Mutter used to have a long u realized as a diphthong (MHG, OHG muoter). Vater had a short a, as evidenced in the Grimms' remark about Vater : "der stammvocal, im älteren deutsch stets kurz, wird nhd., wie in fast allen betonten silben, gedehnt."

The situation is now the reverse, short u in Mutter, long a in Vater. Bruder, it can be noted, didn't evolve from MHG and OHG uo to short u and has now long u.

Is there any explanation for this reverse evolution? Is it purely coincidental? Are there speakers who, when they speak standard German, naturally maintain, from a dialectal substrate maybe, the old vowel length and say Muter and Vatter?

  • 2
    Plattdeutsch: Vadder. – The Awful Language Jul 20 '19 at 16:54
  • Vgl. Peter - weder besonders kurz noch besonders lang, eher variabel. Für andere Sprachen werden auch lange Konsonanten unterschieden. Im Deutschen zwar nicht, insofern es kein Minimalpaar gibt, das den Unterschied hervorheben würde. Aber niemand sagt Mutt-er, vielleicht weil -er im Nominativ typischer Weise ein maskulines Deklinationsmorphem ist. Es sagt aber auch niemand Muh-ter, während Va-ter dem Maximal-Coda-Principle entspricht. Es heißt also Mut-ter. Außerdem zeigt mother den Vokal ebenso ungerundet. – vectory Jul 23 '19 at 5:03

The shortening of originally long vowels or diphthongs is a feature of Central German, found before fortis consonants or before consonant clusters. Notice that in some cases, the long vowel is preserved in some Southern varieties of standard German:

brachte: [ˈbraxtə] or [ˈbraːxtə]

dachte: [ˈdaxtə] or [ˈdaːxtə]

ging (← gieng): [ˈɡɪŋ] or [ˈɡiːŋ]

fing (← fieng): [ˈfɪŋ] or [ˈfiːŋ]

gibt: [ˈɡɪpt] or [ˈɡiːpt]

In other cases, all modern varieties of standard German use the short vowel, and the original long vowel or diphthong is only preserved in dialects:

Licht: [ˈlɪçt] vs. Alemannic [ˈliəxt] (← MHG lieht)

müssen: [ˈmʏsən] vs. Alemannic [ˈmyəsːə] (← MHG müeȥȥen)

muss: [ˈmʊs] vs. Alemannic [ˈmuəs] (← MHG muoȥ)

Mutter: [ˈmʊtər] vs. Alemannic [ˈmuətər] (← muoter)

So in the case of Mutter, the vowel was shortened in Central German due to the following fortis consonant. In a word where the vowel was followed by a lenis consonant, e.g. in the word Bruder, no shortening happened.

However, the Central German shortening did not happen in all cases, so we have words where the original long pronunciation has been preserved:

büssen: [ˈbyːsən] (← MHG büeȥȥən)

Mut: [ˈmuːt] (← MHG muot)

Hut: [ˈhuːt] (← MHG huot)

In the case of Vater, an original short vowel was lengthened. This lengthening occured regularly before short consonants, but again, not in all cases.

| improve this answer | |

The words

  • Vadder (in low German)
  • Fotta (in bavarian dialects) and
  • Vatter (as colloquial, i.e non-dialect, but still non-standard version of Fotta)

do exist, but non of them is part of standard German. There is also the word Gevatter (original meaning: someone who is not the real father, but also acts as protective and leading as a real father, similar to the English godfather1) which still exists in standard German, but is rare and outdated.

I don't have knowledge of Versions of Mutter with long u.

1The correct German translation of godfather is Pate. Gevatter and Pate have similar meanings, but they are not equal. You become a Pate in a ceremony, but there is no ceremony for Gevatter.

| improve this answer | |
  • 1
    I'm not sure you intended this, but just to clarify: there is no connection of any obvious kind between Gevatter and godfather, apart from superficial similarity in spelling and of course the fact that they mean(t) the same thing. – Cornelius Brand Jul 23 '19 at 12:18
  • @CorneliusBrand: Gevatter came into German as the medieval translation of the church-latin word compater which means co-father (in the sense of co-worker or co-driver). So, the part ∙vatter of corse is related to the modern German word Vater and also related to the English father and the latin pater which all derive from the same root. But you are right with the German prefix ge∙ (that you also find in Gebälk, Gebüsch, Getümmel, Geselle, Gestank, ...): It has nothing to do with the englisch noun god. – Hubert Schölnast Jul 24 '19 at 5:13
  • Oh, well, there is the really obvious connection, but that is one so glaring I just glossed over it. Thanks for clarifying the clarification. – Cornelius Brand Aug 14 '19 at 6:15

Well, I can only speak for myself and I have no reference for it on hand, but where I come from we sometimes use those reversed versions. I come from around Stuttgart, Baden-Württemberg, and we definitely say "Vadder" (IPA: fadɐ) instead of "Vater" (IPA: faːtɐ), as laid out in another answer. I also normally say "Mudder" (IPA: mʊdɐ) instead of "Mutter" (IPA: mʊtɐ), however still with a short ʊ.

