The Online Encyclopedia and Dictionary







The term umlaut is used for two closely related notions: a special kind of vowel modification and a particular diacritic mark.


Vowel modification

Germanic umlaut

In linguistics, the process of umlaut (from German um- "around", "transformation" + Laut "sound") or i-mutation is a modification of a back vowel which causes it to be pronounced more to the front of the mouth to accommodate a front vowel such as i in the following syllable, especially when that syllable is an inflectional suffix. This process is found in many languages.

The term umlaut was originally coined and is principally used in connection with the study of the Germanic languages. Umlaut was productive in the prehistory of these languages, in Proto-Germanic, and its results can be seen in the vowels of many words in all the modern Germanic languages.

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 sing/sang/sung.

Umlaut in English and German

Although umlaut itself has nothing to do with grammatical function, the resulting vowel changes often took on such a function. We can see this in the English word man; in ancient Germanic, the plural had the same vowel, but also a plural suffix -ir. 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, but other examples are tooth/teeth and goose/geese; 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.

  Germanic Old English Modern English
Sing *mūs mūs 'mouse'
Pl *mūsi mīs [maɪs] 'mice'
Sing *fōt fōt [fʊt] 'foot'
Pl *fōti fēt [fi:t] 'feet'

(table adapted from Malmkjr 2002)

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. Because of the grammatical importance of such pairs, the German umlaut diacritic (see below) was developed, making the phenomenon very visible. The result in German is that the vowels a, o and u become , and , and the diphthong au becomes u: Mann/Mnner ("man/men"), lang/lnger ("long/longer"). (On the phonetic realisation of these, see the article on German pronunciation.) However, German orthography is not entirely consistent in this. The adjective fertig ("finished"; originally "ready to go") contains an umlaut mutation, but it is spelled with e rather than as its relationship to Fahrt (journey) has for most speakers of the language been lost from sight. On the other hand, German spells Knguruh ("Kangaroo") with an , although the origins of this vowel have nothing to do with umlaut.

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 Rckumlaut ("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 we remember that in German the letters and e are usually phonetically equivalent. The Proto-Germaic verb would have been *ankjan; the j caused umlaut in all the forms which had the suffix, but later it 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, >a) 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") has the present tense ich fange, du fngst, er fngt. 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.

Umlaut in other languages

Parallel phenomena in other languages may also be termed umlaut, though there may be a tendency to use other terms such as i-mutation when the reference is not to Germanic. For example, the word "affection" is used for umlaut in the Celtic languages. Examples of the umlaut phenomenon can be found in other branches of the Indo-European language family (though as independent developments, since umlaut occurred after the break-up of Proto-Indo-European) and also in Semitic and many other non-IE languages.

Umlaut as a broader term

Some people use the term umlaut more widely to include other kinds of sound change. Occasionally one hears the phrase a-umlaut for a-mutation, for example. However other terms are available for greater precision. See the general article on vowel harmony.

Diacritical mark

The word umlaut is also used to refer to the diacritical mark composed of two small dots placed over a vowel ( ) to indicate this phonological phenomenon in German, and in several other languages which have borrowed the symbol from German. The umlauts are , , and . This should be distinguised from diaeresis, a similar mark used to indicate a diphthong in other languages. The umlaut dots are very close to the letter's body in a well-designed font, while the diaeresis dots are a bit further above — in computer screen fonts the difference is usually not noticeable, but in printed material it is.


Originally, umlaut was denoted in written German by adding an e to the affected vowel, either after the vowel or, in small form, above it. (In medieval German manuscripts, other digraphs could also be written using superscripts: in bluome ("flower"), for example, the o was frequently placed above the u.) In blackletter handwriting as used in German manuscripts of the later Middle Ages, and also in many printed texts of the early modern period, the superscript e still had a form which would be recognisable to us as an e. However, in the forms of handwriting which emerged in the early modern period (of which Stterlin is the latest and most well-known example), the letter e had two strong vertical lines, and the superscript e looked like two tiny strokes. Gradually these strokes were reduced to dots, and as early as the 16th century we find this handwritten convention being transferred sporadically to printed texts too.

Printing conventions in German

When typing German, if umlaut letters are not available, the proper way is to replace them by the underlying vowel and a following e. So, for example, "Schrder" becomes "Schroeder". As the pronunciation differs greatly between the normal letter and the umlaut, simply leaving the dots away is considered incorrect and irritates native speakers. The result might often be a different word, and in fact sentences can be constructed where the meaning would change, e.g. "Der Hauptmann gab den Soldaten Sttzen/Stutzen", in English: "The major gave the soldiers supports/short rifles.

