Germanic umlaut

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In linguistics, umlaut (from German um- "around"/"the other way" + Laut "sound") is a process whereby a vowel is pronounced more like a following vowel or semivowel. The term umlaut was originally coined and is used principally in connection with the study of the Germanic languages. In Germanic umlaut (also i-umlaut or i-mutation), a back vowel changes to the associated front vowel or a front vowel becomes closer to Template:IPAslink when the following syllable contains Template:IPA, Template:IPA, or Template:IPAslink. This process took place separately in the various Germanic languages starting around 450 or 500 AD, and affected all of the early languages<ref>Template:Cite journal</ref> except for Gothic.<ref>Template:Cite journal</ref> An example of the resulting vowel change is the English plural foot > feet.

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 such as sing/sang/sung.



Umlaut is a form of assimilation, the process by which one speech sound is altered to make it more like another adjacent sound. If a word has two vowels, one far back in the mouth and the other far forward, more effort is required to pronounce the word than if the vowels were closer, and therefore one possible linguistic development is for these two vowels to be drawn closer together.

Germanic umlaut is a specific historical example of this process that took place in the unattested earliest stages of Old English, Old High German, and some other old Germanic languages. Whenever a back vowel (/a/, /o/ or /u/, whether long or short) occurred in a syllable and the front vowel /i/ or the front glide /j/ occurred in the next, the vowel in the first syllable was fronted. So, for example, pre-Old English *mūsi "mice" shifted to *mȳsi, which eventually developed to modern mice, while the singular form *mūs lacked a following /i/ and was unaffected, eventually becoming modern mouse. The fronted variant caused by umlaut was originally allophonic (i.e. a variant sound automatically predictable due to the context), but later became phonemic (a separate sound in its own right) when the context was lost but the variant sound remained. In this case, when final i was lost, the variant sound -ȳ- became a new phoneme in Old English:

Process Language Singular Plural Singular Plural
Original form Proto-Germanic *mūs *mūsiz *fōts *fōtiz
Loss of final -z West Germanic *mūs *mūsi *fōt *fēti
Germanic umlaut Pre-Old English *mūs *mȳsi *fōt *fēti
Loss of i after a heavy syllable Old English mūs mȳs fōt fēt
Unrounding of ȳ (> ī) Early Middle English mūs mīs
Great Vowel Shift Early Modern and Modern English Template:IPA Template:IPA Template:IPA Template:IPA

(table adapted from Malmkjær 2002) et al.

Morphological effects

Although umlaut was not a grammatical process, umlauted vowels often serve to distinguish grammatical forms (and thus show similarities to ablaut when viewed synchronically). We can see this in the English word man; in ancient Germanic, the plural of this and some other words had the plural suffix -iz, and the same vowel as the singular. As it contained an i, this 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. man, woman, tooth, goose, foot, mouse, louse, brother (archaic or specialized plural in brethren), and cow (poetic and dialectal plural in kine). It also can be found in a few fossilized diminutive forms, such as kitten from cat and kernel from corn. Umlaut is conspicuous when it occurs in one of such a pair of forms, but there are many mutated words without an unmutated parallel form. Germanic actively derived causative weak verbs from ordinary strong verbs by applying a suffix, which later caused umlaut, to a past tense form. Some of these survived into modern English as doublets of verbs, including fell and set vs. fall (older past *fefall) and sit.

Parallel umlauts in some modern Germanic languages

Germanic German English Dutch Swedish Faroese
*fallanan - *fallijanan fallen - fällen to fall - to fell vallen - vellen falla - fälla falla - fella
*fōts - *fōtiz Fuß - Füße foot - feet voet - voeten (no umlaut) fot - fötter fótur - føtur
*aldaz - *alþizô - *alþistaz alt - älter - am ältesten old - elder - eldest oud - ouder - oudst (no umlaut) gammal - äldre - äldst (irregular) gamal - eldri - elstur (irregular)
*fullaz - *fullijanan voll - füllen full - to fill vol - vullen full - fylla fullur - fylla
*langaz - *langīn/*langiþō lang - Länge long - length lang - lengte lång - längd langur - longd
*lūs - *lūsiz Laus - Läuse louse - lice luis - luizen (no umlaut) lus - löss lús - lýs

In the above table it is incorrectly suggested that in the 'Dutch' language umlauted plurals do not occur. Nevertheless in the Netherlandish ('Dutch') language umlauted plurals are still quite common. Extreme cases are stad ("town") - steden ("towns") and schip ("ship") - schepen ("ships"). But there are also many nouns with 'short a' in their singular forms that have 'long a' in their plural forms; this is indicated by the consonants following the written 'a' not being doubled in the written plural forms. It should be interesting to know that in Eastern Netherlandish ('Dutch') dialects umlaut-plurals without plural-endings do occur: voet - vuut (instead of voet - voeten). Sometimes the only difference between a dialect singular form and the corresponding plural form of a noun is the length of the noun: singular luus (short) - plural luus (long) (instead of luis - luizen).

