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I'm a math PhD student and a very important concept for my work is that of a Gröbner basis, named after Austrian mathematician Wolfgang Gröbner.

My colleagues all disagree on the correct pronunciation of this name. Some say "Grobner" where the "o" sound is the same as in "soft" or "mob", whereas others say "Groebner" where the "o" sound is as in "ocean" or "goat". The way I have been saying it is like "Groobner", where the "o" sound is as in "woof" or "book".

So I am curious, what would be the most accurate way to pronounce this name?

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  • 15
    I'm going to offend some people here, but in my experience as a mathie in the US, most people do umlauts incorrectly when it comes to mathematical names, and most people in math don't care that much as long as you're close. The 'ö' or 'ü' sounds don't exist in English, so instead of practicing those sounds for weeks trying to get them perfect, you're better off spending that time working on your thesis. Do get the correct sounds when they do exist in English, so don't say "Yooler" instead of "Euler".
    – RDBury
    Sep 19, 2022 at 9:10
  • @RDBury "Yooler" is funny. The most delicate conflict on pronunciation between English and German speaking people is the name of Immanuel Kant, though :) Sep 20, 2022 at 8:16
  • @JonathanScholbach I think Alexander Grothendieck is also a funny one between continental Europeans and Americans. The 'th' is an exclusively English sound. I've also heard Americans mix up 'ie' with the German 'ei' and pronounce it accordingly.
    – quarague
    Sep 20, 2022 at 10:24
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    The o in word is much closer to the ö in Gröbner than ALL of your examples IMO; maybe even the closest thing you get in english.
    – radioflash
    Sep 20, 2022 at 11:47
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    @radioflash: to answer the question, please write an answer, not a comment.
    – HalvarF
    Sep 20, 2022 at 12:35

4 Answers 4

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The letters "ö" and "o" represent two different vowels, so "o" as in soft or ocean is not correct (both would be "o" in German, too), and the short "oo" as in book would be written as "u" in German, for example in the words "bunt" (colorful) or "Bundesrepublik" (federal republic).

A vowel that is near to "ö" is the "u" in the English word "to burn" or the "ea" in "to learn".

Here's a video that you can listen to:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7MgoPB4UokQ

To add to the confusion, there are people with the name "Groebner" who pronounce their name as if it was spelled "Grobner" (with "o" like in goat), and others with the same name pronounce it with the "ö" sound. However, Wolfgang Gröbner's name is spelled with an actual "ö", and that is always pronounced as "ö".

This guy pronounces the vowel in the name "Gröbner" well (in the first few seconds of the video):

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9CcfVQCcOFo

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    I think learn and burn are pronounced with what be a short ö while Grobner has a long ö.
    – Carsten S
    Sep 19, 2022 at 6:40
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    And I am just sitting here saying börn and lörn ...
    – Num Lock
    Sep 19, 2022 at 6:44
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    +1 for "u in the English words [...] to learn."
    – Mookuh
    Sep 19, 2022 at 10:16
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    A more humorous take by an American linguist in Germany is here: youtu.be/xaL2dBQMD40?t=75. I can from direct experience attest to the fact that many Americans have a hard time with Umlauts because they simply don't hear the difference. <strike>Queen's</strike> King's English "oooo" is actually very similar to a German Umlaut. Similarly, I have a hard time distinguishing "bed" and "bad" even though the difference is blatantly obvious to a native speaker. These things can be quite frustrating for both speaker and listener. Sep 19, 2022 at 14:11
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    For the learn/burn approximation in English you need what is called a non-rhotic accent, where r sounds at the ends of syllables not followed by vowels are realized by changing the sound of the preceding vowel. In the US and Canada rhotic accents are more prevalent (and considered standard) than non-rhotic accents so e.g. "guh-del" /gə:dl/ might be a better approximation than "girdle" /gəɹdl/ for Gödel, for instance. (I intend "uh" above to be read as in US English, not as in German). Sep 19, 2022 at 16:54
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HalvarF already said it in his answer: Letters with umlauts (ä, ö, ü) are distinct letters in German language. Historically they derived from the letters without dots, and there are still connections (plural of »Mutter« is »Mütter«, diminutive of »Paar« is »Pärchen«, etc.) but they still are distinct letters, with their own pronunciations.

The German letter Ö has two different pronunciations, and they are different from the pronunciations of the letter O which also has two different pronunciations. Which of the two possibilities you should use depends in both cases on the length of the vowel. (How long does it take when you speak the sound?)

IPA = International Phonetic Alphabet

  • long Ö
    in these words:

    Bö, Höhle, böse, Gröbner, ...

    IPA-Symbol: [øː]
    Name of this sound (and link to Wikipedia article about this sound): Close-mid front rounded vowel

    This sound exists also in some variations of English (like in New Zealand and South Africa). There you can hear this sound in these words:

    bird, word

  • short Ö
    in these words:

    Hölle, plötzlich, Göttin, Höcker, ...

    IPA-Symbol: [œ]
    Name of this sound (and link to Wikipedia article about this sound): Open-mid front rounded vowel

    This sound is very similar to [ø]. Many German native speakers can't notice a difference between the two sounds (except the length). When you hear this sound in English, it is in the same regions and in the same words (bird, word, ...)

Just für completeness:

  • long O

    Boot, Tor, rot, ...

    Symbol: [oː]
    Name and Wikipedia-article: Close-mid back rounded vowel
    In English:
    Received pronunciation, Cockney, but also Australia, New Zealand and South Afrika: "yawn"
    India, Pakistan, Singapore: "go"

  • short O

    offen, Tonne, toll, Klotz, ...

    Symbol: [ɔ]
    Name and Wikipedia: Open-mid back rounded vowel
    In English: Received Pronunciation, Australia, New Zealand: "not"
    General American, Scotish: "thought"


When is a vowel to be pronounced long and when short?

