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The Umlaut is used a lot in German. The a, o, and u become ä, ö, and ü. They sound different, and give words a different meaning. When do you use it though? And how? How do you pronounce them? Any exceptions? You read it all here!
First of all to avoid confusion: In German, Umlaut has two meanings: it refers to the letters ä, ö, and ü. It also refers to vowel mutation. In short, vowel mutation refers to the process of a vowel changing the way it sounds through the history of a language. This is why the letters are also called Umlautbuchstaben (Umlaut letters) sometimes. In this article, whenever I mention the Umlaut, I mean the three letters with two dots on top!
So why are these letters there? The way that the a, o and u were pronounced in some cases changed at the end of the Middle Ages. In the 16th century, a solution was found to write such different sounds down, instead of just having a u that can mean u and ü at the same time. The way to write it: by putting a little e above the letter. As you can see in the handwriting from 1806 above. In the word König (king), the ö is written as an o with small e on top. This later morphed into the two dots on top of the letter.
In some writings, the Punkte (dots) are Schrägstriche (slashes). The meaning is exactly the same! These three, together with the ß are the only Sonderzeichen (special characters) in German. So no worries!
We all know he alphabet and how it goes. But where do we put the Umlautbuchstaben? In most cases, they go at the end, so after z in the order ä, ö, ü. Pretty straightforward.
In some situations, you will see the combinations ae, oe, and ue. Such combinations are necessary, because just writing the Umlaut without the dots is no option, as Sandra pointed out in this post in 2013. These combinations are used mostly if the Umlautbuchstaben are not accepted, which is the case for some digital applications, such as website URLs. For example, the URL for the website Bücher.de is buecher.de.
These combinations are also useful if you do not have the Umlautbuchstaben on your keyboard. The standard US layout misses them, for example.
Still, using the combinations also creates problems:
A way that takes a little longer, but is definitely problem-free, uses the numpad, or number pad. The number pad (the 9 number keys on the right side, next to the arrow keys), which are available on most keyboard, can help out. With so-called ASCII code, you can write the Umlaut!
Hold down ALT and then type the three numbers for the character you want. Then release the ALT key and the Umlautbuchstabe appears! As follows:
ä – ALT + 132 Ä – ALT + 142
ö – ALT + 148 Ö – ALT + 153
ü – ALT + 129 Ü – ALT + 154
Do you not have a number pad, but you would still like to get the characters this way? Well, for the geeks, there are workarounds.
Oh, and if you really don’t have any other solution, there is also the emergency option: use the search engine of your choice (google, bing, etc.) and just type “umlaut a” or whichever you need. Select the Umlautbuchstabe you get in the hits, copy it, and paste it where you need it. Always works!
Bar (cash) – Bär (bear)
Topf (pot) – Töpfe (pots)
Fluss (river) – Flüsse (rivers)
As you can hear, that e that you hear kind of makes sense. It feels like the letter is elongated and it feels like an e-sound is pushing on the vowel sound. This will be more understandable if you imagine somebody hesitating. What sound do they make? “Uuuuuuuhhh”. Right. In German, that would be written as eeeeeeehhhh – with e’s!
As you may have already noticed learning German, many words gain an Umlaut in their plural:
der Mann – die Männer (man – men)
das Buch – die Bücher (book – books)
das Fass – die Fässer (barrel – barrels)
Most such words are masculin or neuter, because feminine words often end with an e. This already creates an Umlaut in many cases, because it elongates the a, o, or u that preceded it. Then, the plural is often made simply by adding an n at the end.
So don’t assume that the Umlaut just means the word is in plural! For example:
die Säge – die Sägen (saw – saws)
die Fähre – die Fähren (ferry – ferries)
die Lüge – die Lügen (lie – lies)
It is also used in the Konjunktiv (subjunctive) a lot:
ich muss – ich müsse – ich müsste (I have to – I should have to)
ich werde – ich werde – ich würde (I will – I would be)
ich sehe – ich sähe – ich sähe (I see – I would see)
I already see you frowning at the three forms, and wondering why there are two subjunctive conjugations… This gets complicated, and warrants its own post. It is one of those things that justifies when people say deutsche Sprache, schwere Sprache (German language, difficult language)!
Just to see whether you understand what’s going on here, I will test you!
Below are two German words I recorded. Can you distinguish the two, and tell me in the comments what word you hear in Recording 1 and what word you hear in Recording 2? The one means “cases” in German, the other means “pelts”. Good luck!