How to Pronounce German Umlauted Vowels

Practice Vowels Unique to German

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Image courtesy of Holly Hinton via flickr cc license

German umlauted vowels are foreign to English speakers and hence hard to hear and duplicate. Despite how difficult the task, in order to sing German well and in a way that is understandable, learning to sing the umlauted vowels is mandatory.

Introduction to the Umlauted Vowels

In written German, there are only three umlauted vowels: ä, ö, and ü. Each umlauted vowel has two sounds associated with it.

One of the sounds is “closed” and the other “open,” which refers to how open the mouth is when the vowel is pronounced.

Pronounce Ä

The umlauted A is the easiest of the three umlauted vowels to pronounce. The open version of the vowel is not found in English, but is similar to the vowel sound in the word, “fed.” The difference is the mouth drops slightly when pronouncing it, and English speakers must avoid moving the mouth during the duration of the vowel in order to avoid making it a diphthong. The IPA transcription of the sound is ‘ɛː.’ The short vowel sound for ä is ‘ɛ,’ which is the exact vowel sound found in the word, “fed.”

Pronounce Ö

The closed umlauted O is created by forming the vowel ‘e’ as in “paid,” with forward rounded lips. The amount of rounding of the lips is the same as in the English sound ‘o’ as in “mode.” I usually have my students first say, “mode,” or another word with the ‘o’ sound and then say it again holding the mouth in the shape of the ‘o’ vowel.

Then they pronounce ‘e’ as in “paid” inside the mouth, without moving the lips. Practice with the German words, “schön,” and König.” The IPA transcription of the sound is ‘ø.’ The open ö sound is very similar, combining ‘ɛ’ as in “fed” while holding the mouth in the shape of the ‘ɔ’ sound as in “awe.” The IPA transcription of the sound is ‘œ.’

Pronounce Ü

The closed umlauted U is a combination of ‘i’ as in “feed” while rounding the lips in the shape of the vowel ‘u’ found in “food.” To pronounce it, begin by speaking “food,” then just speak ‘ooo’ and hold your mouth position. Now pronounce ‘i’ as in “feed” inside the mouth without moving either your lips or jaw. The IPA transcription of the sound is ‘y.’ The open version of the German vowel is a ‘ɪ’ as in “bid” while rounding the lips in the same way you would when pronouncing ‘ʊ’ as in “book.”

When to Pronounce Closed and Open Vowels

Pronounce the closed version of the umlaut vowels when followed by a single consonant. Use the open version of the vowel when the umlauted vowel is followed by a double consonant or two or more consonants. Exceptions are when the vowel is followed by ẞ, st, ch, or a combination of r and either d,t,l, or n, in which case the vowel sound can be either opened or closed. Here are examples of German words with closed vowel sounds: Väter, schön, and Grün. Examples of German words with open vowel sounds are: Äpfel, können, and müssen.

How to Pronounce the Letter Y in German

The letter Y in German, typically follows the same rules as the umlauted U. Examples are “typisch,” pronounced with the sound ‘y’ found in the German word “müde,” and “Zephyr” pronounced with the sound ‘Y’ found in the German word, “müssen.” Some exceptions exist.

The most frequent is the pronunciation of Y as ‘i’ as in “feed” such as in the German word “Tyrol,” and other words that pronounce the letter y as a ‘j’ as in yell and found in German when pronouncing “York.”

Combinations Using Umlauted Vowels

Any umlauted vowel followed by ‘h’ is treated just as if it were the umlauted vowel by itself. Following are examples of words with ‘h’ that are pronounced with the closed version of the umlauted vowel: 1. Ähnlich -- first vowel sound is ‘ɛ’ in “fed”; 2. Löhnen -- first vowel sound is ‘ø’ pronounced as ‘e’ in “paid” with a mouth shape of ‘o’ as in “mode”; and 3. Glühen -- first vowel sound is pronounced ‘i’ as in “feed” with a mouth shape of ‘u’ in “food.” Another way of spelling umlauted vowels is taking the vowel and following it by an ‘e,’ so ae is pronounced as ä, oe as ö, and ue as ü.

Äu is pronounced as a diphthong ‘ɔʏ’ similar to the sound heard in the English word “boy,” but the lips are more rounded, as in the word Fräulein.