The German language is known for not only its grammatical complexity, but also for the way the language sounds.

One of my favourite phonetic quirks of the German language is this weird phenomenon called Umlaut.

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What is the German Umlaut? Where does it come from? Are there any rules when it comes to using the Umlaut?

Let’s find out today!

For those who already know German, you know what an umlaut is. For everybody else, let me show you a small text in German full of umlauts (written by Salgi):

Die süße Hündin läuft in die Höhle des Bären, der sie zum Teekränzchen eingeladen hat, da sie seine drei schönen Krönchen gerettet hat, was sie wie folgt angestellt hat: Sie läuft über einen Fluss und tötet alle grünen Frösche, die über die Krönchen wachen, so hat sie diese schönen Krönchen gerettet.

You don’t need to know the language in order to notice that there is something you would not find in an English text – these dots above some vowels do stand out. These vowels with two dots are what is called umlauts.

In German, only the vowels A, O and U have an umlaut counterpart: Ä, Ö and Ü.

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The word Umlaut itself is of German origin and it’s sort of a compound word: it’s a combination of the preposition Um and the noun Laut.

While Laut can easily be translated as “sound” and is a cognate to the English word Loud, Um is a bit trickier to translate, due to the fact that it’s a preposition.

Um can be roughly translated as something like “around” in English. In this case, however, it conveys a meaning of change or alteration.

With that said, we can assume that the German vowels Ä, Ö and Ü are alterations of their vanilla counterparts. And that is exactly what an umlaut is, phonetically speaking.

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Now let’s dive deep into the phonetics side of the matter, one of my favourite subjects. It is worth mentioning that, if you don’t know the IPA, you will be a bit lost.

To be straight to the point, here is a clear overview of the sound changes using the IPA:

A, a  →  Ä, ä
[a] / [aː]  →  [ɛ⁠] / [ɛː]

O, o  →  Ö, ö
[ɔ⁠] / [oː]   →  [⁠œ⁠] / [⁠øː]

U, u  →  Ü, ü
[ʊ⁠] / [uː]  →  [ʏ⁠] / [yː]

Just looking at this and being able to compare side by side the base vocalic sounds and their altered variations, we can see the obvious pattern: vowels shift towards a more closed and frontal sound.

The non-umlaut vowels are pronounced further back into the mouth than their umlaut counterparts, which are pronounced more towards the front of the mouth.

That is a key aspect that I’ll bring up further down, but for now, let’s leave the phonetics aside and move onto the grammatical aspect of the umlaut.

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So far we’ve got to know what an umlaut is and how they are pronounced but how does the umlaut fit into German at a grammatical level? When do we use these funny looking vowels?

One of the most common uses for the umlaut is the creation of plurals.

Now wait a second. I want to put out a disclaimer – not all German words make the plural adding an umlaut nor all umlaut words are plurals. But for simplicity’s sake, let’s keep it at some plurals have an umlaut.

Examples of this are the following words:

Mann  →  Männer
(Man → Men)

Dorf → Dörfer
(Town → Towns)

Fuß → Füße
(Foot → Feet)

Before I continue, I must say this clear: there are no grammar rules about which words require an umlaut in their plural forms. That does not exist. Well, some neuter nouns that make the plural with the ending -er sometimes add an umlaut… but there are so many exceptions to this that we cannot call it a rule.

Another common occurrence where we can find umlauts in German is in verb inflections. Unlike the English language, German has a ton of verb endings and conjugations. And not only that, but sometimes we must add an umlaut to a certain inflection, for example:

Laufen  →  Er läuft
(To run → He runs)

Stoßen  →  Er stößt
(To push → He pushes)

A part from these two uses, we can obviously find other umlaut words that do not belong to these groups.

But for now, we will leave it here and jump into a more history based aspect of the umlaut.

So, we’ve already asked what the umlaut is, how the umlaut is pronounced and where is the umlaut used. But no one ever asks where the umlaut comes from. Let’s ask this question ourseleves and look into the history behind the umlaut in order to find out more about it.

If we ask about the origin of umlaut words, we can clearly distinguish between to main groups of words: words of foreign origin and words of germanic origin.