German orthography

Template:See also

File:Germanic umlaut on keyboard.jpg
Ä, Ö, Ü on a German computer keyboard
File:Umlaut forms.png
New and old notation of umlauted vowels

German orthography is generally consistent in its representation of i-umlaut. The umlaut diacritic, consisting of two dots above the vowel, is used for the fronted vowels, making the historical process much more visible in the modern language than is the case in English: a>ä, o>ö, u>ü, au>äu.

Sometimes a word has a vowel affected by i-umlaut, but the vowel is not marked with the umlaut diacritic. Usually the word with an umlauted vowel comes from an original word without umlaut, but the two are not recognized as a pair because the meaning of the umlauted word has changed.

The adjective fertig ("ready", "finished"; originally "ready to go") contains an umlaut mutation, but it is spelled with e rather than ä as its relationship to Fahrt (journey) has for most speakers of the language been lost from sight. Likewise, alt (old) has the comparative älter (older), but the noun from this is spelled Eltern (parents). Aufwand (effort) has the verb aufwenden (to spend, to dedicate) and the adjective aufwendig (requiring effort), though the 1996 spelling reform now permits the alternative spelling aufwändig (but not aufwänden).<ref>Duden, Die deutsche Rechtschreibung, 21st edition, p. 133.</ref> For denken, see below.

On the other hand, some foreign words have umlaut diacritics that do not mark a vowel produced by the sound change of umlaut. Notable examples are Känguruh from English kangaroo, and Büro from French bureau. In the latter case the diacritic is a pure phonological marker, with no regard to etymology; in case of the kangaroo (identical in sound to *Kenguru), it somewhat etymologically marks the fact that the sound is written with an a in English. Similarly, Big Mac can be spelt Big Mäc in German, which even used to be the official spelling used by McDonald's in Germany.<ref name="Welt Online">Template:Cite web</ref>

Für "for" is a special case; it is an umlauted form of vor "before", but other historical developments changed the expected ö into ü. In this case, the ü marks a genuine, but irregular umlaut. Other special cases are fünf "five" (expected form *finf) and zwölf "twelve" (expected form *zwälf/zwelf), where the modern umlauted vowel arose from a different process, i.e. rounding an unrounded front vowel (possibly due to the labial consonants w/f occurring on both sides).

False ablaut in 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, giving them the name false ablaut.

The German word Rückumlaut ("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 it is remembered that in German the letters <ä> and <e> are usually phonetically equivalent. The Proto-Germanic verb would have been *þankijanan; the /j/ caused umlaut in all the forms that had the suffix; subsequently the /j/ 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, <ä>→<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 fängst, er fängt. The verb 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. There are in fact two distinct phenomena at play here; the first is indeed umlaut as it is best known, but the second is older and occurred already in Proto-Germanic itself. In both cases, a following i triggered a vowel change, but in Proto-Germanic this only affected e. The effect on back vowels did not occur until hundreds of years later, after the Germanic languages had already begun to split up: *fanhanan, *fanhidi with no umlaut of a, but *gebanan, *gibidi with umlaut of e.

West Germanic languages

I-mutation in Old English

Template:Refimprove section I-mutation is particularly visible in the inflectional and derivational morphology of Old English, since it affected so many of the Old English vowels. Of 16 basic vowels and diphthongs in Old English, only the four vowels ǣ, ē, i, ī were unaffected by i-mutation. Although i-mutation was originally triggered by an /i/ or /j/ in the syllable following the affected vowel, by Old English times the /i/ or /j/ had generally dropped out or been modified (usually to /e/), with the result that i-mutation generally appears as a morphological process that affects a certain (seemingly arbitrary) set of forms. The most common forms affected are:

