[Schplock goes English] How to pronounce German ö and ü

Von Kristin Kopf

Wel­come to Schplock’s first Eng­lish post – a tuto­r­i­al on round­ed front vow­els, name­ly <ö> and <ü>. Impa­tient read­ers might want to skip the more the­o­ret­i­cal first “half” and jump right to the DIY-part below.

What is round in a rounded vowel?

Round­ed vow­els are gen­er­al­ly pro­duced by form­ing a cir­cle with your lips. Or more technically:

Lip round­ing involves draw­ing the cor­ners of the lips togeth­er and pro­trud­ing the lips for­ward from their nor­mal rest posi­tion. (Mad­dieson 2008)

That’s a very com­mon prop­er­ty in back vow­els (pro­duced by putting your tongue some­where in the back of your mouth) like

  • [o] which does­n’t exist in Eng­lish, but you may know it from French eau ‘water’, Ital­ian sole ’sun’ or Span­ish tomar ‘take’,
  • [ɔ] in thought,
  • [u] in goose and
  • [ʊ] in book.

An extreme­ly sim­pli­fied ver­sion of where those sounds are pro­duced can be found in the fig­ure to the right.

In Ger­man, those four sounds dif­fer not only in tongue posi­tion, but also in length: the “lax” vow­els /ɔ/ and /ʊ/ are always short, the “tense” vow­els /o/ and /u/ are always long.

Front vs. back

Round­ing in front vow­els is pret­ty rare in the world’s lan­guages. The prop­er­ty can be found in only 37 of the 526 lan­guages con­sid­ered for the cor­re­spond­ing WALS-map. Only 23 of these pos­sess both high (i.e. ü) and mid (i.e. ö) round­ed front vow­els.1

Source: Ian Mad­dieson, World Atlas of Lan­guage Struc­tures. CC BY-NC-ND.2 (Click for a larg­er version)

The pref­er­ence for round­ed back vow­els can be explained by phys­i­o­log­i­cal prop­er­ties. Accord­ing to Mad­dieson (2008)

[a] round­ed back vow­el is … more clear­ly dis­tinct from oth­er vow­els than an unround­ed one

(this state­ment is pre­ced­ed by a longer expla­na­tion, so go there for the details if interested).

The rar­i­ty of round­ed front vow­els can be stat­ed in lan­guage uni­ver­sals, that is, rules apply­ing to all of the world’s (doc­u­ment­ed) lan­guages with no or only very few coun­terex­am­ples (“sta­tis­ti­cal universal”).

As cap­tured by uni­ver­sal 885 in Frans Plank’s data­base,

IF there is a round­ed front vow­el, THEN there is a round­ed back vowel.

That’s true for Ger­man, it has u as well as ü and o as well as ö. Uni­ver­sal 884 states that

IF there is a front round­ed vow­el, THEN there will be a front unround­ed vow­el at the same tongue height.

And yes, Ger­man has those, too – the unround­ed coun­ter­parts are e (for ö) and i (for ü). (They are shown direct­ly next to each oth­er in the fig­ure, in real­i­ty they occu­py the exact same space.)

ö and ü imply o/e and u/i, but not the oth­er way round – a lan­guage can be per­fect­ly hap­py with­out round­ed front vowels.

The “eas­i­er”, more basic sounds are per­fect­ly suit­ed to learn the hard­er ones. And here’s how:

To make an ü

ü shares its posi­tion with i and its round­ed­ness with u, mak­ing both of them good start­ing points.

For the long, tense üIPA: [y:]

  • pro­nounce an i as in feet, hold the sound and round your lips or
  • pro­nounce an u as in goose, hold the sound and move your tongue to the front while main­tain­ing its height (this is a lit­tle trick­i­er, I’d rec­om­mend the first option).

Ger­man words: Füße ‘feet’, süß ’sweet’, Hüte ‘hats’.

For the short, lax üIPA: [ʏ]

  • pro­nounce an i as in bit, then round your lips or
  • pro­nounce an u as in book, then move your tongue to the front.

Ger­man words: Küsse ‘kiss­es’, fünf ‘five’, Schüssel ‘bowl’.

To make an ö

For the long, tense öIPA: [ø:]

This is a lit­tle hard­er, as nei­ther Received Pro­nun­ci­a­tion nor Gen­er­al Amer­i­can have the two pos­si­ble start­ing sounds [e] and [o]. Maybe you can mim­ic the way speak­ers from Wales pro­nounce face, race, amazing (go here for sound clips), that would give you an [e] which you can then round into ö.3

Ger­man words: Löhne ’salaries’, föhnen ‘to blow-dry’, Löwe ‘lion’.

For the short, lax öIPA: [œ]

Now for the eas­i­er one – it’s pret­ty close to bird, early. To pro­duce it,

  • pro­nounce an e as in let, then round your lips or
  • pro­nounce an o as in thought, then move your tongue to the front. (Don’t for­get to make it short when using it in Ger­man words.)

Ger­man words: können ‘can, may’,  Schlösser ‘cas­tles’, Töpfe ‘pots’.

People actually used to do this!

Round­ed front vow­els usu­al­ly arise due to such process­es: Ger­man ü can be the front­ed ver­sion of a for­mer u or the round­ed ver­sion of a for­mer i, almost the same holds for ö, o, and e.

