I always learnt it was pronounced the same as how 'e' is usually pronounced in German (in either its short or long forms respectively). But then the question is: why have a different letter for it? Surely the original sound must have been different?

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    It's an a that has been fronted, which is what the umlaut means in German. o vs ö, u vs. ü. Fronting often mark the plural (Mann, Männer). If the fronting of a back vowel leads it to overlap with an existing front vowel you'll get two spellings for one sound. But that's not a very strange situation. English has tons of variant spellings for many of its sounds. – Luke Sawczak May 10 '18 at 20:52
  • @LukeSawczak Sure, but that still leaves some room for variation as to what the original sound might have been... – Noldorin May 11 '18 at 20:41

“Originally” is a problematic concept. The letter “ä” was not used in Old and Middle High German. The plural of gast is gesti in OHG and geste in MHG. In early New High German the letters ä, ö and ü (or rather: a, o, u with a small superscript “e”, but I cannot find these in Unicode) were used to indicate the umlauted forms of a, o and u, but the distinction between e and ä was dictated by etymology and not by pronunciation; ä was used where there are obvious cognates with a, as in Gast > Gäste. The spoken distinction between “e” /e/ and “ä” /ɛ/ is essentially a spelling pronunciation adopted in the standard “Bühnenaussprache”.

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    The small letter e you're looking for is U+0364 – Lars Beck May 11 '18 at 6:16
  • Thanks for your answer. Just a couple of questions... Were the digraph forms (ae, oe, ue) used in OHG and MHG then? Now, you write, "the distinction between a and ä was dictated by etymology and not by pronunciation" – does this mean there was no ablaut for the vowel "a" at all until quite recently in the history of High German? – Noldorin May 11 '18 at 20:48
  • @Noldorin I believe that's a typo: the distinction between e and ä was dictated by etymology. – Draconis May 12 '18 at 2:35
  • @Draconis. Yes, I have corrected it. Thanks. – fdb May 12 '18 at 7:53
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    @fdb, Ah, well call that a "phonetic pronunciation". Understood though, ta. – Noldorin May 13 '18 at 20:26

Until rather recently, ä represented the sound /ɛ/, also called "epsilon". This is similar to the sound of e (conveniently written /e/), but with the tongue slightly lower: it's the vowel in English "pet". Some German-speakers still use this pronunciation, but only when they're speaking carefully—that is, it takes conscious effort to get it "right". In casual everyday speech, it's merged into /e/ over the last century.

It's not clear what the "original" sound was, but we can make a guess. The process of front-umlaut in German (and other Germanic languages) involved shifting vowels forward in the mouth in certain contexts. ö /ø/ is o /o/ shifted forward, for instance, and the same for ü /y/ from u /u/.

So based on this evidence, we could say that the "original" underlying phoneme for ä might have been /æ/, a low front vowel (the sound in General American "cat"). But this is nothing but an educated guess. The difference between the actual sounds [æ] and [ɛ] is rather small, and I don't know of any evidence that would tell us conclusively that it was originally pronounced [æ].

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  • You’ve left out length markers, which is confusing in this case. In modern standard German, “ä” does represent /ɛ/ (as in “Hände”), and so does the letter “e” (as in “Ende”). They only represent /e:/ when the vowel is long (or, allophonically, short [e] may occur in unstressed syllables in words from languages like Latin). – brass tacks May 10 '18 at 22:22
  • @sumelic I thought long and short e were considered to be /e e:/, with the quality difference being purely phonetic? Unfortunately my study of German was a long time ago and I might be misremembering. – Draconis May 10 '18 at 22:50
  • @sumelic All the material I have on German says that /ɛ/ is now /e/ except in artificial speech, and that’s what I hear from the natives, too (I live in Nordrhein-Westphalia). Draconis: Re: /æ/, isn’t /æ/ in General American [eə]~[ɛə]? I think Scandinavian /æ/ is a better candidate to what German ‹ä› probably represented. – melissa_boiko May 10 '18 at 22:59
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    While for short vowels, there is no difference between e and ä, there are still speakers of German distinguishing long e and ä, a minimal pair is formed by Beeren and Bären. All German speakers make the distinction in the name of the letters, they are just /e:/ for e and /ɛ:/ for ä. It is also a regional thing, in the northwest of Germany the distinction between long e and ä is not made. – jk - Reinstate Monica May 11 '18 at 8:54
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    @Noldorin fdb's answer also gives evidence that it was originally /e/, just the same as "e", and the difference I mention only arose later because of the spelling. But it's hard to be sure: there might have been a pronunciation difference from the start, but not a letter for it (so the writing system concealed the difference), or both possibilities might have been true in different dialects. – Draconis May 12 '18 at 2:34

Reading Siebs (19th printing, 2000—this edition introduced the notion of a relaxed gemäßigte Hochlautung) again, here are some facts about High German:

  • In Standard German, there is no distinction between short e and ä, they are usually pronounced /ɛ/
  • In Standard German, there is a distinction between long e and ä, the former is pronounced /e:/ and the latter /ɛ:/
  • Those two prescriptions are also in effect for gemäßigte Hochlautung
  • Pronuncing long ä as /e:/ is non-standard

Siebs also makes a historical remark about German orthography: German orthography uses the letter ä when there is a related word with a and e otherwise, disregarding historical development and dialectal pronunciation. In fact, at least some German dialects make even more distinctions on the e-sounds, depending on when the umlaut happened (Primärumlaut and Sekundärumlaut). There are also words spelled with a long e that are dialectally ä words (e.g., leben "to live").

