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)
- [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
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”).
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.
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 ü – IPA: [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 ü – IPA: [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 ö – IPA: [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 ö – IPA: [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 Kuss – küssen ‘(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.
Examples for o → ö 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 i → ü 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!]
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.
All pictures except for the WALS map are modified versions of this by Ishwar/Rohieb (CC BY-SA 3.0).