To umlaut or not to umlaut, that is the question

To umlaut or not to umlaut, that is the question

When new studenst learn the German alphabet and come across the umlauts for the first time, they often ask if it matters whether they get the different pronunciation right.

The good news is that most of the time the rest of the sentence gives away which word is required. So, even if a German learner pronounces the word without the required umlaut, a German would still understand what is meant. As an example, if I said ‘ich habe einen Bruder’ or ‘ich habe zwei Brüder’, even if I pronounced Bruder/ Brüder wrong, the ‘einen’ or ‘zwei’ would make people understand.

On the other hand, it’s good to know and distinguish between words which are spelled almost identically, but thanks to an umlaut above the a, o, or u, change the meaning slightly or completely.

Here are some of them:

singular – plural

  • Apfel (apple) – Äpfel (apples)
  • Bruder (brother) – Brüder (brothers)
  • Mutter (mother) – Mütter (mothers)
  • Vogel (bird) – Vögel (birds)

different verbs

  • drucken (to print) – drücken (to push)
  • erkalten (go cold) – erkälten (get a cold)
  • futtern (to munch/ scoff) – füttern (to feed)
  • lauten (to sound) – läuten (to ring)

different nouns

  • Achtung (dignity/ attention) – Ächtung (condemnation)
  • Bar (bar) – Bär (bear)
  • Handler (handler) – Händler (dealer/ salesperson)
  • Sage (legend) – Säge (saw)
  • Schussel (scatterbrain) – Schüssel (bowl)
  • Grate (ridges) – Gräte (fishbone)

different words (could be nouns, verbs, adjectives etc…)

  • Alter (age) – älter (older)
  • Haufen (heap/ pile) – häufen – (to pile up)
  • schon (already) – schön (pretty)
  • schwul (gay) – schwül (hot & humid)
  • gewahr (aware) – Gewähr (warranty)
  • Wahrung (protection) – Währung (currency)

different tenses of modal verbs

  • Ich durfte Schokolade essen (I was allowed to eat chocolate) – Ich wünschte, ich dürfte Schokolade essen (I wish I was to be allowed to eat chocolade)
  • Ich konnte Klavier spielen (I could/ was able to play the piano) – Ich wünschte, ich könnte Klavier spielen (I wish I could play the piano)
  • Ich musste meine Hausaufgaben machen (I had to do my homework) – Ich müsste eigentlich meine Hausaufgaben machen (I should be doing my homework)

German – Austrian

  • benutzen (to use/ German) – benützen (to use/ Austrian)
  • Furth (town in Austria) – Fürth (town in Germany)

If you watch the video, you can hear me pronounce all those words. There’s also a quick listening exercise at the end.

Do you know any more examples? I’m sure I haven’t found all of them. If you find other ones, please add them in the comments.

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