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I am German, but I thought I would ask this question in English so that everyone possessing knowledge about this specific subject could join in independently from the language it was asked in.

In Latin, the digraph ae has been spoken in many different ways, but it has always been written as ae, that is, the pronunciation changed, but not the way it is written. At the end of the early Middle Ages, the phonetics had changed so much in, for example, Italian, that the diphthong lost its first letter, and became an e, even though in this specific case, some words retained the a until modern Italian became widespread, but I digress.

In German, specifically, and maybe in other Germanic languages I am unaware of, the diphthong did not fuse into one letter, but was retained through the ages; for example, in many writings of the 18th century, you can still find spellings such as Aesthetik. But then why, at the end, did it mutate into first the famous (that is, an a with a small e above it) and later into today’s ä?

  • If I had to guess if anything the Latin diphthong was merged to become analogous to the Germanic sound ä, but I can’t provide any evidence or anything for this. Nice question! – Jan Jun 21 '15 at 14:13
  • I'm not convinced, that this is a topic of the language - it might be simply of typographic nature, since the inherited latin alphabet did not provide Ä. According to [Brockhaus (1890); Deutsche Sprache, Geschichte] (retrobibliothek.de/retrobib/seite.html?id=124451) this change was part of Lautverschiebung, and quite frequently ae was changed to simple e. – guidot Jun 22 '15 at 8:21
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    @guidot: I disagree. It is about typography, sure. But it is about a typographic feature that is exclusive or almost exclusive to the German language (in its history, other languages have the dieresis as an accent too, but the evolution was different, as far as I know). It’s almost like asking about the history of ß. – Wrzlprmft Jun 22 '15 at 8:24
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    @eslukas: Are you interested in the evolution of the sound or the optical appearance? I have some doubts, whether these were synchronized, especially since 18th century the optical changes seem to prevail. – guidot Jun 22 '15 at 8:36
  • @guidot: I am interested in the relationship of the two, and also if there is one. As Wrzlprmft said in his comment, this mutation took place mainly in the German language, and it would be interesting to understand even slightly the circumstances of this happening. – eslukas Jun 23 '15 at 13:20
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All images are hyperlinks to their sources.

As with all historical typographic and linguistic developments, it’s much more easy to say what happened than why it happened. The following is a brief overview over the history, which I try to back up where I can:

  • In medieval calligraphy and typsetting before movable type, it was quite common to use superscript letters for shorthands and abbreviatures. For example take a look at this or this (both from the 15th century):

    Example for abbreviatures and superscripted letters

    In this setting, writing an a followed by or below a superscripted e is nothing special.

    On the other hand, the first document linked above already used two dots instead of a superscript e for the umlaut:

    “götlicher”

    I know no trustworthy theory about the origin of using two dots here (see also below).

  • In movable type, the usage of superscript letters and similar described in the above was (mostly) discontinued. (I assume economic reasons – the fewer different glyphs you have, the better.) The lowercase umlauts ä, ö, and ü were the exception, and set in the  form, i.e., with a small e above the letter:

    example from Adam Riese

    However, in early printed type, you also had other combinations, e.g.:

    enter image description here

  • In the 19th century, modern-day lowercase umlauts slowly began to emerge in printed type:

    enter image description here

    You find some claims on the Internet that this form originates from the e in Kurrent as follows:

    enter image description here

    (The above reads ſchoen ſchoͤn ſchön.) The problem with this argument is that the classical umlauts can be found in handwriting much earlier (see the second example above) than the handwriting examples given to substantiate this argument. As I could not find any better evidence for this claim, I am very skeptical of it.

    My personal guess is that the small e was not recognisable as such in most printing anyway and for the sake of reading it did not matter whether it was an e, two dots or some squiggle. Thus, the easier alternative of using two dots became popular.

  • Finally, at the end of the 19th century, capital umlauts began to emerge and were made part of the official German orthography in 1901. Before, you almost only had the base letter followed by a regular e. Therefore you will find spellings like Aesthetik in writings earlier than this and you still have remnants of this in the spellings of proper names like Uelzen.

    In my recherches on blackletter typesetting, I found very few examples of a small e being used above an uppercase letter to indicate an uppercase umlaut, but unfortunately the only one I can find right now is from an old Norwegian text:

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