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Umlaut

Umlaut is a mark ( ¨ ) used over a vowel, as in German or Hungarian, to indicate a different vowel quality, usually through fronting or rounding. This is a vowel sound that changes from the first to the second vowel in a word. The /i/, /a/, and /u/ are the most common vowels that feature umlauts. It is a mark, or diacritic, that is added to a letter in order to give insight about pronunciation.

Introduction and definition

An umlaut ( ¨ ) in punctuation is a pair of dots above a vowel, used in a number of written languages, but originating from the Germanic languages. A vowel with an umlaut indicates that it is a front rounded vowel. In linguistics, the German umlaut (meaning “sound alteration”) changes the sound of the vowel it is placed over. The sound alteration intended by use of an umlaut in text is called assimilation, wherein one speech sound is altered to make it more like another sound close to it. This is called fronting or rounding the vowel, which refers linguistically to the location in the mouth where it is pronounced. The sound is most often used in German or Hungarian regions and their dialects.

A brief history of the umlaut ( ¨ )

The umlaut has been used in various Germanic languages since as early as 450 or 500 A.C.E. The umlaut changes the sound of a vowel usually pronounced in the back of the mouth (for instance, both instances of  “o” in the word “foot”) to a vowel sound which is pronounced more in the front of the mouth (for instance, both instances of  “e” in the word “feet”).

Linguistic or Germanic language training is helpful in obtaining a more in-depth understanding the use of the umlaut.

Assimilation is a process through which languages change and morph over time and when exposed to other dialects and languages. In this case, Old English, Old High German and other ancient Germanic languages became modern-day German and even migrated into other languages, such as English. It is important to note that the English language itself is derived from German. In other words, contemporary English has a German base for many of its words.

Examples of the umlaut ( ¨ )

Many other modern German-derived languages such as modern-day German, English, Dutch, Swedish, and Faroese demonstrate these umlauts in certain words. The similarity between words in these languages becomes apparent as the word for the same object, adjective, or verb is pronounced aloud. Here are a few examples:

  • The Germanic word for “lice” is läuse, the Dutch word is “luis”, the Swedish word is “löss”, and the Faroese word is “lús”.
  • The Germanic word for the English word “older” is “älter”, the Dutch is “ouder”, the Swedish is “äldre”, and the Faroese is “eldri”.

The similarities between the languages and the progression of the umlaut from German to English is apparent in these examples, even without linguistic or Germanic language training.

The German phonological umlaut is visible in texts dating from the Old High German period (700-1050 A.C.E.) and continued to develop during the Middle High German period (1050-1350 A.C.E.). 

In written German, the umlaut was sometimes left out in favor of placing an “e” next to the vowel the writer wished to be modified with the new sound. This resulted in the type of pronunciation seen in names such as “Goethe,” “Goebbels,” and “Staedtler.”

In modern handwriting, it is sometimes difficult to distinguish the umlaut from small punctuation marks, such as a dash, quotation mark, or a tilde. Occasionally, graphic design results in the creation of unusual umlauts, such as those placed vertically or inside the body of the letter for space purposes.

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