Let’s quickly go through the first group, since there isn’t much we can do with it right now: umlaut words in German that do not originate from German itself or any other germanic origins.

This category is easy. Too easy for the German language, and threfore, useless – if it’s not too complicated, it cannot be useful. Foreign words and loanwords that entered any language are completely unpredictable and most of the times have nothing to do with the language in which they are being introduced.

The umlaut sounds in German serve in this category the sole purpose of transcribing the original sounds of a foreign word into the German phonetic system. Some examples are:

Ægyptus (Latin) → Ägypten
(Egypt)

Oikologia (Greek) → Ökologie
(Ecology)

Attitude (French) → Attitüde
(Attitude)

As I said, this category is very obvious, as we can see with the examples.

The second class or group is those words whose origin lies in the German language itself or the older forms of it as we dig deeper into its Germanic roots.

As it’s usual with German, the matter gets a bit complicated here but bear with me. We will subdivide this category in two subgroups:

German words with umlaut, like for example:

Bär, König, Füllen
(Bear, King, to fill)

and derivative German words with umlaut whose German root word does not have an umlaut. Like for example:

Bänke  →  Bank
(Benches → Bench)

Nördlich → Norden
(Northern → North)

Füße  →  Fuß
(Feet → Foot)

Now let’s travel back in time and look for the original root words for the first subgroup:

*brunaz  →  *baira- → Bär
(Germanic → West Germanic → German)

*kuniz → König
(Germanic → German)

*fullijana → Füllen
(Proto-Germanic → German)

And now, let’s do the same for the German root words without an umlaut from the second subgroup:

*bank / bankiz → Bank / Bänke
(Germanic → German)

*nurþa- → Norden / *nurþa- → nordlīh → Nördlich
(*Germanic → German / *Germanic → Old High German → German)

*fuoz / fuozi → Fuß / Füße
(Germanic → German)

If we look closely – and trust me, now it will all come together – we can find a pattern in all these words and their origin.

But before I reveal what’s obvious, let’s remember what we concluded before, when we were talking about the pronunciation of the umlaut in German. The base vowels shift towards a more closed and frontal sound creating this way the umlaut sounds.

Now say read that sentence again but slowly. Do you see it? A closed and frontal sound is what we’re talking about here. Now go back an take another look at all the words from which the German words we used originate.

We can clearly see how the original words had either an /i/ or a /j/ in them.

Some words would only have these sounds in certain inflections, like plurals (a very common occurrence for the old Germanic was actually to create the plural with an /i/ sound), verb conjugations or derivative words.

That still does not explain the vowel shift, however. We can at least deduce that the /i/ and /j/ sounds affected somehow their nearby sillables and so the latter ended up shifting towards umlaut sounds.

But even after this finding, there is a question that remains: why? Why did this happen? Sadly, there is no clear answer to that. Some people may say that some sort of vowel harmony must have happened, while others say it was just a vowel shift.

When we compare this phenomenon to other Germanic languages, like English or Icelandic, everything points at it being just a vowel shift.

At the end of the day, the word Umlaut means “a change around a sound”, so at least one thing is clear – the umlaut in German has an origin and it is indeed a sound that mutated from another one.

And with that we managed to dig deep into the German language an its roots and we succesfully found the origin of the umlaut. In the end, it wasn’t there to just make ours lifes more difficult but it actually had a legitimate reason to be there.

To start wrapping up I’d like to share two interesting facts I came across while researching for this article:

on one hand, there are some words which are pronounced with an umlaut even though we don’t use umlauts when it comes to their written form. These words have undergone the same mutation or change like any other umlaut word. Some examples are:

Fertig → Fahren
(Ready → Drive)

Aufwenden → Aufwand
(To use → Expense)

Eltern → Alt
(Parents → Old)

And on the other hand, a few German umlaut words underwent a vowel shift towards a “different” sound, although they are still considered umlauts:

Für → Vor
(For → Before)

Zwölf → Zwei
(Twelve → Two)

And that’s it for today’s blog entry.
Thank you so much for reading my blog and I really hope you enjoyed exploring with me one of the many quirks of the German language.
Till next time.

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