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Mueller, Miller Hallelujah Twist
2006-05-04 10:22
by Bob Timmermann

In 1996 the San Francisco Giants called up infielder Bill Mueller. He played two games in April in Chicago and then didn't play in the majors again until July. He was up for three days in April while the Giants had a temporary shortage of infielders. Mueller was called up again after Robby Thompson got hurt again (although not enough to go on the disabled list). But Mueller was up in the big leagues to stay.

Mueller would play five seasons in San Francisco, get traded to the Cubs, then traded back to the Giants briefly and then move on to Boston as a free agent and now plays for the Dodgers.

When Mueller first came up and I saw him play, I was surprised to find out that his name was pronounced like it was spelled "Miller". I had excepted him to pronounce it a bit more Teutonic. More like "MULE-er" with the first syllable sounding like the farm animnal.

But Bill Mueller was "Miller". And sometime in 1996, I turned to my father and asked him, "How do you pronounce the last name M-u-e-l-l-e-r?" I was fully expecting to trick him on this.

My father (who had no idea who Bill Mueller was) turned to me and said, "Miller, how else would you pronounce it?" I told him how there had bee several other major leaguers and they had all been "MULE-ers" to the best of my knowledge.

Dad explained, "There was a whole family of Muellers in Clinton County [Illinois, where he grew up], they all said Miller."

And indeed my father was right. Bill Mueller was from the same part of the country (although he grew up on the St. Louis side of the Mississippi). Mueller himself has said that his family had anglicized the pronunciation of the name (although not the spelling) when they came to the U.S. Mueller never says when, but I'm guessing that World War I, when sauerkraut became "victory cabbage", was a precipitating event.

However, I still don't know why the family would worry so much about having a German name. After all, one of the muncipalities in Clinton County is called Germantown and it has a sign telling you that it's the home of the Spasfest. (Festival of Fun, literally.) Hall of Famer Red Schoendienst was born in Germantown. But who knows what sort of hostilities the original Muellers (Bill variety) felt when they came to the U.S. Then again, judging by this series of events in Montana may be indicative of problems that Germans faced in some parts of the U.S. during World War I.

So what's the point of all this rambling? Well, today would have been my father's 77th birthday. He passed away in 2002. He didn't get the chance to show off his keen insights into the pronunciation of the surname of the Dodgers third baseman. I hope, for my Dad's sake, that Bill Mueller gets a few hits tonight. I know it's strange to associate a loved one with something as esoteric as a pronunciation, but I thought I would avoid getting too maudlin here. Just a little tip of the hat to you, Dad.

2006-05-04 07:05:38
1.   Daniel Zappala
Happy birthday to your dad, Bob. Love works just fine when it is inspired by small things.
2006-05-04 07:52:22
2.   DXMachina
Get Joe Moeller in there, and you've got a party. (As a young boy with no previous experience with the name or access to Vin Scully, I used to pronounce it as "Mo-eller.")

Best wishes to you on your dad's birthday.

2006-05-04 08:07:16
3.   Sam DC
Nice memories, Bob.

But are you sure you didn't tip your dad off a little when you said, "How do you pronounce the last name Mueller?"

2006-05-04 08:27:28
4.   Eric Enders
A family of my acquaintance has this name and uses neither of the above pronunciations. The way they say it rhymes with "duller."
2006-05-04 08:36:53
5.   Bob Timmermann
I think I spelled out the name for him or pointed it out to him in the newspaper.
2006-05-04 08:47:20
6.   Kayaker7
My doctor pronounces his name as "muller" (spelled "Mueller")
2006-05-04 09:22:05
7.   Jen
Thanks for the explanation Bob. I feel bad for the hateful things I said about Mr. Mueller because of the way his prounouces his last name. I share almost the same name as Bill (minus the first "e") so I always thought it should be pronounced like 4 & 6, or like "MULE-er".
2006-05-04 09:31:33
8.   Bob Timmermann
I presume the name in Germany was spelled Müller.

Then in the U.S., a lot of people switched that spelling to Mueller and then everybody started playing around with the pronunciations.

One of the leading scorers in World Cup soccer history is a German, whose name appears in English language reference sources as Gerd Muller.

2006-05-04 10:02:58
9.   Ken Arneson
Müller is the original name, yes. Typically, vowels with umlauts are often transcribed as the vowel + e in languages without umlauts. So the Swedish skier Anja Pärson saw her name spelled "Anja Paerson" in the Olympics, for example.

