Ä Ö Ü ä ö ü ? and sometimes y?
We Americans just can’t get enough of these European-ish little dots (I’m looking at you, scornfully, Häagen-Dazs). Nothing like a few dots to take your boring-looking word from bore to score. Since diacritics are largely missing in English, all it takes to make a word look über-adorable is sprinkling a few of them over an otherwise familiar-looking vowel. But what the heck are the dots anyway, and what exactly do they do?
If you’ve ever asked yourself that question, look no further! Today we’ll learn all about them AND I’ll teach you how to pronounce them correctly (in German). I guarantee it! And I promise I’ll give you more to go on than other explanations I’ve come across („well Ö kind of sounds like XXX in the English word XXX“–Not a helpful way to explain it!)
Getting started: the back story
When I first started discovering foreign languages, I was immediately drawn to all of the beautiful diacritical marks that English orthography lacks (with the exception of words borrowed from French or other foreign languages OR if you’re reading The New Yorker, which you should).
The diacritical mark we see in the case of Ä Ö and Ü is most commonly referred to as a diaeresis in English, or umlaut or trema (zu Deutsch: Tremazeichen). The diacritical mark itself is used in several languages to mark two distinct phonological phenomena:
Phonological phenomenon 1 – diaeresis: when the two little dots are marking a diaeresis or hiatus, it marks a vowel letter that is not pronounced as part of a digraph or diphthong. This one’s for you, snooty fans of The New Yorker: in the word coöperate, the diaeresis is making it clear to the reader that we’re dealing with a word that has four syllables (CO-op-er-ate) rather than three (COOP-er-ate). You see these little guys sometimes in English in words like naive or Noel, but often we leave them away because–let’s get real–who honestly needs those dots to know how to pronounce the word „cooperate“ properly?
Phonological phenomenon 2 – umlaut: when the two little dots appear in German, or in some other languages, they mark a sound shift. So the vowel with the umlaut sounds markedly different than the vowel sounds without it, and these particular vowels, which don’t exist in English, are infamously difficult for German learners to produce.
Okay, so how do I pronounce them already!?
There are a lot of (terrible) guides to pronouncing German umlauts on the internet, be they written instructions or YouTube videos. After scouring google to see if I could find a how-to guide that featured my useful tricks, I came up empty handed. So I’ve decided to share with you my fail-proof tricks to getting German umlauts right the first time.
To get started, let’s refer to our old, handy-dandy friend, the IPA vowel chart:
The vowel sounds depicted on the chart above are all English vowel sounds, btw. If you’re unfamiliar with the IPA vowel chart, don’t panic. It’s just a handy map of the vowel sounds we can make based on the position of our tongue within the oral cavity.
Did you have any idea your tongue was so talented?
Your tongue: the tool.
Before we really dive into umlauts, let’s get you warmed up with some tongue twisting:
Exercise 1: See the word Front in the upper lefthand corner of the chart above? Those are the vowel sounds you make when your tongue is up there high and tight, closest to your teeth. To get a feeling for this, pronounce the English word „HEAT“ – and note where your tongue is. Now, stick your tongue ALLL the way out like you’re having your tonsils checked–nice and flat–and try to pronounce the word.
It’s impossible, right? And it also sounds hilarious.
Exercise 2: See the word Back in the upper righthand corner of the chart? Those are the vowel sounds you make when your tongue is in the back of your mouth and close to your palate. So here, pronounce the English word „BOOT“ and pay attention to where your tongue is in your mouth. Now stick your tongue out as in the previous exercise and try to pronounce BOOT again.
See what happened? I’m not sure how to describe how that sounds but it sure doesn’t sound like „boot“, does it?
At this point you may be asking yourself „Why is any of this important? All I wanted to know was how to pronounce Ä Ü and Ö!“
Well, understanding where vowel sounds are made in your mouth based on the position of your tongue as shown on the IPA chart is actually the key to understanding how these sounds are actually produced and reproducing those sounds successfully:
We make 1 vowel sound on the inside of our mouth (by positioning the tongue properly) but we position our lips as though we are pronouncing something else entirely.
Sound simple enough?
Alright then! Drumroll please… It’s time to tackle these bad boys.
To make this sound, place your tongue in your mouth as you would if were going to pronounce the first syllable in the word „edible“. Take a big, long breath and pronounce that that vowel sound loud and clear, paying attention all the while to where exactly your tongue is positioned inside your mouth! Now it’s tongue freeze tag time: hold the position without making a sound. Leaving your tongue in place, shift the position of your lips as you would if you were about to pronounce an „Oo“ sound (an „o“ shape, like you’re sipping from a straw). Hold the lips in that position while making the „edible“ vowel sound with your tongue on the inside of your mouth.
That’s all there is to it!
Frühlingsgemüsebrühwürfel (eye roll emoji)
Perfect! Viel Vergnügen mit dem neuen Vokal! (Now help spread the gospel: Fahrvergnügen does not sound like „FAR-FIG-NOOGEN“ it’s FAHR-FEHR-GNÜG’N. Go be a smart aleck to about it to everyone. (German for smart aleck: Besserwisser – a „better knower“)
To make this sound, place your tongue in your mouth as you would if were going to pronounce the first syllable in the word „apple“. Take a big breath and pronounce that that vowel loud and clear, boys and girls! Now, get ready to do it again, but this time hold your lips a little looser than you did last time–not quite as tight as „Oo“ like you’re sipping a straw–position your lips rather as you to make the English „w“ sound.
If you find it difficult to do it all at once, practice the „w“ lip position and the „a“ as in apple tongue position separately for some time before you throw them together.
There ya go!
Is the trick working for you?
Last but not least: Ää
Of all the umlauts, this one is the easiest one for English speakers to pronounce. In fact, German speakers can also be pretty lazy when it comes to making this sound. Usually we hear it loud and clear in cases of hypercorrection (overpronouncing to sound „über-correct“ or more „prestigious“ — By the way, another great example of a common hypercorrection in German is when a hard „G“ rather than a soft „CH“ sound at the end of words like zwanzig or fertig, which is a HUGE pet peeve of mine. Please never do it or else we can’t be friends).
To make the Ää sound, go back to the tongue position for the English word „HEAD“–pronounce that vowel sound loud and clear–but then place your lips as you would if you were going to make a strong „EEE“ sound as in „SEEK“. And there you have it! Ä! Ä! Ä!
But as I said, this sound is subtle and you’d probably do just fine sticking with the trusty old vowel sound from HEAD.
Now one of these days I’ll get around to making a video that explains all this, but I hope the written explanation that goes a bit deeper than „hmm, well „ü“ kind of sounds like…“ will come in handy for you.
Until next time! Aufwiedersehen!