My nephew asked me what the historical origin of the German umlaut (like ü/ä/ö) is.

I have no idea. How can I explain it to him?

  • 1
    It's not specific to German, but Germanic languages in general. So technically even English has it, although not as clearly visible as in German. See also: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Germanic_umlaut – Em1 Jul 17 '15 at 13:32
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    Are you asking about umlauts in the linguistic sense (i.e., changing the pronunciation of a vowel upon inflection and similar), about the origin of the word Umlaut or the history of the umlaut letters, ä, ö and ü? See this question for the latter. I am closing this now to avoid having three different kinds of answers. Please clarify your question, so it can be reopened (unless it’s a duplicate). – Wrzlprmft Jul 17 '15 at 14:50
  • Please clarify if the development of those shorthands was your primary concern! – Ludi Jul 18 '15 at 12:53
  • Und Du kannst hier auf Deutsch fragen. – Carsten S Jul 18 '15 at 14:12
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    @Sunlog: Das ist schon klar. Es gibt nur verschiedene Dinge, die als Umlaut bezeichnet werden, nämlich 1) Das linguistische Phänomen, sprich, dass sich Vokale unter gewissen Umständen ändern. Dies hat nichts mit der Schriftsprache zu tun. 2) Das typografische Phänoen, sprich, dass man zwei Punkte über einen Buchstaben setzt. 3) Das Wort Umlaut selbst (wobei ich mir dabei relativ sicher bin, dass Du das nicht meinst). – Wrzlprmft Jul 20 '15 at 11:03

I suppose he wanted to know about the symbols ä, ö, ü. Those developed from writing ue, ae or oe, which then moved to uͤ (e written above a, e, u), and then became further simplified to ü. You'll find other diacritic letters in older writing, like un̄ for und or m̄ in words like zusam̄en to save one m. The reason given to me in school was that it saved paper. Actually, as far as I remember, it was allowed to correct misspelt words like zusamen by adding the macron.

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