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Is a short ü (notated [ʏ] and found in 'Rücken' or 'gefüllt' or 'fünf') pronounced like (obviously except in duration):
(1) a long ü ([y] / 'üben' or 'früh') or
(2) a long ö ([ø] / 'schön' or 'Löhne')?

Background:

I thought the letter ü represented the same sound, long or short, or (1) above. That is what this Web page suggests (although it qualifies the sameness by adding "with slightly less lip-rounding"). However, this YouTube video says (2) and adds that (1) is wrong.

1

The correct answer is (2): a short ü (notated [ʏ] and found in ‘Rücken’ or ‘gefüllt’ or ‘fünf’) is pronounced like (obviously except in duration) a long ö ([ø]/‘schön’ or ‘Löhne’).

The vowels /øː/ and /ʏ/ are very similar except in duration, as can be demonstrated by artificially manipulating their duration using Praat or some similar software:

  • When the duration of an /øː/ (e.g. in Höhle) is artificially shortened, it will be perceived as a perfectly cromulent /ʏ/. A shortened Höhle will be perceived as Hülle.
  • Likewise, when the duration of an /ʏ/ is artificially lengthened (e.g. in Hülle), it will be perceived as a perfectly cromulent /øː/. A lengthened Hülle will be perceived as Höhle.

Artificially manipulating the respective lengths of the vowels /yː/ and /ʏ/ gives a very different result:

  • When the duration of an /yː/ (e.g. in Hüte) is artifically shortened, it sounds like something halfway inbetween /yː/ (because of the quality) and /ʏ/ (because of the duration). A shortened Hüte sounds neither quite like Hüte or Hütte.
  • When the duration of an /ʏ/ is artificially lengthened (e.g. in Hütte), it will not be perceived as an /yː/, but rather as a perfectly cromulent /øː/. A lengthened Hütte will not be perceived as Hüte, but rather as *Höte.

Nevertheless, it is natural for people to believe or feel that the two vowels have different qualities, even though they are virtually identical except for their duration. This is because the short /ʏ/ patterns with /yː/ in orthography and (to some extent) in morphology, whereas the long /øː/ patterns with the short /œ/ (incidently, I believe that this is the only reason why the IPA has the signs [ɪ ʏ ʊ] at all).

Three-way minimal pairs (or triplets)

The contrasts can be observed best by comparing three-way minimal pairs (or triplets). The question is: Does the word in the middle (the one with the short near-close vowel) resemble more the word on the left (the one with the long closed vowel) or the word on the right (the one with the long close-mid vowel)?

  • Flüge – flügge – flöge
  • biete – bitte – bete
  • Mus – muss – Moos

Manipulated vowel length minimal pairs for all near-close vowels

The long close-mid vowels /eː øː oː/ have virtually the same quality as the short near-close vowels /ɪ ʏ ʊ/:

The long close vowels /iː yː uː/ have a noticeably different quality from the short near-close vowels /ɪ ʏ ʊ/:

  • Fascinating! 1. Have artificial manipulations of duration been done to other languages with similar vowel sounds. For example, have people tried artificially lengthening the French tu /ty/ to see if it is perceived as /tøː/? 2. Also have people tried the same on non-native but competent German speakers? I ask these questions because if both French speakers and non-native German speakers exhibit the same phenomenon, then there might be something deep going on (not peculiar to a single language, but embedded in the human mind or at least mouth). – Catomic Jun 15 at 2:03
  • I do not expect that French /y/ would be perceived as /ø/, no matter how much either one of them were artificially lengthened, just in the same way as these sounds are clearly distinct in German (where they are both long), cf. the flüge – flöge minimal pair. It is only artificially lengthened /ʏ/ (not /yː/) that sounds like /øː/ in German. I do not know whether such artificially lengthened vowels have been used in research, with native or non-native speakers. I expect they have been used, but I do not know. – mach Jun 15 at 12:36
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German vowels that are denoted by the same character and differ in length often differ in other qualities, too: Long vowels are more open, and short vowels are more closed. The Wikipedia entry has a table, all sounds have links to pages with sound recording. Open and closed variants are not exactly the same sounds (e.g. [ʏ] for short ü, [y] for long ü, etc.), but the sounds are close enough.

The closed ü is not very different from the closed ö, and that's probably why the Youtube video confuses both. Or maybe the speaker is influenced by his dialect. The fact that an invented phonetic transcription is used instead of IPA should be seen as an early warning sign. :-)

Pronunciations also vary by dialect and region.

So to answer the question, short ü is neither (1) nor (2), but phonetically closer to (1).

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