ArticleGerman vowels
AuthorHelmut Richter
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Article URLhttp://hhr-m.userweb.mwn.de/de-vowels/
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German vowels over time

In the sequel we abbreviate the names of the historic High German languages by their codes in the standard ISO 639: goh is Old High German, gmh is Middle High German, deu is New High German. Names of dialects or other language varieties are explained where they are used.

The vowel phoneme inventory

The inventory of vowel and diphthong phonemes of Middle High German (gmh), that is, German as spoken in the 11th to 14th century, was larger than that of present-day German. Since then, phonemes have coalesced in the standard language but often remained distinct in dialects. For understanding these processes, an overview of the gmh vowels is helpful.

As explicated in an earlier section, the present-day German vowel system for stressed syllables can be viewed as two series of seven vowel qualities with each quality occurring as long and short vowel. For each quality, the actual sound of the long vowel typically differs from the short by being more close, thus giving rise to approximately 15 different phonemes not counting the diphthongs. Roughly, the same pattern holds for the vowels of gmh. However, the sound used in a specific word may have changed drastically since that time. In the table in this section, we give a summary of the phoneme inventory of gmh and the most important sound shifts for vowels.

In all language varieties discussed here, all diphthongs are falling, that is, their first vowel is more stressed than the second.

Vowel phoneme inventory
gmhdeu
îi aiei
iɪi i, îi, ie
ieie îie
eiɛɪei aiei, ai
êe êee, eh
eee ë, êe, ä
ëɛe êe, eh
ɛ̂ɛː
ææːe, æ, ae ɛ̂ä
äæa, e, æ, ae ëä
âɑːa, ai âa, ah, aa
aaa a, âa
ā
åɔː
ôo, oi ôo, oh
oɔo o, ôo
œøːo, oe, œ, oi œö, öh
öœo, oe, œ, oi ö, œö, öh
öuœʊeu, ou oieu, äu
ouou, uo auau
uou, uo ûu
üeu, uo űü
ûu auau
uʊu u, û, ou, o
üʏu, ui ü, öü, ö
űiu, ui, u oieu

As the actual phonetic realisation of the vowel and diphthong phonemes was certainly not unique across the centuries in which gmh was spoken, nor across its whole region, we prefer a notation of the phonemes with ordinary letters over the usage of IPA symbols. This is also how it is usually done: in dictionaries, gmh words are always given in a spelling known as normalised Middle High German which was developed by Karl Lachmann (1793–1851). As we shall see in a minute, this spelling differentiates the vowel phonemes in much more detail than was done in the manuscripts of that time, and is thus very useful for this table. In order to consistently use one letter, accented or not, for a single sound and two letters for a diphthong, we deviate from Lachmann’s spelling in one point: we write ű instead of Lachmann’s iu for the long and close ü-sound. Moreover, we introduce three additional letters for long and open e, a, and o, which we need for other variants of German.

To explain this table, we take its first line as an example: The vowel phoneme written as î in Lachmann’s and our notation was written as 〈i〉 in medieval manuscripts. Today, words with this vowel are pronounced with a sound of ai (i.e. [ɑɪ] or [ɑe]) which is written as 〈ei〉. Or the third line: most words written with 〈ie〉 in the Middle Ages are still written so, but their pronunciation has shifted from the diphthong ie to the long vowel î.

Some phonemes, in particular diphthongs and umlauts, are rendered in the manuscripts in different ways: mostly according to regional or time-variant customs, but not seldom also inconsistent within one document. Conversely, the same letter in the manuscripts, for instance 〈u〉, may denote up to five or six different vowel or diphthong phonemes. In particular, neither lengths of vowels nor most umlauts were indicated in writing, and diphthongs were often rendered as one of their constituent vowels. A notation in the table like “uo” stands for either the two letters 〈uo〉 or for the second letter written on top of the first as 〈ů〉. A letter 〈e〉 on top of another vowel was later abbreviated to two dots thus yielding the present-day notation for umlauts.