  • The plural, and genitive/dative singular, forms of consonant-declension nouns (original suffix -iz), as compared to the nominative/accusative singular – e.g., fōt "foot", fēt "feet"; mūs "mouse", mȳs "mice". Note that many more words were affected by this change in Old English vs. modern English – e.g., bōc "book", bēc "books"; frēond "friend", frīend "friends".
  • The second and third-person present singular indicative of strong verbs (original suffixes -ist, -iþ), as compared to the infinitive and other present-tense forms – e.g. helpan "to help", helpe "(I) help", hilpst "(you sg.) help" (cf. archaic "thou helpest"), hilpþ "(he/she) helps" (cf. archaic "he helpeth"), helpaþ "(we/you pl./they) help".
  • The comparative form of some adjectives (original suffixes -ira < -izōN, -ist < -istaz), as compared to the base form – e.g. eald "old", ieldra "older", ieldest "oldest" (cf. "elder, eldest").
  • Throughout the first class of weak verbs (original suffix -jan), as compared to the forms from which the verbs were derived – e.g. fōda "food", fēdan "to feed" < *fōdjan; lār "lore", lǣran "to teach"; fiellan "to fell", feallan "to fall".
  • In the abstract nouns in þ(u) (original suffix -iþō) corresponding to certain adjectives – e.g., strang "strong", strengþ(u) "strength"; hāl "whole/hale", hǣlþ(u) "health"; fūl "foul", fȳlþ(u) "filth".
  • In female forms of several nouns with the suffix -enn (original suffix -injō) – e.g., god "god", gydenn "goddess" (cf. German Gott, Göttin); fox "fox", fyxenn "vixen".
  • In i-stem abstract nouns derived from verbs (original suffix -iz) – e.g. cyme "a coming", cuman "to come"; byre "a son (orig., a being born)", beran "to bear"; fiell "a falling", feallan "to fall"; bend "a bond", bindan "to bind". Note that in some cases the abstract noun has a different vowel than the corresponding verb, due to Proto-Indo-European ablaut.

I-mutation affects vowels as follows:

Original Mutated Examples
æ e þæc "covering" (cf. "thatch"), þeccan "to cover"
e i helpan "to help", hilpþ "(he/she) helps"
a+m/n e+m/n mann "man", menn "men"
a æ, e bacan "to bake", bæcþ "(he/she) bakes"; talu "tale", tellan "to tell"
ā ǣ lār "teaching" (cf. "lore"), lǣran "to teach"
o e dohtor "daughter", dehter "daughters"
ō ē fōt "foot", fēt "feet"
u, o y murnan "to mourn", myrnþ "(he/she) mourns"; gold "gold", gyldan "to gild"
ū ȳ mūs "mouse", mȳs "mice"
ea ie eald "old", ieldra "older" (cf. "elder")
ēa īe nēah "near" (cf. "nigh"), nīehst "nearest" (cf. "next")
eo ie beornan "to burn", biernþ "(he/she) burns"
ēo īe sēoþan "to boil" (cf. "seethe"), sīeþþ "(he/she) boils"


  1. The phonologically expected umlaut of /a/ is /æ/. However, in many cases /e/ appears. Most /a/ in Old English in fact stem from earlier /æ/ due to a change called a-restoration. This change was blocked when /i/ or /j/ followed, leaving /æ/, which subsequently mutated to /e/. For example, in the case of talu "tale" vs. tellan "to tell", the forms at one point in the early history of Old English were tælu and tælljan, respectively. A-restoration converted tælu to talu, but left tælljan alone, and it subsequently evolved to tellan by i-mutation. The same process "should" have led to *becþ instead of bæcþ. That is, the early forms were bæcan and bæciþ. A-restoration converted bæcan to bacan, but left alone bæciþ, which would normally have evolved by umlaut to *becþ. In this case, however, once a-restoration took effect, bæciþ was modified to baciþ by analogy with bacan, and then later umlauted to bæcþ.
  2. A similar process resulted in the umlaut of Template:IPA sometimes appearing as Template:IPA and sometimes (usually, in fact) as Template:IPA. In Old English, Template:IPA generally stems from a-mutation of original Template:IPA. A-mutation of Template:IPA was blocked by a following Template:IPA or Template:IPA, which later triggered umlaut of the Template:IPA to Template:IPA. This is why alternations between Template:IPA and Template:IPA are common. Umlaut of Template:IPA to Template:IPA occurs only when an original Template:IPA was modified to Template:IPA by analogy before umlaut took place. For example, dohtor comes from late Proto-Germanic *dohter, from earlier *duhter. The plural in Proto-Germanic was *duhtriz, with Template:IPA unaffected by a-mutation due to the following Template:IPA. At some point prior to i-mutation, the form *duhtriz was modified to *dohtriz by analogy with the singular form, which then allowed it to be umlauted to a form that resulted in dehter.

