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Poëtes, anyone?
March 13th, 2009

I’ve been informed by someone from France that the word “poëtes” which appears on our new chart of Chat Noir is not a French word and that it should be “poètes”. Here’s the funny thing: I didn’t make this up, it is the way the original poster read. Further, it’s pretty clear that, although you sometimes see printed material where part of a character didn’t print, the umlaut is not a broken accent; it’s a deliberate umlaut. (I’m sure the French don’t call it an umlaut, but I’m not opening that can of worms.) So why did the poster say poëtes?

I had a lot of trouble translating the French because I don’t speak French and the online translation services I tried translated some words but not all. Sometimes you can work translation software backwards by guessing what a word means, giving the English, and seeing what it translates into (or at least you can eliminate words that way). But none of the words I could think of relating to poets, poetry, poems, poetry readings, translate into poëtes. Finally I got what I hoped was the gist from a web site giving some background on this poster, but I’m sure it’s not a very exact translation.

I just did a Google search for poëtes and found it on some pages that appear to be French. If I copy it into French-English dictionaries they either say it isn’t a word, pretend I really entered poètes, or change or remove the ë and tell me that poates (or in one case, potes) isn’t a word. I can believe that but it doesn’t help.

If I thought the original poster was somehow just WRONG, I’d change the umlaut to an accent (and since the chart contains a couple of accents, this is something any stitcher could easily do whether I change the chart or not). But it seems like a French poster, produced in France by native French speakers, somehow must be correct even if I can’t prove it.

As they used to say in Dear Abby, sign me … Baffled In Austin

4 Responses to “Poëtes, anyone?”
  1. From rifestitch
    11 years, 6 months ago

    Hmm, that’s strange. But as that’s the original poster, it makes sense to go with it. I love this, by the way – I have a version of it, with no words other than Chat Noir on it, that I am going to do for my old black kitty Booger – he will be 20 years old next week – and smells it :( It’s about time for me to take him in for his last trip – I just can’t bear to do it yet…

  2. From Divecat
    11 years, 6 months ago


    My darling, knowledgeable husband, says that there is an umlaute in French but it is very rarely used. It is used when 2 vowles are next to each other and both vowels must be pronounced, eg naive, noel etc (my PC doesn’t let me put umlautes in!). It really isn’t a common usage but it is correct. So poetes is pronounced (please forgive me here) po – etes. Apparently the umlaute is also known as le trema (with an accent over the e!)

    Hope this helps!

  3. From Alanna
    11 years, 6 months ago

    Well, I am actually able to answer this question. I am a professional French translator (don’t hestitate to ask me in the future rather than struggling with online automatic translators!).

    Like in English, French spelling has changed a great deal over the years (remember Shakespeare was known to use eight different spellings of his own name on a regular basis) and this includes changing norms in the use of its accents. Modern French uses five accents: the acute, the grave, the circumflex, the umlaut (which in French is known as the tréma) and the cedilla, although the rules regarding their usage has changed with the times of different eras.

    The date given for the Chat Noir is 1896 and at this time the word for poet, was in fact officially spelt with a grave accent: poète, but up until 1878 it had always been spelt with a tréma: poëte, until the Académie Française changed it. The Académie is still changing words today (and adding new ones to the dictionaries of France), but one thing still hasn’t changed: just because the Académie says that’s the way it should be spelt/written/pronounced/used has very little effect on the populace, who continue to use it the way they always have for many many years after the offical change, until it slowly sneaks into common usage. So it is absolutely no surprise to me at all that 18 years after the official change in spelling was declared, a troupe of artistes and performers were still using the old and still more common spelling.

    For French etymology buffs, this is a nice quick review:

    I hope that helps settle this one, Meredith! You are absolutely right to reproduce the original as is, it is a piece of history!

    That’s fascinating! Thank you so much — I knew someone must know the answer!

  4. From Kaira
    11 years, 2 months ago

    No matter how wrong the spelling had been you would have made the right choice by not correcting it. It is a copy of the actuall artwoork – it would be like changing the colours in a Van Gogh because they didn’t match up with reality.

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