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Lesson Transcript

"German Teachers Answer Your Questions - Lesson #10 - What Are Umlauts and why are they Important in German?


Michael: What are umlauts and why are they important in German?
Igor: And what might happen if I miss one?
Michael: At GermanPod101.com, we hear these questions often. Imagine the following situation: Ben Lee tells his classmate, Karla König, about his mom's birthday. He says,
"I gave my mother two ostriches for her birthday."
Ben Lee: Ich gab meiner Mutter zwei Strauße zum Geburtstag.
Ben Lee: Ich gab meiner Mutter zwei Strauße zum Geburtstag.
Karla König: Du meinst Sträuße, oder?
Michael: Once more with the English translation.
Ben Lee: Ich gab meiner Mutter zwei Strauße zum Geburtstag.
Michael: "I gave my mother two ostriches for her birthday."
Karla König: Du meinst Sträuße, oder?
Michael: "You mean two bouquets?"

Lesson focus

Problem Introduction
Michael: Did you notice how the meaning of the word changes when Karla says it?
Michael: instead of
Igor: Strauße
Michael: The difference here is only the umlaut. "Umlaut" refers to vowels that exist only in the German language. Those vowels are the combination of each A, U, and O with an E. The sound represented by the umlauts is a simplification of when you have to say, for example,
Igor: A und E
Michael: In a row. Umlauts are represented by single characters with diacritics. Linguists have argued about whether or not they should count as separate characters in the German alphabet or not. Despite this ongoing debate, they definitely are important for the German language, as ignoring them might change the meaning of a word completely.
Michael: Let's take a closer look. Do you remember how Ben says the word “ostriches?”
[Pause 4 seconds]
Igor: Strauße
Michael: Here, Ben ignores the
Igor: Ä
Michael: in the word “bouquets” and says “ostriches” instead.
Michael: Now let's listen to Karla, who, realising that ostriches are an unorthodox birthday gift, asks,
[Pause 4 seconds]
SASHA LEE: Sträuße?
Michael: Meaning “bouquets”, to make sure that Ben bought his mother bouquets for her birthday. Both words differ only in the diacritics above the “a.” Do you hear the difference? Listen again:
Igor: Strauße
[Pause 4 seconds]
Igor: Sträuße
Michael: So far we have learned about the function and importance of umlauts in the German language. Forgetting umlauts might result in a completely different word.
Michael: We've covered only one umlaut in our example — the one resulting from the combination of A and E and represented by an “A” with diacritics,
Igor: Ä
Michael: Another example involving this umlaut is,
Igor: Lärm
Michael: The next umlaut we want to introduce you to is
Igor: Ö
Michael: This one is written as an “O” with diacritics and stands for the combination of an “O” with an “E.” You can find it in words like
Igor: : Österreich
Michael: Meaning “Austria,” or
Igor: Vögel
Michael: Which means “birds.”
Michael: The last umlaut in the German language is the,
Igor: Ü.
Michael: This one is the “U” written with diacritics, and represents the combination of “U” and “E.” You might hear this umlaut in words like,
Igor: Küche
Michael: Translating as “kitchen,” or,
Igor: Überraschung
Michael: Meaning “surprise.”
Michael: One of the most common instances, when umlauts are used, is when the plural is formed. Some singular nouns are transformed into the plural form by adding an umlaut to its stem vowel.
This is usually the case with masculine or neuter plural nouns ending with the suffix "-er.” For example, if we take the singular neuter noun,
Igor: Das Haus
Michael: meaning "house" has a stem vowel "a" as its second letter. To turn this noun into a plural, we need to change this stem vowel "a" into "a umlaut" and add the suffix "-er" to the singular form. Thus, the plural form "houses", or,
Igor: Die Häuser.
Michael: is created. Have you noticed how is it different from the singular form? Let’s look at another example,
Igor: Das Wort
Michael: which becomes
Igor: Die Wörter
Michael: in plural. Another thing you can memorize is that if feminine and masculine nouns end on the suffix “-e” in the plural, the stem vowel will usually change into an umlaut. This time let’s pick,
Igor: Die Stadt
Michael: Meaning “city.” The plural will be created by changing the stem vowel “a” into “a umlaut” and adding the suffix -e at the word end. So the plural form, “cities,” will be
Igor: Die Städte.
Michael: One more example. The masculine singular noun
Igor: Der Zug
Michael: Which translates as “train,” is transformed into a plural by changing the stem vowel “u” into “u umlaut”, and adding the -e suffix at the end of the word. The plural form, “trains,” is
Igor: Die Züge
Michael: There are a lot of words that have no endings at all, and yet still change the stem vowel into an umlaut. You’ll come across many exceptions to these rules so while it’s a good starting point in your adventure with umlauts, be sure to double-check if the new word you want to use isn’t one of them.
Practice Section
Michael: Let's review. Repeat after the German speaker, focusing on pronunciation.
Do you remember how KARLA KÖNIG says “bouquets?”
Igor as Karla König: Sträuße?
Michael: Listen again and repeat.
Igor: Sträuße?
[Beep. Pause 5 seconds.]
Igor: Sträuße?
Michael: And, now, do you remember how to say “birds” in German?
Igor: Vögel
Michael: Listen again and repeat.
Igor: Vögel
[Beep. Pause 5 seconds.]
Igor: Vögel
Michael: And the last one, “surprise”
Igor: Überraschung
MICHAEL HILLARD: Listen again and repeat.
Igor: Überraschung
[Beep. Pause 5 seconds.]
Igor: Überraschung
Cultural Insight/Expansion
Michael: Since we learned today that umlauts are very essential for the German language, we need to solve one more problem. Look at your phone or the keyboard in front of your computer. Can you spot the umlauts somewhere? No? Exactly. Unless you bought your computer in Germany, or set the keyboard of your phone to German, you won’t find them that easily.
So what to do, if you need to write something involving umlauts, but you can’t use them? As we learned before, umlauts are a simplified way to write
Igor: A und E, U und E oder O und E.
Michael: Basically, this is also the answer that solves the problem. You can simply write an “A”,”U,” or “O” followed by an “E” to indicate an umlaut.
Have you ever wondered about surnames like “Krueger” or “Mueller?” This is actually a result of this alternative way to write umlauts. Back in the day, when Europeans settled down in the US, many Germans decided to leave the old continent and try their luck in the new world. Since English doesn’t have the umlauts, many people named,
Igor: Krüger, Müller und Schröder
Michael: Had to write their names using the alternative way. Even today, while applying for a visa for the United States, Germans are forced to change the umlauts into the two-letter versions.


Michael: Well done! Now you know all about German umlauts. That's all there is to it!
Be sure to download the lesson notes for this lesson at GermanPod101.com — and move onto the next lesson!

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