We see that transcribing a manuscript to Lachmann’s notation requires detailed linguistic analysis. This task is additionally complicated by an abundance of abbreviations in the text, the lack of a consistent distinction of the consonant v from the vowel u, and the habit of having the letter 〈w〉 “eat up” a neighbouring 〈u〉, e.g. writing whs to mean wuohs (wuchs). The reader may try to decipher the text from the manuscript example in the article on the history of German.

The table is meant as an overview, not as a detailed description of the vowel shifts, the most important of which will be discussed in the sequel. Details about exactly which shifts were possible or how the spelling changed over time may be incomplete in this table.

In all following tables, fields with coloured background show the phonemes in the notation defined above in the leftmost column. Example words are in Lachmann’s orthography for Old and Middle High German, and in modern orthography for New High German.

Umlaut

The term umlaut denotes the change of a vowel to make it more similar to the following vowel for easier pronunciation. Here, we are only interested in the i-umlaut which affected nearly all Germanic languages in the second half of the first millennium. The back vowels (that is, pronounced back in the mouth, also called “dark” vowels) and diphthongs were replaced by more front vowels, that is, nearer to i, when there was an i or j (like English 〈y〉) in the following syllable. At the end of the first millenium, stress concentrated on the word stem, leaving prefixes and endings unstressed, often with their vowel reduced to a Schwa written as 〈e〉, in which case the i or j triggering the umlaut was lost but the umlauted vowel in the word stem was retained. A more detailed explanation with examples from various languages including English can be found in the English Wikipedia article Germanic umlaut.

Umlaut in Old and Middle High German
gohgmh
ë–ii
â–iæ
a–ie/ä
ô–iœ
o–iö
ou–iöu
uo–iüe
û–iű
u–iü

The normal process was a change of pronunciation of the vowel while the i in the following syllable was still there – otherwise it would not really have been an assimilation of one vowel to another one in the same word. As an example, we consider the word Old High German (goh) word hûs (house) with the plural hûsir. The first vowel changed from û to ű because of the i in the ending. Even after that i was lost, the sound ű continued to appear in the plural: the gmh forms of this word are hûs/hiuser (which became modern German Haus/Häuser by another vowel shift). Note that the function of the umlaut changed in this process: first it was just an alternate pronunciation depending on the following vowel (in linguistic jargon: an “allophone” of the vowel phoneme), later it became a separate phoneme that can carry information, e.g. the distinction of singular and plural as in Vogel/Vögel.

There is also another process by which umlauts came about, to wit by analogy to other umlauted words. Plurals with an -er plural ending always have umlaut without exception – if not by the i in the following syllable then by analogy: For instance, Land and Wort with the old plurals Land(e) and Wort(e) got in the 12th/13th century additional new plural forms Länder and Wörter with umlaut even though these plural forms never had an i in the ending.

In goh times, there were no special characters for umlauts, and umlauts were only written distinct from the un-umlauted vowel when there was a suitable letter in the alphabet, to wit 〈i〉 for i (the umlauted ë), 〈e〉 for e (the umlauted a), and later〈iu〉 for ű (the umlauted û) after the change of pronunciation of〈iu〉 from iu to ű. In gmh times, special characters for umlauts came more and more into use (see the first table for the many ways how they were written), but it was not until the late 16th century that umlauts were consistently marked in spelling. Therefore, one can hardly say which umlauts were already spoken, albeit not written, in goh while the i in the following syllable was still present, and which developed later by analogy. In particular, ä, the umlaut of a in some phonetic contexts, does not appear in written goh, as distinct from e, the umlaut of a in other contexts. This may be because ä was still written as 〈a〉 which matches its very open sound as well as 〈e〉 does, or else because it developed later by analogy. ( ä is often called a “secondary” umlaut as distinct from the “primary” umlaut e; this means that it appears later in writing but not necessarily later in the spoken language.)

Shift of long vowels and diphthongs

Shift of long vowels
1→22→22→1x→x̂
î→aiei→aiie→îi→î
û→auou→auuo→ûu→û
ű→oiöu→oiüe→űü→ű

The most conspicuous change of vowels between Middle High German and the present-day New High German was a couple of major shifts in diphthongs and long vowels as given in the table at the right-hand side. For each of the long vowels î, û, and ű, there was a di­phthong­isation (1→2) replacing the long vowel, a shift in diphthongs (2→2) resulting in the same diphthong, and a mono­phthong­isation (2→1) reinstating the long vowel from a different diphthong. To the right, there is an additional grey column with a lengthen­ing (x→x̂) of a short vowel resulting in the same long mono­phthong. This lengthen­ing will be discussed later; it is included in this table only for demonstrat­ing that not all modern long î, û, and ű have their origin in gmh diphthongs.

