Hey guys I'm having trouble finding the difference in pronunciation between o, u and the ö and ü. I don't feel like I can continue my German lessons until I can correct pronounce them. Any help?

  • I think you can continue on in lessons just fine―many German learners can't tell the difference between ö and ü. After you know how to the basics of pronouncing at least o and u, and some sound like ö/ü, you just need exposure and practice to learn the difference and to say them right.
    – Numeri
    Sep 7 '15 at 22:30
  • Although, I'm not saying that the people on this site don't have good suggestions for you; I'm interested in seeing what hints this community has for this, myself! :)
    – Numeri
    Sep 7 '15 at 22:31

First of all: In German each vowel has a short and a long version, and it can be spoken closed and open, which produces different spoken sounds for the same written letter. (»Mond« and »Tonne« are written with the same letter o, but the pronunciation is not exactly the same; There are at least four different pronunciation for the letter e)

Compared with other languages, German is one of the languages with the most different spoken vowels. Wikipedia lists 15 different spoken vowels.

And over all there are lots of regional variation in the pronunciation of vowels, so that you will always find a wide range of correct pronunciations for each vowel. For example: In northern parts of Germany you will hear a very clear difference between the two vowels in »Käse«, while in Austria they sound identical.

This short list will give you just a very rough overview for beginners:

O is spoken very similar like the vowel in

God, go, walk, talk, hot, long, on, off, song, ...

Ö is spoken similar like the vowel in

bird, work

U is spoken like the vowel in

do, you, full, good, could

Ü: Sorry, there is no english word that has a vowel that is spoken like the German ü.

But the best way to get a feeling for the correct pronunciation is to listen to German speakers. On Youtube you will find lots of training videos that will help you, like this one: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OGwmiY4wcrs

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    I cannot quite believe what you say about Käse. I would assume that the e is a schwa everywhere, if it is pronounced at all, and I would be surprised if the ä is also one in Austria. It is still an interesting example, as I never know whether I should pronounce it as in Besen or with a distinct ä.
    – Carsten S
    Sep 8 '15 at 8:27
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    You first make clear that the vowels come in short/long pairs, but in your list you do not state which you are talking about.
    – Carsten S
    Sep 8 '15 at 8:28
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    The Wikipedia table should be taken with caution. It lists the 'i' sounds in "wieso" and "direkt", the 'e' sounds in "lebending" and "Debatte", the 'o' sounds in "sodass and "Rosine", and several other long vowels as examples for "short vowels". Even worse, it lists the 'ö' in "Ökonomie" as an example for "short, unstressed vowels" (that 'ö' is long, and it is on a secondary stress, as gets apparent when shortening the similar word "Ökologie" to "Öko", where the 'ö' even becomes the main stress). Also, distinguishing the 'er' sound in "verlieren" and in "Leder" seems questionable to me. Sep 8 '15 at 9:16
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    @AndreJ: You have never watched Star Trek: The Next Generation in English, have you? Sep 8 '15 at 10:44
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    @AndreJ: One of the protagonists is a Frenchman named "Jean-Luc Picard". While in the German dubbing of the series, his name is correctly pronounced the French way by all characters (and presumeably the same is valid for the French version ...), it is consistently pronounced "John-Look Pee-cart" in the original English version. Accordingly, I would expect many English native speakers to pronounce "Hulot" as either "hoo-lott" or "hah-lott", but not with anything resembling an 'ü' sound. Sep 8 '15 at 11:05

Here is some additional information complementing Hubert Schölnast's answer.

The relation between an umlaut and the corresponding non-umlauted vowel is a systematical one. You can use this to learn pronouncing ü, the only vowel that is really problematic for native English speakers. The good news is that you can later use this vowel not just in other languages like Turkish, Chinese and Tibetan, which use the ü character in their official orthography or in at least one standard transcription. The letter u is also pronounced the same way in almost all French words!

The main problem is that you are not used to activating the precise set of muscles required to pronounce ü. You must get a feeling for which muscles you have to activate additionally, and which to relax, in order to pronounce the two dots on top of a vowel. You can already do this for a/ä and for short o/ö because these vowels exist in English. You will have to learn doing this for u/? as well.

The other problem is that you are not used to hearing the crucial differences. This is because very early on, as a preparation to first learning to speak, we learn to classify the sounds of our native language. Later on it is very hard to learn to split one of these equivalence classes, or worse, to shift the boundaries between equivalence classes in the way that is often required for a foreign language.

I think it is best to learn the pronunciations of vowels in the long versions first, because it isn't very natural to pronounce the short versions as long as one automatically does when practising. (The difference in pronunciation between the long and the short versions then follows another logical system.)

  • Practise switching between the pronunciations of long a (as in hard) and long ä (as in hare).
  • Then practise switching between the vowel in boar and the vowel in bird. These are long vowels, but with the quality of German short o and ö. They are acceptable approximations if you don't mind speaking with an accent.
  • Repeat the previous two steps until you get a feeling for how the switching works the same way in both cases.
  • Now try to pronounce German long o. Make sure it stays a single vowel. (E.g. the usual pronunciation of phone is really a diphthong consisting of an o sound followed by a u sound!) Many British English speakers naturally pronounce some English words such as bord or bored this way, though many also don't. The quality of the sound is closer to u than the one in boar, and it is further removed from a.
  • I believe the sound in long ö doesn't quite exist in English. Repeat the first two steps and then try to make the same switch starting with German long o. The result should be long ö - closer to u than the sound in bird, and not as close to a.
  • German long u is exactly the first vowel in noodles. Long ü is related to long u in exactly the same way as ä is related to a and ö to o. If you have mastered the previous steps, you have a chance of succeeding here as well.

If at first this doesn't work, don't worry. There is enough redundancy in German pronunciation that you will be understood even if you always pronounce ü as u (as is typical for an English accent in German) or ö. Keep in mind that languages such as Arabic and Hebrew don't even write the vowels!

Therefore it is also completely reasonable to skip the above exercises and work on your grammar first. Once you actually start to communicate in German, and to watch German films, you will have a lot of input that will make it easier to work on your accent.

  • Thank for all the help, as you said I'll postpone my speaking practice until I improve my reading, writing and comprehension.
    – Joseph
    Sep 8 '15 at 19:59

If you say ooo your lips are strongly rounded and pushed forward. If you say iii your tongue is in the highest position, lips in normal position, not rounded.

Now put your tongue in i-position and round your lips strongly. You will produce üü.

The difference between ö and ü is minimal. When saying ö the tongue is slightly lower than when saying ü. I would say it is in e-position.

The trick is the strong rounding and pushing forward of the lips.

Another experiment. Try saying a long iiii. Continue saying iii and slowly round your lips. The sound will change from iii to üüü.


Some more examples, pronunciations from Forvo:

  • O as in Kohle (coal)
  • U as in Kuhle (hollow (noun))
  • Ö as in Köhler (charcoal burner, also a name)
  • Ü as in Kühler (radiator, chiller) (or kühl, cool)

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