The German umlaut has the effect of adding an "e" after the vowels a, o, & u. In fact, with email and other forms of communication where umlauts are not available, "ae", "oe", and "ue" will be substitued for "ä", "ö", and "ü".

As for pronunciation, the "ä" sounds like a long e. In German, to ask someone to spell a word is fairly uncommon because of the strictness of the pronunciation rules. A major exception is in the case of the long e, where differentiating between ä and e is difficult : to spell the word, then, a German will simply say "with umlaut" or "without".

The "ö" is more complicated. It has almost the sound of "goo". Probably the best way to get a feel for it is to say long o--long e over and over until they merge into one sound. That's about what it's like. (People often hear an "r" after the "ö". But that's just a misalignment of the phonetics)

Finally, "ü" -- probably the most difficult for foreigners -- is learned by first saying a constant long e and then changing the shape of the mouth to a long u. Something like the sound in "pew".

Happy umlauting.

Tip: If you want to use umlauts in a WU but don't want to worry with Keycaps or whatever, write it up, stumbit it, and then cut and paste out of the form that is returned into the "Enter your writeup" form below.

In French and English, the same symbol is also sometimes used to indicate that two adjacent vowels should be pronounced distinct from one another, instead of running them together into a single syllable. This is not commonly used any more in English, but I'm not sure about French. It is also possible that this usage has a name other than umlaut, that I'm not aware of.

In any case, an example: naïve. This word consists of two syllables, as indicated by the umlaut.

What ryano refers to is the diaeresis, from the Greek for `to divide'; or, in French, trema. The use of the diaeresis in English is disappearing, especially in America (how often do you see the word `coöperate' anymore?). It is still common in French, Dutch, and other more phonetic languages. (Yes, I am calling French `phonetic'. Deal.)

`Umlaut' (see the Webster 1913 definition below) refers to the sound change the symbol represents. Umlaut as it occurs in Germanic langauges generally causes a back vowel to become fronter, and often higher.

See also ablaut, a different kind of vowel shift that is less patently Germanic (but is still patently Indo-European).

When I was 13 and learning German, our class went to an awful lot of trouble to learn the exact way to write it correctly - you'd be surprised how finicky people can be, or how difficult the exercise can be made. You can imagine how pissed off I was years later when I found out that this "correct" way was considered no more correct than any other way, and that in Germany, they plonk two dots over their letters the exact same way anyone would.

What sud says about native German-speakers simply plonking their umlauts over vowels is quite true. However, given that the result of a quickly drawn dot is often a nearly invisible smudge, it's usually represented differently in handwritten German. Often a simple horizontal line is drawn above the vowel, and it looks just like the macron that students of Latin will be familiar with (though of course with a very different meaning). Other times, two vertical lines, like a narrow equals sign rotated 90°, are drawn above the vowel—imagine the dots of the normal umlaut extended up into a line. Both of these representations of umlauts are easier to write and read than the two dots, and I find the vertical-line method quite beautiful.

You are all very, very confused.

Umlaut is the modification of a vowel sound, as correctly defined by Webster 1913. This is a linguistic phenomenon found (only?) in Germanic and Celtic languages.

In German, if umlaut takes place in a word, this is indicated by adding an e after the vowel ("ae") or by adding two dots -- a diaeresis ("¨") -- on top, resulting in "ä". English does not follow this convention, and English cases of umlaut show up mainly as vowel changes in Anglo-Saxon plurals, eg. man becoming men, as opposed to German Mann/Männer. Another language with umlaut, Danish, opted to use the æ ligature and ø sign instead.

Now comes the tricky part. The idea of placing a diaeresis up top to distinguish between vowels has been borrowed into many other non-Germanic languages, such as Finnish, whose orthography uses the diaeresis to distinguish between front vowels (äöy) and back vowels (aou). However, these languages do not have umlaut, so all they have borrowed is the notation. The Finnish "ä" is thus "a with diaeresis", not "a with umlaut".

However, you are not alone in your confusion, and the use of the word umlaut to mean diaeresis is pretty firmed entrenched in the English language, as can be seen from the fact that even the HTML character entity for the diaeresis is called ¨. Most modern non-prescriptive dictionaries thus include umlaut as a synonym of diaeresis, but this is still semantically squicky and I applaud Unicode's efforts to set the record straight.

And cheers to Albert Herring, Gritchka and Tiefling for comments and corrections.

Um"laut (?), n. [G., from um about + laut sound.] Philol.

The euphonic modification of a root vowel sound by the influence of a, u, or especially i, in the syllable which formerly followed.

It is peculiar to the Teutonic languages, and was common in Anglo-Saxon. In German the umlauted vowels resulting from a, o, u, followed by old i, are written a, o, u, or ae, oe, ue; as, manner or maenner, men, from mann, man. Examples of forms resulting from umlaut in English are geese pl. of goose, men pl. of man, etc.


© Webster 1913.

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