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[NB: In this question, I use some of the terminology given here.]

I can hear (and produce) the difference between ö and o, and between ü and u, but whatever part of my brain is responsible for assigning phones to phonemes still assigns both phones in each of these pairs to the same phoneme1.

As a result, I typically won't be able to remember whether a particular letter in a word is a u or a ü, say, no matter how familiar I may be with the word. Therefore, I'm constantly asking myself questions like "is it schmützig or schmutzig? Kuhlschrank or Kühlschrank? ostdeutsch or östdeutsch? Franzose or Französe?"

The extreme specificity of my forgetfulness is the reason why I infer that, at some stage of language-processing, I assign both o and ö to the same phoneme, and similarly for u and ü (actually, my problem seems to be a bit worse with u and ü than with o and ö).

I can't think of a way to teach myself to assign u and ü to distinct phonemes.

This means that, just like with der, die, and das, I will just have to memorize the us and the üs, and the os and the ös. I'm looking for anything that will lighten this massive memorization task.

I find that commonsense counts for little. For example, it's Franzose yet französisch. It's grundsätzlich yet gründlich.

As I said, I'm looking for any tips that may help with remembering umlauts.


1 I don't have much problem with a and ä, so the title of this post is somewhat imprecise. Sometimes I do write e instead of ä, but I understand that this is true for native speakers as well.

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  • 2
    For same reasons I could ask what's the best way to remember, that boot in English is written like that, and not buht, which would be more natural for me. Jul 4 '18 at 17:24
  • Take for more oddness: Motörhead. Jul 4 '18 at 17:36
  • 3
    @πάνταῥεῖ Motörhead is an artificial word. I do not think that this can count for an example. Jul 4 '18 at 18:16
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    @kjo Growing number of indefinite answers, seem to confirm my point, that your question is POB. Jul 4 '18 at 21:12
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    @πάνταῥεῖ I have never understood (and I am still struggling) why questions that do not have an unambiguous answer, are unbeloved here. It does not make a question a bad question if you cannot give a clear factual answer. Jul 5 '18 at 9:48
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It's grundsätzlich yet gründlich.

So, your confusion is basically about the tonal change in regard to word class? Remember all but the shortest German words follow the same pattern:

([prefix(es)] – stem)... – [word class marker(s)] – case/verb ending

Prefixes and word class markers are optional. The prefix(es) – stem part may be there multiple times.

Learn to identify the stems. Don't remember a certain meaning, just remember the stems so you can break up German words into their components right on the spot. Now the simple rule. That word class Ablaut only ever affects the last stem before the word class markers (or ending).

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What is your mother tongue? In same cases this can explain certain difficulties.
There is a path from pronounciation to writing it, but if you don't have access to the right pronounciation or you pronounce it wrong because mother tongue makes it hard to learn, you have one source of help less.
A native english speaker often has difficulties to pronounce the "ö" and in turn would say "bose" instead of "böse". On the other hand they tend to prefer the sound of "ü" for the letter "u".

There are some rules, but I don't know a source for all of them. For example if the word is an adverb or adjective derrived from a noun you have a conversion to an Umlaut:
Stunde => stündlich
Tod => tödlich
Satz => sätzlich
Franzose => französisch

So in your example above

grundsätzlich yet gründlich

this pattern is actually followed:
Grund => gründlich
And in "grundsätzlich" the transformation relates to
Satz => sätzlich
although "sätzlich" doesn't exist as a word itself, but for example in the following cases:
Grundsatz => grundsätzlich
Gegensatz => gegensätzlich

So with "isch" and "lich" there are different ways to get from a noun to an adjective or adverb.
Another ending would be "ig": Schmutz => schmutzig
but
Muße => müßig

Your other example

Kuhlschrank or Kühlschrank

there is no noun "Kühl". Here we start from the verb "kühlen", which already has the Umlaut. The only way of dealing with this is to memorize the words.

Here some info about the origin of german Umlaute: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Germanic_umlaut

The way Umlaute are used in german today has many reasons. But the german language changed much, even after Umlaute were part of it for a long time. So I don't see an easy way to get a handle on them. You would have to learn and memorize them with the word.
The easiest way to memorize them might be to be able to work with the correct pronounciation.

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German native speakers do not think about umlauts as variations of other vowels. They think of them as distinct letters.

The German alphabet doesn't have 26 letters like the English alphabet. It has 30 letters: The 26 letters you know from English, plus ß, ä, ö and ü. Look at the layout of a German keyboard: Each of the 30 letters of the German alphabet has its own key on a German keyboard.

enter image description here

Of course it is true, that the umlauts as well as the letter ß did develop from other letters, and there still are connections between a and ä and the other pairs. But these connections are not much more present in a native speakers brain than the connections of other pairs like b/p, g/k or d/t.

If you think of umlauts not as variations of other vowels, but as distinct letters, like German native speakers do, you will mix them up less often.

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In my opinion, it is a major fallacy in teaching German that Ö and Ü are thought of as variants of O and U. Instead, you should think of them as variants of E and I. This would lead to a much more natural pronunciation. A majority of German dialects pronounce them as E and I, and E and I was the prevailing pronunciation until mid 19th century, which is why classical German poetry rhymes Ö and Ü with E and I.

Of course, I do not know whether thinking of Ö and Ü as variants of E and I is of any help to you. Just my two cents.

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    While this may help with pronouciation, I can't recognize how it assists with remembering the spelling, which is word-stem related.
    – guidot
    Jul 5 '18 at 7:12
  • Why seeing them as "variants" at all? See them simply as separate phonems, I would recommend. Jul 5 '18 at 9:41
  • @ChristianGeiselmann: They look similar (to O, U) and they sound similar (to E, I).
    – mach
    Jul 6 '18 at 8:12
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Perhaps you could memorize and repeat pairs?

Kühlschrank - Kuhle

Ostdeutschland - Österreich

Rose - Röslein

And so on.

Trying to understand how I (German native speaker) memorize these things, my first guess is that I learned this chiefly via the visual impression of the written word. I am a very visual learner of words in foreign languages (and I have difficulties to memorize sounds). Of course I learned my basic German at an age when I had no idea what writing is. But I do not have an idea if at that time I would have been able do tell if "Kühlschrank" or "Kuhlschrank" is correct. Perhaps I would have been, but I am not sure. But I am sure that today I memorize the written words visually.

By the way, there is the interesting phenomenon of

schwimmen, Schwimmunterricht

which in large parts of the German speaking world is commonly pronounced like schwümmen, Schwümmuntericht, with something closer to ü than to i. Pronouncing the written i as a true i would be odd. So how to people memorize its spelling? Probably visually.

Question, out of curiosity: Would you have the same problems memorizing Turkish words or sentences such as müdürmüsünüz ("Are you the boss?") If not, perhaps memorizing the visual impression of a word rather then the acoustical would help you?

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You have to learn it. People having a first language with similar wovels have more luck.

There are many patterns (for example, plural likes to attract ö).

If you miss them, it is bad (o and ö are entirely different vowels for the native speakers) but not catastrophal.

I think it might be a good idea if you invest more effort to train pronouncation.

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