Despite this, the umlauted letters are not considered part of the alphabet proper. When alphabetically sorting German words, the umlaut is treated like the underlying vowel; if two words differ only by an umlaut, the umlauted one comes second, e.g.:

  1. Schon
  2. Schn
  3. Schonen

There's a second system in use, mostly for sorting names (colloquially called "telephone directory sorting"), which treats like ue, and so on. Austrian telephone directories insert after uz. In Switzerland, capital umlauts are sometimes printed as digraphs, i.e., Ae, Oe, Ue, instead of , , . (See German alphabet for an elaboration.)

Similar graphemes in other languages

Some languages have borrowed the some of the forms of the letters , or , e.g. Turkish, Hungarian, Finnish, Estonian, Karelian, the Sami languages, and Slovak. For example, Finnish has <> and <>, Turkish has <> and <> and Slovak has <>. These characters are not umlauts, because they are not a result of the phonological process of umlaut, even if they denote similar sounds to the German ones. Consequently, they are considered independent graphemes, and may not be replaced with <ae>, <oe> or <ue> as in German. In Finnish, for example, these latter diphthongs have independent meanings. Even some Germanic languages such as Swedish treat them as independent letters. In collation, this means they have their own positions in the alphabet, e.g. at the end ("A-", not "A-Z") as in Swedish and Finnish, which means that the dictionary order is different from German.

The Finnish and Sami languages use <> and <> to denote [] and []. Hungarian, on the other hand, has <> and <>. The Slovak language the letter <> to denote [ɛ] (or a bit archaic but still correct []) — the sign is called dve bodky ("two dots"), and the full name of the letter is a s dvomi bodkami ("a with two dots"). Swedish has <> and <>, and there is similar alteration between [] and [ɛ] with //.

By analogy with umlaut, various scripts including the International Phonetic Alphabet place two dots above other letters. In Dutch, when the letters ij come together in handwriting, this may look like a y with two dots, and the analogy with umlaut has led to this occasionally being printed in this way. Jacaltec, a Mayan dialect, and Malgasy are the only languages to allow a pair of dots over the letter "n".

Use of the diacritic for special effects

The umlaut diacritic can be used in "sensational spellings", for example in advertising, or for other special effects.

As the German short a is more open than the equivalent sound in English (//), Germans sometimes use the diacritic to imitate the English sound in writing, giving an English "feel" to words used in advertising; in a MacDonalds restaurant in Germany one can buy a "Big Mc".

Since the letter is very common in Turkish, its inappropriate use can make a text in another language look "turkified", a purely visual mimicry. Because of the large number of Turks living in Germany, this again is a phenomenon familiar in German. The Turkish-German satirist Osman Engin , for example, wrote a book entitled Dtschlnd, Dtschlnd br lls - the opening line of the German national anthem, but turkified!

In the heavy metal scene, the umlaut diacritic can frequently be observed as a mere decoration on the names of bands such as Motrhead; see the article heavy metal umlaut.

Entering umlauts in HTML

In HTML umlauts can be entered with an &?uml; entity reference. All umlauts are part of all Latin versions of the ISO 8859 character sets and thus have the same codepoints in ISO-8859-1 (-2, -3, -4, -9, -10, -13, -14, -15, -16) and Unicode.

In addition to the umlauts, some dotted vowels (e.g. Montjuc) may be valid in different alphabets.

Character Replacement HTML Unicode
ae &auml; U+00E4
oe &ouml; U+00F6
ue &uuml; U+00FC
Ae &Auml; U+00C4
Oe &Ouml; U+00D6
Ue &Uuml; U+00DC
Dotted vowels
Character HTML Unicode
&euml; U+00EB
&iuml; U+00EF
&yuml; U+00FF
&Euml; U+00CB
&Iuml; U+00CF
Ÿ &Yuml; U+0178

Entering umlauts via special key sequences

On Microsoft Windows keyboard layouts that do not have umlaut characters, these characters can be entered by pressing the left Alt key, and entering the full numeric code on the numeric keypad.

Character Alt-code

On a computer running MacOS umlauts can be entered be pressing option-u, followed by the vowel to have an umlaut above it.

See also


  • Malmkjr, Kirsten (Ed.). (2002). The linguistics encyclopedia (2nd ed.). London: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.

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