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?

  • 1
    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. May 10, 2018 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, 2018 at 20:41

6 Answers 6


“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” /eː/ and “ä” /ɛː/ is essentially a spelling pronunciation adopted in the standard “Bühnenaussprache”.

  • 1
    The small letter e you're looking for is U+0364
    – Lars Beck
    May 11, 2018 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, 2018 at 20:48
  • @Noldorin I believe that's a typo: the distinction between e and ä was dictated by etymology.
    – Draconis
    May 12, 2018 at 2:35
  • @Draconis. Yes, I have corrected it. Thanks.
    – fdb
    May 12, 2018 at 7:53
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    @fdb, Ah, well call that a "phonetic pronunciation". Understood though, ta.
    – Noldorin
    May 13, 2018 at 20:26

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 /eː/ and the latter /ɛː/
  • Those two prescriptions are also in effect for gemäßigte Hochlautung
  • Pronuncing long ä as /eː/ 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").

  • Interesting information; thank you for this. Does it tell us what the ancient pronunciation was like though?
    – Noldorin
    May 14, 2018 at 16:54
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    No, Siebs only scratches the top of an iceberg here and his account is very terse. May 14, 2018 at 17:23
  • Fair enough. Thanks regardless; it’s good to know.
    – Noldorin
    May 14, 2018 at 17:40

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].

  • 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). May 10, 2018 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, 2018 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. May 10, 2018 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. May 11, 2018 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, 2018 at 2:34

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'.

  • 2
    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. May 12, 2018 at 19:37
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    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. May 12, 2018 at 19:50

As Sir Cornflakes says, in Standard German short ⟨e⟩ and ⟨ä⟩, as in “Ende” and “Hände”, are pronounced the same way (typically with the open-mid or 'lax' quality [ɛ]: as in English, you could transcribe this phonemically as either /e/ or /ɛ/, since there is no contrast). But long ⟨e⟩ and ⟨ä⟩ are normatively distinguished as separate phonemes, close /eː/ and open /ɛː/ respectively, although not all speakers follow this norm.

The development in German of front unrounded vowel sounds and their spellings is very complicated. As fdb says, the use of the letter ⟨ä⟩ in the standard was affected by etymological and morphological considerations. So if we are referring to the current standard spellings, there simply never was a time when all words currently spelled with ⟨ä⟩ had one vowel sound and words currently spelled with ⟨e⟩ had another. Modern Standard German spelling and pronunciation are both the result of an artificial standardization process.

I am not sure either whether any past stage of German consistently used ⟨ä⟩ and ⟨e⟩ to represent distinct vowels. Spellings like ⟨æ⟩ and ⟨ae⟩, the precursors to the modern letter ⟨ä⟩, seem to have arisen earliest in Middle High German, but there seems to have been a lot of variation in spelling in this time period (Richter).

Etymologically, the Standard German short vowel [ɛ] results from the merge of possibly as many as three prior vowel sounds.

In Old High German, the letter ⟨e⟩ could represent either the inherited Germanic short *e vowel (as in OHG erda from Proto-Germanic *erþō) or the umlaut of Germanic short *a (as in OHG gesti from Proto-Germanic *gastīz). According to several sources I've seen, we know based on certain evidence such as rhymes that words like erda developed a phonetically opener quality [ɛ] whereas words like gesti developed a phonetically closer quality [e]: this seems counterintuitive in light of their origins, but note that in terms of environment [ɛ] occurred mainly before low vowels (since inherited *e was raised to *i in the same contexts that led to umlaut) and [e] occurred mainly before high vowels (before the loss of the conditioning factors for umlaut). (see Houlihan & Iverson 1979; also Twaddell 1938, who gives the examples erda and gesti)

At some point during or before Middle High German (this part is unclear to me) there was some "secondary umlaut" of original short *a. This may have resulted in the development of a third contrasting short vowel [æ]. (see Cercignani and Richter for more details.)

Eventually, short [ɛ], [e], [æ] all merged together, but a number of German dialects, per Cercignani, retained more than one corresponding long vowel (which developed from sources like lengthening of the short vowels as well as from original long vowels); Cercignani argues that dialects of this type are the basis of the prescribed standard German vowel system with /ɛ/, /ɛː/, /eː/, and so the standard pronunciation system (pace John Frazer's answer) was not invented out of nothing for the sake of pronouncing differently-spelled words differently (although standard German is artificial in very many respects, and the way it uses ⟨ä⟩ is not excluded from that).

However, the distribution of vowel sounds in the standard is clearly not just a straightforward continuation of 'original' vowel sounds: it is certain that analogy has played a large role in the distribution of /ɛː/ and /eː/ in any modern German variety, regardless of whether the contrast occurs naturally or artificially. Cercignani gives long descriptions of how analogy has affected various forms, e.g. plurals.

Some relevant quotes from Cercignani 2022:

  • the coalescence of /æ/, /ɛ/, and /e/ took place at different times and/or in different types of speech in late Old or early Middle High German. Further, that the reduced incidence of /ɛ/ and /e/ caused by lengthening (chiefly in an open syllable and before /r/ plus consonant) favoured the subsequent merger of /e/ and /ɛ/. The resulting /ɛ/ was then accepted by the New High German “Schriftsprache” and eventually preserved by Present Standard German. Examples with older /æ/, /ɛ/, and /e/ are Geschlecht (OHG gislahti, MHG geslehte, geslähte), Recht (OHG recht, MHG recht), and fest (OHG festi, MHG feste).

