Germanic umlaut

Germanic umlaut

In linguistics, umlaut (from German "um"- "around"/"the other way" + "Laut" "sound") is a process whereby a vowel is pronounced more like a vowel or semivowel in a following syllable.The term "umlaut" was originally coined and is principally used in connection with the study of the Germanic languages. In umlaut, a back vowel is modified to the associated front vowel when the following syllable contains IPA| [i] , IPA| [iː] or IPA| [j] (the sound of English ). This process took place separately in the various Germanic languages starting around 450 or 500 AD, and affected all of the early languages except for Gothic.

Umlaut should be clearly distinguished from other historical vowel phenomena such as the earlier Indo-European ablaut (vowel "gradation"), which is observable in the declension of Germanic strong verbs such as "sing/sang/sung".

Umlaut in English, Dutch and German

Although historically umlaut itself has nothing to do with grammatical function, the resulting vowel changes often took on such a function (and thus shows similarities to ablaut when viewed synchronically). We can see this in the English word "man"; in ancient Germanic, the plural had the same vowel, but also a plural suffix "-iz". The suffix caused fronting of the vowel, and when the suffix later disappeared, the mutated vowel remained as the only plural marker: "men". In English, such umlaut-plurals are rare, with only seven in the language: "man, woman, tooth, goose, foot, mouse," and "louse"; compare also "long (adj)/length (n)". Umlaut is conspicuous when it occurs in one of such a pair of forms, but it should be remembered that many English words contain a vowel which has been mutated in this way, but which does not now have a parallel unmutated form; umlaut need not carry a grammatical function.

Parallel umlauts in modern English and German

Development of umlauts in English

(table adapted from Malmkjær 2002)

Umlaut in German spelling

In German, umlaut as a marker of the plural of nouns is a regular feature of the language, and although umlaut itself is no longer a productive force in German, new plurals of this type can be created by analogy. Likewise, umlaut marks the comparative of many adjectives, and other kinds of derived forms, even though it's also found in words which do not have a non-umlauted counterpart: examples are "Föhn" ("foehn wind") or "für" ("for").

Because of the grammatical importance of such pairs, the German umlaut diacritic was developed, making the phenomenon very visible. The result in German is that the vowels , , and become <ä>, <ö>, and <ü>, and the diphthong becomes <äu>: "Mann/Männer" ("man/men"), "lang/länger" ("long/longer"), "Fuß/Füße" ("foot/feet"), "Maus/Mäuse" ("mouse/mice"), "Haus/Häuser" ("house/houses"). On the phonetic realisation of these, see German phonology.

However, German orthography is not entirely consistent in this. The adjective "fertig" ("ready", "finished"; originally "ready to go") contains an umlaut mutation, but it is spelled with "e" rather than "ä" as its relationship to "Fahrt" (journey) has for most speakers of the language been lost from sight. Likewise, "alt" (old) has the comparative "älter" (older), but the noun from this is spelled "Eltern" (parents). "Aufwand" (effort) has the adjective "aufwendig" (requiring effort), though the 1996 spelling reform now permits the alternative spelling "aufwändig" [Duden, "Die deutsche Rechtschreibung", 21st edition, p. 133.] . For "denken", see below. On the other hand, German spells "Känguru" ("kangaroo") with an <ä>, although the origins of this vowel have nothing to do with umlaut; this is an English loan-word, and the diacritic is being used in mimicry of the "English" grapheme-phoneme relationship. The same applies to several other loan words, like "Büro" from French "bureau".

Umlaut in Germanic verbs

Two interesting examples of umlaut involve vowel distinctions in Germanic verbs. Often these are subsumed under the heading "ablaut" in descriptions of Germanic verbs, but their origin is distinct.

The German word "Rückumlaut" ("reverse umlaut") is the slightly misleading term given to the vowel distinction between present and past tense forms of certain Germanic weak verbs. Examples in English are "think/thought", "bring/brought", "tell/told", "sell/sold". (These verbs have a dental "-t" or "-d" as a tense marker, therefore they are weak and the vowel change cannot be conditioned by ablaut.) The presence of umlaut is possibly more obvious in German "denken/dachte" ("think/thought"), especially if it is remembered that in German the letters <ä> and are usually phonetically equivalent. The Proto-Germanic verb would have been "*þankjan"; the /j/ caused umlaut in all the forms which had the suffix; subsequently the /j/ disappeared. The term "reverse umlaut" indicates that if, with traditional grammar, we take the infinitive and present tense as our starting point, there is an illusion of a vowel-shift towards the "back" of the mouth (so to speak, <ä>) in the past tense, but of course the historical development was simply umlaut in the present tense forms.

A variety of umlaut occurs in the 2nd and 3rd person singular forms of the present tense of some Germanic strong verbs. For example German "fangen" ["to catch" (cf. "fang")] has the present tense "ich fange, du fängst, er fängt". Subsequent developments mean that this phenomenon does not always look like umlaut. For example "geben" ("give") has the present tense "ich gebe, du gibst, er gibt", though the shift e→i would not be a normal result of umlaut in German. For all practical purposes this can be included in the ablaut tables (as used when teaching German as a second language, for example, or in Old English text books), but its origin is not ablaut.

See also

* Germanic a-mutation
* I-mutation
* Indo-European ablaut
* Umlaut
* Umlaut (diacritic)


* Malmkjær, Kirsten (Ed.). (2002). "The linguistics encyclopedia" (2nd ed.). London: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group. ISBN 0-415-22209-5.


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