A few hundred years after i-umlaut began, another similar change called double umlaut occurred. It was triggered by an Template:IPA or Template:IPA in the third or fourth syllable of a word and mutated all previous vowels—but it only worked when the vowel directly preceding the Template:IPA or Template:IPA was Template:IPA. This Template:IPA typically appears as e in Old English or is deleted. Examples are:

  • hægtess "witch" < *hagatusjō (cf. Old High German hagazussa)
  • ǣmerge "embers" < *āmurjōn < *aimurjōn (cf. Old High German eimurja)
  • ǣrende "errand" < *ǣrundjaz (cf. Old Saxon ārundi)
  • efstan "to hasten" < archaic œfestan < *ofustan
  • ȳmest "upmost" < *uxumistaz (cf. Gothic áuhumists)

As shown by the examples, affected words typically had /u/ in the second syllable, and mostly /a/ in the first syllable. Note also that the /æ/ developed too late to break to ea or to trigger palatalization of a preceding velar.

I-mutation in High German

I-mutation is visible in Old High German (OHG), c. 800 AD, only on /a/, which was mutated to /e/. By this point, it had already become partly phonologized, since some of the conditioning /i/'s and /j/'s had been deleted or modified. The later history of German, however, shows that /o/ and /u/ were also affected — starting in Middle High German, the remaining conditioning environments disappear and /o/ and /u/ appear as /ø/ and /y/ in the appropriate environments.

This has led to a controversy over when and how i-mutation appeared on these vowels. Some (for example, Herbert Penzl)<ref>Template:Cite journal</ref> have suggested that the vowels must have been modified already in OHG, but was not indicated due to the lack of proper symbols, and/or because they were still partly allophonic. Others (e.g. Joseph Voyles)<ref>Template:Cite encyclopedia</ref> have suggested that the i-mutation of /o/ and /u/ was entirely analogical, and pointed to the lack of i-mutation of these vowels in certain places where it would be expected, in contrast to the consistent mutation of /a/. PerhapsTemplate:Or the answer is somewhere in between — i-mutation of /o/ and /u/ was indeed phonetic, occurring late in OHG, but later spread analogically to the environments where the conditioning had already disappeared by OHG (this is where failure of i-mutation is most likely).Template:Citation needed It must also be kept in mind that it is an issue of relative chronology: already early in the history of attested OHG, some umlauting factors are known to have disappeared (such as word-internal j after geminates and clusters), and depending on the age of OHG umlaut, this could explain some cases where expected umlaut is missing.

In modern 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, and other kinds of derived forms. Because of the grammatical importance of such pairs, the German umlaut diacritic was developed, making the phenomenon very visible. The result in German is that the vowels written as <a>, <o>, and <u> become <ä>, <ö>, and <ü>, and the diphthong <au> becomes <äu>: Mann/Männer ("man/men"), lang/länger ("long/longer"), Fuß/Füße ("foot/feet"), Maus/Mäuse ("mouse/mice"), Haus/Häuser ("house/houses"). On the phonetic realisation of these, see German phonology.

I-mutation in Old Saxon

In Old Saxon, umlaut is much less apparent than in Old Norse. The only vowel that is regularly fronted before an /i/ or /j/ is short /a/. E.g. gastgesti, slahanslehis. NB I-umlaut must have had a greater effect than the orthography of OS shows. This is because all the later dialects have regular umlaut of both long and short vowels.

I-mutation in Dutch

The situation in Old Dutch is similar to the situation found in Old Saxon and Old High German. Later developments in Middle Dutch show, however, that long vowels and diphthongs were not affected by umlaut in the more western dialects, including those in Brabant and Holland that were most influential for standard Dutch. Thus for example where modern German has fühlen Template:IPA and English has feel Template:IPA (from Proto-Germanic *fōlijanaN), standard Dutch retains a back vowel in the stem in voelen Template:IPA. NB Eastern 'Dutch' dialects resemble the German language: vulen (with long 'u') instead of voelen (with short 'oe'). Eastern Netherlandish dialects like the German language also have umlauted plurals (without plural endings) as well as umlauted diminutives. The Eastern Netherlandish umlaut also occurs in the adjective hulteren ("wooden": standard Dutch houten, German hölzern) from holt ("wood": standard Dutch hout, German Holz).