  • The orthography of the Middle and early New High German period is ambiguous and therefore unreliable as evidence of a merger of /ɛ:/ to identity with /e:/. The traditional spelling for /ɛ:/ was ⟨e⟩, while the ligature ⟨æ⟩ and the combined digraph ⟨a ͤ ⟩ occurred only in Bavarian and East Alemannic manuscripts (cf. Paul/Klein 2007: 97).

  • the acceptance of the distinction between the two phonemes in general usage was certainly encouraged by morphological/etymological considerations which led to the use of ⟨ä⟩ (and consequently of /ɛ:/) in words with original /e:/ (as in zählen, MHG zelen) and forms with earlier /a:/ (as in Hähne, MHG hanen). But the fact that these modifications were due to prescriptive tendencies promoted by grammarians, printers, and linguistic societies does not imply that the distinction between /ɛ:/ and /e:/ was invented, since it occurred in regional types of speech that made their way into the New High German “Schriftsprache”.

  • the fact that Central and Upper German areas may have, for example, /ɛ:/ in leben but /e:/ in heben and legen can only confirm the phonological origin of /ɛ:/ as opposed to /e:/. In these types of speech OHG /ɛ/ with subsequent lengthening (OHG lebēn, weban) merged with /ɛ:/ – whereas in others it merged with /e:/ (cf. above) – and this phoneme was kept apart from /e:/ derived from OHG /e/ with subsequent lengthening (MHG heben, OHG heffen; OHG legen < *lagjan). Regional usage cannot be expected to agree with standard usage, which is often the result of a complex process of linguistic levelling.


Further reading

  • Nothing in this explains Wäber "women", cp. wife, regularly Weiber, a-pro-pos weban “weave”. As they say, I think I spider ...
    – vectory
    Jan 7 at 23:48

Umlaut has been an obscure problem in Germanistic. It is usually identified with the influence of a high vowel, similar to Gothic ai and Norse breaking, but effective across consonants. So Apfel ~ Äpfel may be compared to *applu ~ *appliwi, applō, cf. EWAhd:

Singularformen, welche schon ahd. mit Umlaut-e erscheinen (wie vielfach mundartlich heute, s. u.), sind wohl der Analogie des vorwiegend gebrauchten Pl. zu verdanken (schwerlich analog den relativ seltenen Diminutivformen, → epfilî).


See also for example Elch "elk", *algiz.

[Primär Umlaut] (https://www.youtube.com/watch?=bq0bF4k1i_A&t=3620s) applies only to the vowel a.

Based on the idiom “für'n Appel und'n Ei”, if a staff rhyme, it may be presumed that umlaut was diphtongized under influence of Low German (High German Consonant shift demands affaltar < *apul-drō “Apple-tree”) in origin closer to Ei < *ajjiz “Egg", see also eh-, je, Ehe and ewig < *êwa * < *aiw-i/a-.

See by the way Kaizerreich [ˈkʰaɪzɐˌʁaɪç], OHG keisur, Old Saxon kēsur, Old Frankish kēser, keiser < L. Caesar, compare modern High German Caesar, Cesar, Cäser as proper names:

[ˈt͡sɛːzaʁ] (standard; used naturally in western Germany and Switzerland)

[ˈt͡szaʁ] (overall more common; particularly northern and eastern regions)


Talk about the big cheese, the hot shit, cp. das ist doch Käse, read *scheiße "shit"?

The merger with e is not complete and the distinction is sounding to my native ears quite forced (cf. “Bühnenaussprache”, @fdb, above). Notable examples begin with w:

  1. conj. wegen, vb. erwägen, cp. En. way and weigh. The same applies though less frequently to

  2. conj. während and part. (sich) erwehrend, cp. Wesen, gewesen, respectively Wehrmacht.

Talk about the big cheese (certainly not *kāsī > cheese, Käse).

The fact of the matter is that the conjunction is stressed differently and the phonetic-phonology interface is confused. Conj. weil "while" may turn out a short vowel, for example. Waagen on the other hand shows monophthong in relation with wägen, although Wagen "wagon" is usually considered a cognate homophone (pl. Wägen, cp. pl.dat Wege-n). The concept of so-called underlying phonology completely breaks down at this point and the question stops making sense because different idiolects employ different phonologies. It is prosody, not phonology which is making the difference and probably always has. The lengthened vowel of Waage may be explained by lenghened plurals productive into Middle High German. Vb. wägen must be formed by analogy from wegen, as the consistent pronounciation of erwägen shows (cp. OHG wegan, but En. wager).

In conclusion, answers above refer the spelling to etymology, "affected by etymological and morphological considerations" @asteroids, "dictated by etymology", @fdb, except this is etymology of the previous centuries. This suffers from the reductive analytical view, in which a word exists in isolation outside phraseology.

To return to the initial example, distinction in the singular Apfel is justified by neighbouring r, der Apfel "the apple tree", potentially from an unshifted form of PIE *dórw- "tree, wood" in a Saxon genitive, Verner variant OHG ter, affal-ter, expected Grimm variant Zier-Apfel in fact attested. The original determiners are quite difficult to determine, hence more research is needed.

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