From the two left columns in the table, one sees that the modern diphthongs ai, au, and oi each have two distinct gmh origins. Much in the same way, the two right colums show that the modern long monophthongs î, û, and ű each have two distinct gmh origins as well. Many German dialects, however, preserve some of the old distinctions, as will be shown in the next table.

This table explains also the modern spelling 〈ie〉, 〈ei〉, and 〈eu〉 or 〈äu〉 for the sounds î, ai, and oi. They reflect gmh spellings that have shifted to these modern sounds; they are, however, also used for words that are now pronounced the same way, even if their gmh spelling was completely different: Friede, Weib, and Leute were gmh vride, wîp and liute with no 〈ie〉, 〈ei〉 or〈öu〉 (in gmh also written as 〈öi〉 or 〈eu〉) in them.

The following table shows each of these shifts in one column with an example. Middle High German and New High German are each in one row with the same colour as in the phoneme inventory table. Between, there are the corresponding sounds in several Southern and Eastern German dialects. Where possible, the language abbreviations follow standard ISO 639. Note that the Southern dialects are in fact collections of regional subdialects, and the phoneme given in the table may be realised quite differently. Again, the purpose of this table is not to specify the phonetic realisation in detail but only to show which vowels are distinct, and in which way. For instance, when a Swiss person counts eis, zwei, drî ¹, you can be sure that the third sound, a monophthong, is entirely different from the first two which are the same diphthong; but you cannot tell whether eis is pronounced as [ɛɪs], [æɪs], [aɪs], or [œɪs] – this may vary from place to place.

¹) In the German dubbed version of the movie “Cool Runnings”, the Swiss bobsledge team counts eis, zwei, drî at the start, and the Jamaican team imitates that including the Swiss pronunciation. Unfortunately, this punchline is missing from the English original where the Swiss speak German from Germany.

Long vowels and diphthongs over time, with dialects
iuü
1→22→22→11→22→22→11→22→22→1
gem î ai eu û au ô eu–i
goh î ei io û ou uo iu/û–i o–i uo–i
wîb heim liod mûs poum muot diutisc frowida muodi
gmh î ei ie û ou uo ű öu üe
wîp heim liet mûs boum muot diutisch vröude müede
gsw î ei ie û ou ue ű öi üe
swg ei oi ia ou au ua ei ai ia
bar-W ai oa ia au a/au ua ai ai ia
bar-E æ ā ia å ā/å ua ai ai ia
sxu ai ê î au ô û ai ai î
deu ai ai î au au û oi oi ű
Weib Heim Lied Maus Baum Mut deutsch Freude müde
gem
re­con­struct­ed com­mon Germanic
goh
Old High German
gmh
Middle High German
 
simi­lar to cor­respond­ing gmh sound
deu
pre­sent-day New High German
 
simi­lar to cor­respond­ing deu sound
 
other
gsw
Swiss German (Switzerland, S rim of Baden)
sxu
Upper Saxon (Saxonia and E Thuringia)
swg
Swabian (Württemberg, W rim of Bavaria)
bar-W
Western Bavarian (S and SE of Bavaria)
bar-E
Eastern Bavarian (Lower (=NE) Austria)

There are several patterns to be seen in this table. With very small modifications, Swiss German has the gmh vowels untouched by the vowel shift. For the other languages, we see a difference between Saxon, a central German language in the North-East of High German, and the other three from the higher regions in the South:

So we see a preference of monophthongs in the North-East and of diphthongs in the South. And this is exactly how it happened: the monophthongisation spread from Eastern Central Germany westward in the 12th century, whereas the diphthongisation spread from Southern Austria since the 12th century gradually northward until it reached East Germany in the 15th century.

