Everything you need to know about the German umlaut

Everything you need to know about the German umlaut

by Adriana Stein

Updated May 10, 2023

What are German umlauts? Join us as we explore the origins, pronunciation and usage of these enchanting characters that add a unique flair to the German language.

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What are German umlauts and what’s their origin?

The origins of German umlauts can be traced back to the ancient Germanic languages. During the Old High German period, which spanned from the 6th to the 11th centuries, vowel sounds in certain words underwent a process known as umlaut. This transformation involved the fronting or raising of vowels, often accompanied by a change in sound quality. The umlaut dots, placed above the vowels ä, ö, and ü, emerged as a written representation of this phonetic shift. Over time, these diacritical marks became an integral part of the German language, distinguishing words and altering their pronunciation.

German umlauts are letters in the German language with a particular type of pronunciation: ä, ö, and ü. Knowing how to pronounce these letters correctly is absolutely essential for improving your German language skills. Also note that these are not a replacement for the letters: a, o, and u, but rather are completely different letters with different pronunciation rules.

How to pronounce German umlauts

There are two ways to pronounce German umlauts depending on the word: short and long, which basically means how long you hold the sound for. We’ll go over how to pronounce the short and long versions of each umlaut in comparison with English.

How to pronounce the umlaut ä

The short ä sounds a lot like the “e” in “bet” in English, while the long ä sounds more like the “ay” in “say”. If you say them out loud, you can hear how the short ä is a bit more abrupt than the longer one. To give you a better idea of how this works, take a look at the below examples.

UmlautEnglish exampleGerman example
Short äThe “e” in “end”Männer (men)
Short äThe “a” in “apple”Bänke (benches)
Short äThe “e” in “get”Hände (hands)
Long äThe “a” in “mad”nächste (next)
Long äThe “ai” in “air”Mädchen (girl)
Long äThe “ay” in “say”Währung (currency)

For those who are learning German, it may be hard to hear the difference or know when to use which version. My advice as a non-native German speaker is to focus on learning how to pronounce the umlauts in general, and then you’ll inherently start to use the short and long versions appropriately. What’s more important is that you say the umlaut at all, because in some cases a word with an umlaut means something different from a word without.

How to pronounce the umlaut ö

The ö is often the most difficult German umlaut for native English speakers, because it requires moving your mouth in a way that doesn’t really exist in English. Basically what you need to do is purse your lips as if to say “o” but move them upward slightly and say “uhh”. 

To give a comparison with English, here are a few more examples: 

UmlautEnglish exampleGerman example
Short öThe “i” in “flirt”Öffnen (to open)
Stöcke (sticks)
Short öThe “o” in “word”Wörter (words)
Löffel (spoon)
Long öThe “o” in “worm”Öl (oil)
schön (pretty)
Long öThe “i” in “bird”böse (evil)
Löwe (lion)

For this particular umlaut, these examples still aren’t perfectly accurate. The ö was impossible for me at first, but the more you hear it from native German speakers and try to replicate it, the easier it becomes. Eventually it will just click.

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Pronouncing the German umlaut ü

The ü in German also doesn’t exist in English. It’s a bit like saying “ee” and pursing your lips as if you were whistling. Your tongue stays in the same place, but you move your mouth as if to say “oo”. 

Here is another comparison with English:

UmlautEnglish exampleGerman example
Short üThe “ue” in “blue”Müll (rubbish)
Türe (doors)
Schlüssel (key)
Long üThe “oo” in “pool”Bühne (stage)
Mühle (mill)
Üben (practice)

These examples also aren’t 100% accurate in terms of the true sound, but it should give you some orientation for where to begin. It is a tricky combination (like all new letters for foreign language learners), but again, if you practice and listen to German native speakers, it’ll become easier to make the same sounds and use the correct accent.

Writing German umlauts

There’s an alternative way for writing German umlauts if you can’t find the letter on your keyboard or need to write it for an international audience:

  • ä = ae
  • ö = oe
  • ü = ue

They mean and sound exactly the same as the version with the dots above, it’s merely an alternative form of spelling German umlauts.

If you would like to use your keyword and it doesn’t have the particular key, you can use the following commands: 

Lowercase UmlautKeyboard CombinationUppercase UmlautKeyboard Combination
äALT 0228ÄALT 0196
öALT 0246ÖALT 0214
üALT 0252ÜALT 0220

What are German umlauts used for?

In addition to basic word pronunciation, German umlauts can also change for singular and plural, verb conjugations, and comparatives. Here are a few examples to clarify: 

Singular and plural

Hand (hand)Hände (hands)
Stock (stick)Stöcke (sticks)
Kuss (kiss)Küsse (kisses)
Stuhl (chair)Stühle (chairs)

Verb conjugations

schlafen (to sleep)ich schlafe
du schläfst
er/sie/es schläft
wir schlafen
ihr schlaft
Sie schlafen
laufen (to walk)ich laufe
du läufst
er/sie/es läuft
wir laufen
ihr lauft
Sie laufen

Note that this isn’t true for every verb in German. These are just a few examples where an umlaut is included according to the personal pronoun used.


hoch (high) höher (higher)am höchsten (highest)
lang (long)länger (longer)am längsten (longest)
groß (big/tall)größer (bigger/taller)am größsten (biggest/tallest)

So, there you have it, a complete guide to the umlaut in German. Now it’s time to put it into practice!

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