Fronting (i-mutation) in Old High German (500‑1050 AD)

Cor­re­spond­ing pairs like Kussküssen ‘(a) kiss – to kiss’ show the orig­i­nal u and the lat­er ü. The rea­son for fronting was a fol­low­ing i or j which assim­i­lat­ed for­mer u to its place of artic­u­la­tion. The j in West-Ger­man­ic kuss­jan made u come to the front as well, but let it keep its round­ed­ness, mak­ing it küss­jan which lat­er turned into küssen, thus elim­i­nat­ing the trou­ble­mak­er but keep­ing the result­ing round­ed front vowel.

(pic­ture mir­rored due to pesky left-to-right writ­ing sys­tem – the nose is to the right)

Exam­ples for oö can­not be found as o orig­i­nal­ly nev­er appeared in words with fol­low­ing i, j. I think I’ll spare you the details, but mod­ern forms like Dorf Dör­fer ‘vil­lage – vil­lages’ exist, although tech­ni­cal­ly not a result of i-muta­tion.

Rounding in Early New High German (1350–1650 AD)

The round­ing process was much less reg­u­lar­i­ly applied. w is often con­sid­ered as a favor­ing envi­ron­ment (as round­ing is one of its defin­ing fea­tures). Exam­ples are lewe > Löwe ‘lion’, swern > schwören ‘to swear’, zwelf > zwölf ‘twelve’.

Exam­ples for iü are: wirde > würde ‘would’, flistern > flüstern ‘to whis­per’ and finf > fünf ‘five’.

(To make mat­ters even more com­pli­cat­ed there was also a counter-process, a der­ound­ing, for exam­ple sprützen > spritzen ‘to splash’.)

Does it wörk?

I sure hope it does – I’d be glad to hear if my expla­na­tions were help­ful (or at least inter­est­ing). I’ve geared this towards (native) speak­ers of Eng­lish (see­ing as there are so many of them), but the gen­er­al prin­ci­ple can be adapt­ed to oth­er lan­guages as well: Look for a sound which dif­fers in only one aspect from ö or ü and change that.

Lan­guages lack­ing the dif­fer­ence between tense and lax vow­els (beach vs. bitch) pose fur­ther prob­lems which I’m sooo not gonna adress now as I’ve run out of ideas.

[Many, many thanks to Memo and Jane for proof­read­ing and fur­ther suggestions!]


1 There are even few­er low round­ed vow­els, c.f. Mad­dieson (2008):

Lip round­ing involves draw­ing the cor­ners of the lips togeth­er and pro­trud­ing the lips for­ward from their nor­mal rest posi­tion. The abil­i­ty to make these ges­tures with the lips is great­est when the vow­el is high; as the jaw is opened fur­ther to make pro­gres­sive­ly low­er vow­els, the amount of adjust­ment of the lips that is pos­si­ble becomes more lim­it­ed, since the lips are being stretched ver­ti­cal­ly. This mechan­i­cal con­straint may account for the fact that low vow­els are nor­mal­ly unround­ed, whether front or back.

2 Mad­dieson, Ian. 2008. Front Round­ed Vow­els. In: Haspel­math, Mar­tin & Dry­er, Matthew S. & Gil, David & Com­rie, Bernard (eds.) The World Atlas of Lan­guage Struc­tures Online. Munich: Max Planck Dig­i­tal Library, chap­ter 11. Avail­able online at http://wals.info/feature/11. Accessed on 2010-07-06.

3 You may of course be a speak­er of Welsh Eng­lish, in this case the mim­ic­k­ing part is unnecessary 😉

All pic­tures except for the WALS map are mod­i­fied ver­sions of this by Ishwar/Rohieb (CC BY-SA 3.0).

11 Gedanken zu „[Schplock goes English] How to pronounce German ö and ü

  1. Pingback: DaF-Blog » Blogosphäre à la carte

  2. Jacques

    Very nice page. You hit all the tech­ni­cal spots and men­tioned even the his­to­ry as well as gath­ered good exam­ples. I am only curi­ous are you a lin­guist by aca­d­e­m­ic back­ground or is this mere­ly a hob­by for you?

    1. Kristin Beitragsautor

      Hi Jacques, thanks a lot, I’m glad you liked it!
      To sat­is­fy your curios­i­ty: I am a PhD stu­dent spe­cial­iz­ing in his­tor­i­cal lin­guis­tics of German.

  3. Stanag6001 tests

    If it’s not a secret — where have you tak­en those images from? I will need to use sim­i­lar ones in com­ing arti­cle and do not want to still anybody’s intel­lec­tu­al prop­er­ty… Can I use yours with small adjustments?

    1. Kristin Beitragsautor

      I made the pic­tures (except for the WALS one) myself on the basis of this pic­ture, they are there­fore under CC BY-SA 3.0, mean­ing you may use and/or alter them as long as you name the sources. (I seem to have for­got­ten this here, I’ll edit it right away.)

  4. Burlupar

    Traumhaft der Post, ich hätte das Ganze nicht halb so gut erk­lären kön­nen! Hat­te auch viele Aha-Erleb­nisse beim Lesen, da ich selb­st noch nicht Sprach­wis­senschaft studiere.

  5. xtraa

    Speak the Ü like the U in “sur­re­al” in british English.
    Speak the Ö like the O in “word” in british English.
    Speak the Ä like the A in “fast” in amer­i­can English.

    It’s not total­ly exact but it gets pret­ty close.


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