However, when I'm calling out my mom, like in a tounge-in-cheek "Oh mom, what have you done now" or so, then I would be inclined to go with "Muodder" (IPA: mʊɔdɐ or mʊɐdɐ (maybe even mʊːɐdɐ, not sure how to transcribe it)), with a strong emphasis on the first syllable. I normally use it when I want to invoke a stronger version of my native dialect than comes naturally to me.

This, however, is definitely not standard German. :)

PS: I hope I got the IPA transcripts about right. I learned it once, but it's been a while. Writing my native dialect without some form of phonetic notation is nearly impossible.

| improve this answer | |

The developments don't exactly seem to be "coincidental", but as far as I can tell, neither is perfectly regular either.

Lengthening in "open syllables"

The quote itself provides an explanation for why Vater may have developed a long vowel:

wie in fast allen betonten silben, gedehnt.

A sound change took place at some point between Old High German and modern German whereby short vowels were lengthened in certain stressed open syllables. That excluded vowels followed by geminate/long consonants or by heterosyllabic consonant clusters.

Actually, my understanding is that this lengthening sound change is the (indirect) reason for the current convention of writing consonants with doubled letters after short vowel sounds. (The use of doubled letters in modern German spelling does not correspond directly to the etymological or regional use of geminate/long consonant sounds.)

Other examples of short a being lengthened (based on Wiktionary's etymologies):

  • Fahne vs. OHG fano

  • Fladen vs. OHG flado

  • haben (has a long vowel in its standard unreduced pronunciation)

  • Hagel vs. OHG hagal

Lengthening apparently occurred fairly systematically when the consonant following the vowel was one of the "lenis" obstruents b, d, g.

But when the following consonant was something else, there are some complicated details about this sound change.

A possible special status for the consonants T and M

One of the complications that I remembered reading about was that word-final -er possibly caused a preceding consonant to geminate in some words (such as Hammer).

When I tried to find more about this, I found a text that suggests that the consonants T and M may have a special status with regard to lengthening:

In High German [...] lengthening is not complete before all simple consonants. The notable exceptions are present not only before following -er, -el, -em, -en, but also before t, m. Oftentimes, these two environments coincide, in which case lengthening is generally absent before m, but may be present before t [...] If there is no lengthening, t and m were geminated, although this is not apparent in Modern Standard German after the simplification of geminates.

("Arriving at the Goal: Vowel Lengthening in Middle Germanic",, p. 97 in Gemination, Lenition, and Vowel Lengthening: On the History of Quantity in Germanic, by Kurt Goblirsch)

Other words now written with a double -tt- or -mm- where short a corresponds to modern short a (based on Wiktionary's etymologies):

So even though the lengthening of short a to long a Vater resembles the regular change described in the previous section, lengthening might not have been regular in this particular environment.

It might be a coincidence, but standard English actually shows a similar lengthening in father with an irregular result (/fɑːðə(r)/) and shortening in mother (/mʌðə(r)/). However, unlike German, English also shows shortening in brother.


I don't know why mutter developed a short vowel. Mutter and Vater both end in -ter from Proto-Germanic *dēr, so I don't see how the different development of the vowels could have been conditioned by what followed them.

The source I cited above doesn't seem to talk about shortening of originally long vowels like this (as opposed to retention of an originally short vowel quality). But mach's answer seems to explain this with some examples.

I found another source that says that Middle High German uo sometimes developed to modern German [ʊ], but shortening is described as a "rather marginal" outcome, with around 93% of MHG uo corresponding instead to long [uː] (p. 196-197, "Vocalic and consonantal quantity in German: synchronic and diachronic perspectives", by Emilie CARATINI). Caratini disagrees with the idea that -er, -el, -em, -en affected the length of a preceding vowel (p. 274).

The description of shortening as a sporadic rather than regular change in the context of words like Mutter is supported by Russ 1975, who gives a list of vowel shortenings that he says can be considered "real exceptions" to the usual course of development:

The examples usually cited are: NHG Rache, Schach, Amboß, ansäss(ig), Rüssel, müssen, Jammer, Waffen. Mutter, lassen, MHG rāche, schāch, anebōz. ansæze, rüezel. müezen, jāmer, wāfen, f&zew. muoter, lāzen. For each of these words individual reasons for the shortening must be sought.

(page 277 in Russ, Charles V.J. (1975) "Studies in the Historical Phonology of German" University of Southampton, PhD Thesis)

| improve this answer | |
  • How influential would a most familiar, yet formal word as muoter ~ Mutter (in contrast to Mama, mamma) be for such a sound-change in the first place? PGem *dēr seems like a rough generalization; Surely there were dialects. Also wrt. lengthening vriddi Ableitung comes to mind, all the more as Mutter inflected posessive, dativ, even nominative Muttern in regional Low German, being a regular female morpheme, Wem? Der grün-en Frau! I really don't know – vectory Jul 23 '19 at 5:25
  • @vectory: For Mutter, I think the puzzle is how to explain the current short vowel. The vowel in the first syllable is reconstructed as long *ō in Proto-Germanic: the length is not related to ablaut, but is supposed to be the result of coalescence of a vowel with a following laryngeal h₂ (the a-coloring laryngeal). Wiktionary says that "no trace of a lengthened grade in the root can be found". – sumelic Jul 23 '19 at 5:35
  • Wiktionary also says "Only one of these can be the original accentuation"--which is patently unfounded. – vectory Jul 23 '19 at 19:06

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.