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In German the umlaut indicates a "narrowing" or "tightening" of the vowel it modifies, e.g

 o -> ö 
 u -> ü 
 a -> ä

But the pronunciation of ä is actually a modification of e. By this logic, shouldn't ë be used instead?

I'm not a German speaker, but it seems to me that words like Präsident or Männer are e-modifications and would be ë by that logic.

In some languages, ä is a real narrowing modification of a -- but my understanding is that sound isn't used in German at all. In Slovakian, for example the word mäso (meat) indeed has the narrow-a, and pronounced miaso, but that sound doesn't exist in German.

So the question is, why is the vowel A used as the basis for the ä-sound rather than E (it would look like ë and follow the same pattern as the other umlauts, which modify their vowels correctly)?

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    I'm not really sure what your question is. Why a got the dots instead of e? Commented Mar 3, 2020 at 18:07
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    No. my question is why use the letter a as the basis for this sound, rather than e, since the modification is ie.
    – gene b.
    Commented Mar 3, 2020 at 18:08
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    @geneb."Mähh" No, the ä clearly is a variation of a, not of e. Commented Mar 3, 2020 at 18:12
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    I don't know what narrow is supposed to mean in this context. Regarding Umlaut, have you tried Wikipedia?
    – David Vogt
    Commented Mar 3, 2020 at 18:33
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    Apfel => Äpfel, hatte => hätte - maybe because the stem of the word has an a where the ä is? Commented Mar 3, 2020 at 22:30

1 Answer 1

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Phonetics of ä vs ö and ü

Like other vowel letters, ä in German represents two sounds, a short vowel and a long vowel.

The short ä sound is not a "modification of" the short e sound. They make exactly the same sound in standard German: [ɛ] (so Männer and Ende or bellt and fällt both have the same vowel in the first syllable). The short vowel sound [ɛ] is written differently in different words as a spelling convention (the difference is partly based on etymology, and partly based on other things like the existence of perceived relationships between words).

The long ä sound is harder to talk about. It is prescribed to be something like [ɛː] in Standard German, a long vowel different from both long a [aː] and long e [eː]. It has been argued that the distinction between [ɛː] and [eː] in Standard German is in some way artificial/unnatural; I don't know that much about the actual situation, though.

The difference between [eː] and [ɛː] is not particularly analogous to the difference between o and ö or u and ü. The standard linguistic description is that o and ö or u and ü differ in how far forward the tongue is when pronouncing them: The letters ö and ü represent what are called "front rounded vowels", and the letters o and u represent what are called "back rounded vowels". The difference between [eː] and [ɛː], both front unrounded vowels, is instead a matter of how "close" the tongue is to the roof of the mouth: [eː] is a "closer" vowel and [ɛː] is an "opener" vowel.

German spelling isn't based on the phonetics of the modern language

In any case, even if your phonetic analogy were correct, it wouldn't have that much relevance to the spelling of German, because many parts of the spelling of German are not based on the phonetics of the modern language. For example, the use of the digraph ie for the long i sound and the use of doubled consonant letters to represent the shortness of a preceding vowel sound come from pronunciation features of older stages of German that have been lost in Standard German.

The use of ä rather than ë follows the logic of etymology and function: ä is etymologically equivalent to ae (the double dot diacritic developed as a form of the letter e placed over the preceding vowel letter), and therefore is used in place of ae in certain words from Latin like Präsident. And in native German words, ä functions as the replacement for a in words that display the morphological process of umlaut: e.g. the form Männer functions as the plural of Mann and the form fällt functions as the third-person present form of fallen.

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