids. It's a made-up word, so anyway you pronounce it is correct!” So, in effect, Chris is admitting that the umlaut is there for visual effect and we feel that’s OK.

So, there you have it. Let’s just continue to have fun with Hägar the Horrible and agree that the Hägar “ä” looks good with or without an umlaut. We concur with one participant on a 2008 thread who while reflecting his understanding of the situation suggested, “Just call him Bob.”


Nëd Büxtōn

PS. This post is dedicated to Jeanette “Queen Helga” Swanson of Birmingham, Alabama, always our Queen and Inspiration, Aye, NB

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