There is a rule of thumb, but it has many exceptions:

  • long
    • If the vowel is the last sound of a syllable
    • If there is only one consonant after the vowel within the same syllable
    • If there is an explicit length marker (double vowel, e after i, h after any vowel)
  • short
    • If there are two or more consonants after the vowel within the same syllable
    • double consonants count as two consonants

These rules apply only to words that have been part of the German vocabulary for centuries. They do not apply to foreign words and many loan words.

In the name Gröb-ner there is only one consonant after the vowel in the same syllable, so the vowel ö has to be pronounced long.

Btw: The second syllable in Gröb-ner is a reduction syllable, and this means it is even weaker stressed than a normal unstressed syllable (so, the stressed syllable in Gröbner is »gröb«), and the spoken vowel of a reduction syllable is in most cases (like in Gröbner) a schwa sound, like in the last syllable of teacher and mister in received pronunciation. The pronunciation of the consonants in Gröbner ist just strait forward, like in English. Note, that the r at the end of the word is silent, so the last sound of Gröbner is an unstressed schwa sound.

So, this is the correct pronunciation of Gröbner in IPA symbols:

[ˈɡʁøːbnɐ]


add-on (reaction to comments)

Wolfgang Gröbner was an Austrian mathematician. He was born in 1899 in a small village in South Tyrol, which at that time was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and today is part of Italy. He attended school in Feldkirch/Vorarlberg, in the very west of Austria, and attended university in Graz in the south-east of Austria and later in Vienna, the capital city of Austria. Then he spent a few years in Göttingen in the center of Germany, but soon he went back to Austria, then he was in Rome, went back to Vienna, then to Braunschweig, then to Vienna again, and then to Innsbruck in the west of Austria. So, he was a native Austrian, he was fully socialized in Austria, and he spent most of his life in Austria. And this is why the Austrian pronunciation of his name is correct, which I already posted above: [ˈɡʁøːbnɐ] with a long and closed Ö and a voiced B (German name: »weiches B« = soft B).

The name Gröbner is a typical Austrian name. The region in Germany with the most people named Gröbner is Traunstein in the south-east of Bavaria, next to the Austrian border. So, you will not find many people with this name in the north of Germany. But those who live there probably might pronounce their name differently:

[ˈɡʁɔpnɐ]

Here we have a short and open Ö and the consonant after it is a voiceless P (German name: »hartes P« = hard P).

I have no explanation why people in northern regions tend to pronounce some vowels shorter than in the south, but at least the devoicing of some consonantes at the end of syllables (b→p, d→t, g→k) that happens in middle and northern regions of Germany (but not in southern regions like Austria) has a name: Auslautverhärtung (in English: Final-obstruent devoicing). This usually happens only at the end of a word, but also before some reduction syllables, and -ner seems to be one of them. But this topic is already far beyond the scope of the question, so, if you want to learn more about it, please search here in German.stackexchange or where ever you want for the given terms.

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  • Aren't Gröbner and similar names occasionally pronounced with short ö, like prof. Sturmfeld does here?: youtube.com/watch?v=TNO5WuxuNak&t=85s Admittedly, his lecture is in English and I can't find any German examples. Sep 19, 2022 at 10:57
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    @reinierpost: I hear "Grobner" with short o (as in "offen") in that video, which I find a bit disappointing from someone who seems to be a German native speaker and probably knows better. He obviously thinks he needs to use an English pronuciation. I wonder how he would pronounce Beethoven when speaking English.
    – HalvarF
    Sep 19, 2022 at 12:38
  • @HalvarF yeah, it's weird. I always cringe when I hear English speakers butchering German names, but I've actually caught myself doing that too occasionally when I'm talking English – like, pronouncing Schrödinger “shrow-dinga”. Sep 19, 2022 at 19:45
  • @HalvarF: it's not an o, it's a very short ö if you ask me. A somewhat longer ö in a similar name: aboutamazon.de/news/unser-beitrag-fuer-unternehmer-innen/… Sep 19, 2022 at 20:35
  • The more important difference between the two ö sounds is that one is open and the other one is closed, but it coincides with the length difference (in German), and that's why Germans usually only are aware of them as "long" and "short" ö. (Similar for many other vowels.) When I say the english "bird", it's a long open ö, which doesn't exist in German. Sep 19, 2022 at 23:31
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German <ö> represents two distinct front rounded vowels, close-mid long [øː] as in Höhle and open-mid short [œ] as in Hölle (links are to Wiktionary, where you can listen to a native speaker's pronunciation of these words).

You can also visit this IPA chart and check out the IPA symbols and terminology. The vowel in RP bird, nurse, usually transcribed [ɜː], is often considered as phonetically somewhat close to German [øː], although of course the vowels remain clearly distinguishable.1

The expected vowel for Gröbner is close-mid long [øː]. The name looks to be derived via syncope from a trisyllabic word (perhaps simply Gröbener, after a town named Gröben, with suffix ‑er); and vowels in open syllables such as grö- became long in the transition to New High German.2

1 The technical reason why RP open-mid central unrounded [ɜː] is perceptually not too distant from German close-mid front rounded [øː] is that both lip rounding (for the German vowel) and a more back articulation (for the RP vowel) correspond with a lower formant F2; see this table of formant frequencies.

2 Compare for instance MHG wagener, which became Wagner [aː] (Lexer).

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Short practical answer:

Spell the ö in "Gröbner" like the 'o' in "word" (or the 'i' in bird, the 'u' in burn or the 'ea' in earn).

If you actually asked a German person to write down the english spelling of those words, you'd probably get an "ö" as vovel.

This is not 100% correct, other answers go into IPA details, but it's much better than all your examples (soft/goat/book).

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