umlaut in german

Umlauts Making You See Spots? The Clarifying Guide to German Vowels with Umlauts

The letters Ä, Ö and Ü look so similar to A, O and U

Can’t we just pronounce them the same?

I think you know the answer.

Tempting as it might be, you can’t simply ignore those little dots—the umlaut in German—when writing or speaking.

But they’re not really all that strange or scary.

This simple guide will show you how to recognize and use umlauts in German, whether you’re typing them out, conjugating verbs or trying to pronounce them the right way.
 


 

The Ultimate Umlaut Guide: How to Type, Use and Say Those Two Little Dots in German

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How to Type Umlauts

Do you have an ordinary laptop and need to type umlauts?

For PCs, the quick hack is to use Alt key shortcuts. However, this can get cumbersome, so you might also want to keep a document handy with letters that have umlauts to copy-paste.

For Macs, you can just hold down the keys A, U and O for a second or so, and a menu will pop up with special characters including the umlaut. The same option is available for iOS and Android mobile devices.

When Are Umlauts Used in German?

Below are four very common scenarios where you’ll need to recognize umlauts in German. These of course aren’t the only scenarios where you’ll encounter umlauts, but they’re a great starting point to get comfortable with the concept.

1. Plural Nouns

Plural nouns are often the first places that German learners encounter the umlaut. Most commonly, when the noun contains “u,” “au,” or “o” in the stem, the plural forms have umlauts.

Or, sometimes the plural forms have an umlaut when the noun begins with a vowel.

For example:

Buch → Bücher (Book → Books)

Wort → Wörter (Word → Words)

Baum → Bäume (Tree → Trees)

Haus → Häuser (House → Houses)

Apfel → Äpfel (Apple → Apples)

Bruder → Brüder (Brother → Brothers)

2. Comparatives and Superlatives

Comparatives are words that show how one thing has more or less of a quality than another (e.g. “bigger” in English). A superlative shows that one thing has the most or the least of some quality (e.g. “biggest”).

In German, if there’s an “a” or an “o” in the stem of an adjective, rest assured there’s going to be an umlaut in the comparative and superlative forms (with a few exceptions, of course).

For example:

hoch (high), höher (higher), am höchsten (the highest)

lang (long), länger (longer), am längsten (the longest)

groß (big/tall), größer (bigger/taller), am größten (biggest/tallest)

3. Present Tense Modal Verbs

Modal verbs are auxiliary (or “helping”) verbs that are used alongside the main verb for a specific purpose—such as indicating permission, desire or ability to do something. Some of the most important German modal verbs include können (can), sollen (should), müssen (must), dürfen (may) and wollen (to want).

The modal verbs that contain umlauts can be quite tricky to handle, because you’ll only see the umlaut in certain forms of the verb. For example, let’s look at the present tense conjugations of the modal verb können.

ich kann (I can)

du kannst (you [informal] can)

er/sie/es kann (he/she/it can)

wir können (we can)

ihr könnt (you all can)

Sie/sie können (you [formal]/they can)

What we can see is that if the modal verb contains an umlaut in the infinitive form (e.g. können), then the wir, ihr and Sie/sie present tense conjugations have an umlaut, but not the ich, du and the er/sie/es forms.

4. Verbs in the Subjunctive

Specifically, you’ll often find umlauts in the konjunktiv II präteritum (past subjunctive) form of German verbs.

This is notable because it makes it really easy to put these verbs into the past subjunctive. All you have to do is make small changes to the past tense form of the verb to make it a past subjunctive form.

Let’s take a look at the verb haben (to have) in the past tense:

ich hatte (I had)

du hattest (you [informal] had)

er/sie/es hatte (he/she/it had)

wir hatten (we had)

ihr hattet (you all had)

Sie hatten (you [formal] had)

Now compare those forms to the konjunktiv II präteritum:

ich hätte (I would have)

du hättest (you [informal] would have)

er/sie/es hätte (he/she/it would have)

wir hätten (we would have)

ihr hättet (you all would have)

Sie hätten (you [formal] would have)

How to Pronounce Vowels with an Umlaut

The Ä sound is fairly simple. It sounds like “eh” in English. Practice with words like spät (late) and Universität (University).

The Ü sound can be pronounced by keeping the lips shaped like you would while saying the letter U, but trying to say the sound of E. Practice with words like kühl (cool).

More in-depth strategies for the mouth formations are laid out in the video below.

The Ö pronunciation is somewhat similar to the above, except the lips should be shaped to create the letter O. Practice with words like Löwe (Lion) and Möwe (Seagull).

Some common umlaut pronunciation mistakes include:

  • Not pouting the mouth enough for the Ö and the Ü
  • Simply not stressing the vowel enough

A sharp pout is the key to the air being pushed out of the mouth in the right manner, therefore giving the right touch to the umlaut pronunciation.

The clip below brings it all together so you can master Ä, Ö and Ü.

To hear vowels with umlauts in natural German contexts, FluentU is your best bet. FluentU provides real-world German videos, like movie trailers, music videos, inspiring speeches and more, which have all been transformed into personalized language lessons.

umlaut in german

Click on any word in the interactive subtitles, and the video will automatically pause to play you an isolated native pronunciation. You’ll also get an in-context definition and grammar info. So any time you encounter, say, a verb with an umlaut, you’ll quickly see what tense it’s in and hear how to pronounce it perfectly.

FluentU is also great for overall vocabulary building, with word lists, full transcripts, flashcards and fun quizzes built into every video. It’s an immersive German experience that you can carry in your pocket with the FluentU iOS or Android apps.

Need even more practice? Another useful idea is to make a list of common words in the form of flashcards that use the umlauts. For example:

Äpfel (apples)

Bäume (trees)

Diät (diet)

föhnen (to blow dry)

Größe (size)

hören (to hear)

Jäger (hunter)

Käse (cheese)

Lärm (noise)

Münze (coin)

nördlich (north of)

Öl (oil)

Rätsel (riddle)

Süd (south)

Tür (door)

über (above)

Vögel (bird)

Wörter (words)

 

Most German beginners tend to ignore the fact that umlauts exist and try to pronounce them normally. Well, by doing that, you’re robbing German off its very essence, so pout up and get going with the umlaut in German!


Gayatri Tribhuvan is a passionate linguist from Bangalore, India and teaches German, French and other languages. She enthusiastically contributes her knowledge in the linguistics field. Get to know more about her language school that she runs in Bangalore, India here.

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