Late Old Dutch saw a merger of Template:IPA and Template:IPA, causing their umlauted results to merge as well. This means that only two of the original Germanic vowels were affected by umlaut at all in Dutch: Template:IPA, which became Template:IPA, and Template:IPA, which became Template:IPA (spelled u). The lengthening in open syllables in late Old Dutch also affected Template:IPA, which was lengthened and lowered to Template:IPA (spelled eu). This is parallel to the lowering of Template:IPA in open syllables to Template:IPA, as in schip ("ship") – schepen ("ships").

It is generally ignored that umlauted plurals still do exist in the official Netherlandish ("Dutch") language. An extremeTemplate:Why case is stad ("town") – steden ("towns"). But most important: many nouns with "short a" in their singular forms get "long a" in their plural forms: dak ("roof") – daken ("roofs"), gat ("hole") – gaten ("holes"), bad ("bath") – baden (baths), pad ("path") – paden ("paths"), blad ("leaf") – bladeren ("leaves"). The sound of the a changes between the singular and plural forms, which is indicated by the consonants following the a not doubling. One should compare pad ("toad") – padden ("toads") (double d indicating an unchanged "short" a-sound) to pad ("path") – paden ("paths") (single d indicating a changed "lengthened" a-sound). "Short a" is pronounced as a short version of the British long a-sound in aunt, whereas "long a" is pronounced as a long version of the British short a-sound in man.Template:Clarification needed

North Germanic languages

I-mutation in Old Norse

Template:Main Template:See also Template:Unreferenced section

The situation in Old Norse is complicated as there are two forms of i-mutation. Of these two, only one is phonologized.Template:Clarify I-mutation in Old Norse is phonological if:

  • In Proto-Norse, the syllable was heavy and followed by vocalic i (*gastiʀ > gestr, but *staði > *stað) or, regardless of syllable weight if followed by consonantal i (*skunja > skyn). The rule is not perfect, as some light syllables were still umlauted: *kuni > kyn, *komiʀ > kømr.
  • In Old Norse, the following syllable contains a remaining Proto-Norse i.Template:Why? For example the root of the dat. sing. of u-stems are i-mutated as the desinence contains a Proto-Norse i, but the dat. sing. of a-stems is not, as their desinence stems from P-N ē.

I-mutation is not phonological if the vowel of a long syllable is i-mutated by a syncopated i. I-mutation does not occur in short syllables.

Original Mutated Example
a e (ę) fagr (fair) / fegrstr (fairest)
au ey lauss (loose) / leysa (to loosen)
á æ Áss / Ǽsir
ý ljúga (to lie) / lýgr (lies)
o ø koma (to come) / kømr (comes)
ó œ róa (to row) / rœr (rows)
u y upp (up) / yppa (to lift up)
ú ý fúll (foul) / fýla (stink, foulness)
ǫ ø (ø̨<ref>Sweet, Henry - An Old Icelandic Primer</ref>) sǫkk (sank) / søkkva (to sink)

U-mutation in Faroese and Icelandic

Template:Expand section Another type of mutation occurred in Faroese and Icelandic, where a changed to ø/o in Faroese and ö in Icelandic when preceded by u. Where Icelandic fronted all of its vowels to ö, Faroese did so as well, except in front of nasal consonants where the result was o. In addition, U-umlaut became so strong in Faroese, that even basic forms of words were changed:

  • gatagøta
  • sagasøga

See also




  • Malmkjær, Kirsten (Ed.). (2002). The linguistics encyclopedia (2nd ed.). London: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group. ISBN 0-415-22209-5.
  • Cercignani, Fausto, Early "Umlaut" Phenomena in the Germanic Languages, in «Language», 56/1, 1980, pp. 126–136.
  • Cercignani, Fausto, Alleged Gothic Umlauts, in «Indogermanische Forschungen», 85, 1980, pp. 207–213.

Template:Germanic philologybg:Умлаут br:Umlaut cs:Přehláska da:Umlaut de:Umlaut es:Umlaut eo:Umlaŭto fr:Umlaut ko:움라우트 hsb:Přezwuk hr:Prijeglas id:Umlaut is:Hljóðvarp he:אומלאוט ka:უმლაუტი kk:Умлаут li:Umlaut nl:Umlaut (klank) ja:ウムラウト no:Tøddel nn:Omlyd pl:Umlaut pt:Umlaut ro:Umlaut ru:Умлаут stq:Umlaut simple:Germanic umlaut fi:Umlaut sv:Omljud zh:日耳曼語元音變音

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