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  • Interesting information; thank you for this. Does it tell us what the ancient pronunciation was like though? – Noldorin May 14 '18 at 16:54
  • No, Siebs only scratches the top of an iceberg here and his account is very terse. – jk - Reinstate Monica May 14 '18 at 17:23
  • Fair enough. Thanks regardless; it’s good to know. – Noldorin May 14 '18 at 17:40

As far as modern Standard German (Hochdeutsch) is concerned, (1) 'ä' is merely an orthographic device whose sound value is the same as 'e' in the same position; (2) there is some vacillation among speakers when it comes to the long vowel; the short variant is always [ɛ] unless someone wants to sound comical.

Standard pronunciation suggests to read long 'ä' as [ɛ:] as contrasted with long 'e' [e:], but this is not generally followed except for a few isolated cases like the interjection 'äh' [ʔɛ:] (people often perform sounds in interjections that they'd otherwise claim not to say at all, like the click in E. 'tsk').

The reason standard pronunciation wants us to read 'ä' as [ɛ:] at all comes from the misunderstanding that where there's a separate way to write words, there should also be a separate way to read those words. Needless to say, this idea fails in many places, not least of which is the contrast of short 'ä' and 'e', which are undisputedly always [ɛ]. There's also some utility to keeping [e:] ~ [ɛ:] separate as there are a few minimal pairs that would otherwise sound the same, such as Beeren ~ Bären (berries, bears) and Ehre ~ Ähre (honor, ear of corn).

So why do people not follow and keep [e:] ~ [ɛ:] separate? One, because it is artificially introduced, phonetically not very salient and, usage-wise, not very useful distinction to be made, as only a handful of lexical items profit from the distinction. Also, there's a constant interference from the many dialects that have only the one or the other vowel, or, when they have both, use them in ways that conflict with what the standard would have us do. As in other languages, most people do not natively speak the perfect standard natively; rather, it is an acquired dialect that is approximated from the sound-base of what one grew up talking.

One reason why one should definitely not follow the folly and separate [e:] ~ [ɛ:] is because it's at odds with the overall German vowel system. German has 7 simple full vowels, viz. /a,e,i,o,u,ø,y/ (plus schwa), all of which come in a short and a long variant. The short ones are generally laxer / more open than the tenser / more closed long ones, so [a, ɛ, ɪ, ɔ, ʊ, œ, ʏ] contrast with [a:, e:, i:, o:, u:, ø:, y:]. An extra [ɛ:] does not fit well into this symmetry.

(There's yet another variant for each vowel that is used mainly in words of Latin or Greek origin; these are described as being a mixture of the short and the long ones in that the vowel quality is rather tense, but the quantity is short or half-long, which gives [aˑ, eˑ, iˑ, oˑ, uˑ, øˑ, yˑ]).

As for why an extra letter Ää was introduced into the spelling when it doesn't correspond to a sound of its own, well, that's a good question. On the one hand, using 'ä' to mark the Umlaut does tie related words together, so you can immediately see that 'Korn', 'Körner', 'Fluss', 'Flüsse' and 'Lachen', 'Lächeln' are related. OTOH we write a lot of words with 'ö' and 'ü' that do not have a modern counterpart with 'ä', 'o', 'u', ex. 'Öl' (*Ol), 'Süden' (*Suden), 'Ähre' (*Ahre). Worse, there are lots of historical Umlaut vowels that are not marked in the orthography at all, ex. 'Gewitter' (<Wetter), 'Gebirge' (<Berg), and then there's a fair number of high-frequency words where usage has been non-uniform over the past one or two hundred years, ex. 'ächt'-'echt', 'Ältern'-'Eltern', 'Stängel'-'Stengel', 'enbläuen'-'einbleuen'.

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    It is quite funny to argue that the contrast e : ä be artificially introduced in a completely artificial system like Deutsche Bühnenaussprache. You want to set your own prescriptionism against the prescriptionism of Siebs. – jk - Reinstate Monica May 12 '18 at 19:37
  • I do not want to introduce a new vowel contrast, I'm saying that it has been done. I'm arguing against prescribing [e:] ~ [ɛ:] because I think it doesn't fit the vowel system well, and, descriptively speaking, many speakers do not follow that rule. What the OP learned—don't make a distinction in speech between 'e' and 'ä'—is what I support, and I'm saying the distinction is in fact originally purely orthographic, and the phonetic distinction was later grafted on. – John Frazer May 12 '18 at 19:50

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