I shall now resort to my college linguistics studies to describe what the problem is here.

The 'ü' sound in German is what is called a "high front rounded vowel." That is, it is made with the tongue bunched up near the top and front of the mouth, and with the lips rounded.

The problem is that the English language does not have any front rounded vowels. The only rounded vowels we have are back vowels, like the "oo" sound and the "oh" sound.

So when we need to anglicize a front-rounded vowel into English, we have two choices: we can move the tongue backwards in the mouth to a point where we do have a rounded vowel, or we can keep the tongue where it is, and unround the lips.

If you unround the lips, you get "Miller". If you move the tongue back, you get "Mooler".

Given that the spelling suggests a back vowel, I would think the latter would be a more common choice.

However, if the fact that the "Mu" spelling typically gets pronounced "Myu" in English, I can see why you'd choose the "Miller" pronunciation. There is no "y" sound in the original, and I can understand how "Myooler" would grate on my ears.

2006-05-04 10:08:08
10.   Bob Timmermann
Danke, Herr Arneson.
2006-05-04 10:15:49
11.   Ken Arneson
By the way, the closest approximation in English of the 'ü' sound is from the surfer dialect. The surfer pronunciation of the vowel in the word "dude" is a high-central rounded vowel.

The surfer/valley girl dialect is characterized by comprehensive vowel rotation that results in some back vowels like "oo" shifting forward, and front vowels shifting down.

2006-05-04 10:16:02
12.   Bob Timmermann
I would also add that former NL batting champ Don Mueller was from St. Louis and his name was pronounced as "myooler" and Bill Mueller is "miller" which means there were two distinct families with that name in the area.

Not hard to believe as Mueller is not an uncommon name.

2006-05-04 10:17:31
13.   Eric Enders
I have no idea what any of that means, but it's fascinating nonetheless.
2006-05-04 10:18:31
14.   Bob Timmermann
I took two classes in linguistics in college and, much to my surprise, Ken's explanation did make sense.
2006-05-04 12:49:40
15.   LAT
Nice post Bob. I assume your "vacation day" has more to do with your fathers birthday than defrosting your freezer or washing your delicates.
2006-05-04 12:58:19
16.   Bob Timmermann
That's true. And actually the washer is broken anyway. It has no spin cycle. So I'm headed to the laundromat. But my dad would have wanted me to do something productive on this day anyway.

The freezer is back in business however.

2006-05-04 14:05:40
17.   Xeifrank
Nice post Bob. My relatives are all from the same part of southern Illinois and German. They didn't have to change their name, but one aunt has a history book of the small county they live in and when you go back quite a few years you see alot of "German hating" in the old newspaper articles. vr, Xei
2006-05-04 14:10:24
18.   Tangotiger
Ken, great post. I remember reading about that a while back, but you captured it perfectly.

For you french-speakers, the french equivalent is "rue". The surfer-Spicolo version of "dude" is pretty close. Maybe Inspector Clouseau would say "dude" the same way as well.

2006-05-04 14:39:02
19.   Ken Arneson
Thanks. I know my front-rounded vowels. Of the nine different vowels in Swedish, three of 'em are of the front-rounded sort.

Learning those three vowel sounds is the single most difficult thing for a native English speaker to master when attempting to learn Swedish.

All those front-rounded vowels is also what makes the Swedish Chef sound like, well, the Swedish Chef. You can't do a Swedish Chef imitation without rounding your lips.

2006-05-04 14:56:59
20.   Spaceman Spiff
Best wishes to you on your father's birthday, Bob. It's become a cliche since Field of Dreams, but baseball really ties together fathers and sons.

My father always rooted for the Dodgers, and the running joke in the family was that they could never win when he went to see a game in person. Once, when we were leaving a game the Dodgers were losing in late innings, they came back and won the game while we were on our way home.

2006-05-04 17:19:38
21.   Bob Timmermann

But to be honest, my mom was a much bigger baseball fan than my dad. But my dad did graduate in the same high school class as one of Red Schoendienst's younger brothers. Red had a lot of brothers. And a lot of them had red hair too.

2006-05-05 07:57:03
22.   mcsantos
Bostonian's had quite a bit of fun with Bill Mueller, Kevin Millar, and Wade Miller the past few seasons.

Of course, they all ended up sounding quite similar:


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