They are polite, in a Scandinavian sort of way, but folks in Lindström would really like their missing umlauts back.
The Swedish diacritical marks graced the Chisago County community’s twin highway population signs for close to 20 years until they vanished when the signs were recently updated.
Some folks still haven’t noticed they’re missing. But some of those who have say that the double dots over the eighth letter in the town name are both critical to spelling and saying it correctly, and an important symbol for a city tucked in the middle of an area that draws some 3,000 Swedish tourists annually. They’re drawn by the real history of the Chisago Lakes area and by the area’s role in Sweden’s most famous fictional saga of emigration.
“I want the name of the town correct,” said Sally Barott of nearby Shafer, who recalls the quirky story of the guerrilla umlauting of the sign back in the early 1990s.
Swedish-born Lena Normann, who alternates between teaching the language at the University of Minnesota and living in Sweden, said that the distinction between an o and an ö is critical for students learning the language.
“These are two completely different letters representing two completely different sounds,” she said.
Daniel Lindström, after whom the town is named, had an umlaut. His name means “linden stream” in Swedish.
It doesn’t mean anything without an umlaut, Normann said. There are other towns scattered across Minnesota whose names would more properly also require the symbol, such as the Lake Mille Lacs community of Malmö. Swedish has three vowels not found in English — the ö, the ä and the å. They affect both the pronunciation and the meaning of words.
“It’s a big deal to us,” said John Olinger, the city administrator who made calls to the Minnesota Department of Transportation, including MnDOT’s sign arbiter.
“She said she’d love to be able to let us do it,” Olinger said. But MnDOT said it was bound by the Standard Alphabets for Traffic Control Devices, a federally promoted standard that eschews punctuation marks.
Mayor Keith Carlson said he would prefer that the umlauts be restored but that he is not looking to pick a fight with MnDOT. It has made improvements over the years to Hwy. 8 that have dramatically reduced its fatality rate. Carlson is all-Swedish by heritage, although the only thing he can say in that language is that he doesn’t understand it.
It is difficult to overstate the Swedish heritage of the eight Chisago County towns that make up what Barott has dubbed the “Swedish Circle” in a tourism brochure she developed. They stretch from Scandia to Almelund; half have Swedish sister cities. Swedish royalty visited the area in 1996.
Hwy. 8, which bisects the area, carries drivers past a Swedescape that is hard to miss. In Lindström, the modern water tower is painted in Swedish yellow and blue. The old water tower was preserved by modifying it to resemble a Swedish coffee pot, bearing the greeting “Välkommen till Lindström” circled with rosemaling. Swedish was once taught at the high school.
The area was an important portal for arriving Swedes as early as the 1850s, when the first settlers landed at Taylors Falls. A forerunner of the Chisago County Press was published in Swedish in its early days. That history drew Swedish author Vilhelm Moberg, who biked the county in 1948 to comb diaries and old newspapers for material for a four-volume saga of that migration, later turned into two films in the 1970s. Statues commemorating Moberg, his fictional protagonists and founding settlers of the area dot the verges of Hwy. 8.
“We’re Swedish Mecca,” Olinger said.
That may be, but MnDOT is firm: No apostrophes, no tildes and, for sure, no umlauts.
‘The right thing to do’
Then how did they get on highway signs in the first place? For that, Lindström can thank Mark Karnowski, now city administrator in Princeton. When he held the same position in Lindström in the early 1990s, new federal census figures were issued, meaning that highway signs would be updated for population.
“Knowing that that was going to happen, I asked MnDOT if in keeping with the then-governor’s emphasis on tourism, if they could put the two dots over the O,” he said. After that was rejected, he got creative, obtaining a sheet of reflective material from the supplier of Lindström’s street signs.
“I took a stepladder and I measured the diameter of the dot above the i in Lindström. And I cut them out.” They lasted maybe a month before highway workers removed them.
But Karnowski contacted a local high school graduate, Mark Wikelius, who had worked his way up the ladder at MnDOT and asked whether he could intercede with higher-ups for a two-dot dispensation. “About a week later he called back and said, ‘Put them back up,’ ” Karnowski recalled.
So how high did Wikelius, still living in Lindström but now retired, need to go up the ladder at MnDOT to win permission?
He admitted last week that he never got permission.
“I’m a hundred percent Swedish so I understand what umlauts are,” Wikelius said. “To me, I thought it was the right thing to do.”