Corresponding sounds in different languages

Can we, by using the table, conclude that a word with oa in Bavarian will have an ê in Saxon and vice versa? The answer is no. Counter-examples are bar-W Doag (Teig) but not sxu *Deeg or sxu reene (rein) but not bar-W *roa. The general rule is:

  • There is always an influence of the standard language on the dialect. A word that is heard in official context like administration or church, or which has been loaned into the dialect only recently is likely to have the standard pronunciation also in the dialect. So we cannot conclude from such a dialect word to the gmh form, nor from the diphthong ei, ou, or öu in a gmh word that it will deviate from the standard in its dialect pronunciation.

  • The converse conclusions are much more reliable: a dialect pronunciation that is thoroughly different from the standard is a strong hint to the corresponding gmh form, and a gmh word that should yield a near-standard dialect pronunciation will typically indeed have one. Even there, they may be exceptions due to influences within the dialect or between dialects, but these are few.

  • In general, the two old phonemes now pronounced ai are more consistently distinguished in the dialects than the au phonemes, and these than the oi phonemes.

The spelling 〈ai〉 instead of 〈ei〉 for a modern word with ai sound is a hint to gmh ei. Unfortunately, this is the only modern spelling giving a hint to the gmh origin: The spellings 〈ei〉 for ai and 〈au〉 for au are used for words with both respective origins. The spelling 〈äu〉 instead of 〈eu〉 for a modern word with oi sound is a hint that is an umlauted version of a word with modern au sound, but not to which origin of that au.

There are also a few correspondences with sounds in other languages:

  • When a German word with ai sound has an English cognate with an ai sound written as i–e or y (by, bite, ice, fine, glide, my, mile, price, ride, ripe, shine, wine, wise) or a Dutch cognate with an ei sound written as ij (bij, bijten, ijs, fijn, glijden, mijn, mijl, prijs, rijden, rijp, schijnen, wijn, wijs), the corresponding gmh word has î there.

  • When a German word with ai sound has an English cognate with an ou sound written as o or oa (both, broad, oak, goat, clothes, no, stone) or a Dutch cognate with an ê or ei sound not written as ij (beede, breed, eik, geit, kled, nee, steen), the corresponding gmh word has ei there.

Lengthening and shortening

Simple vowels (monophthongs) were often lengthened in early deu, but also sometimes shortened. deu has long vowels in syllables without a final consonant (or with a single final consonant at the end of the word): a rule with exceptions in deu, but not valid at all in gmh. Shortening occured when more than one consonant followed the vowel already in the word stem, and lengthening before a single consonant. Whenever expected lengthening did not occur, this was indicated by geminating the following consonant. Examples: lengthening in talTal, nëmennehmen, vrideFriede, wonenwohnen, künecKönig; no lengthening (thus spelling with geminated consonant) in wëterWetter, himelHimmel; shortening in wâfenWaffe, ich dâhteich dachte.

Lengthening of the vowel affected many more words than shortening. Which words were affected follows no simple rule. For our purposes it is important to keep in mind that a long modern vowel may have been a gmh short vowel, a gmh long vowel that was not changed by the vowel shift of the last section, or a gmh diphthong that underwent monophthongisation.

Write as you speak, speak as you write?

E and Ä

As we have seen, there are many different gmh phonemes that could have led to a modern short or long, open or close sound to be written 〈e〉or 〈ä〉. Now when the modern spelling consolidated in the 17th and 18th century, the grammarians did not represent these old distinctions which may or may not have been still effective in various parts of Germany. Rather, they preferred 〈ä〉 when there is a cognate written with 〈a〉, and 〈e〉 if not. Not always did their choice reflect this rule, leading to inconsistent spellings.

As long as only short 〈e〉 and 〈ä〉 are affected, the inconsistencies play no rôle for the pronunciation. For instance, they missed out on Eltern (from alt), behende (from Hand), and treu (from trauen); they formed causatives with 〈ä〉 like drängen (from dringen), tränken (from trinken), zwängen (from zwingen) and other causatives with 〈e〉 like setzen (from sitzen), schwemmen (from schwimmen), senken (from sinken). That may be a difficulty for spelling but has no impact on the spoken language.

This is entirely different for long 〈e〉 and 〈ä〉 which are pronounced differently. A modern long open or close e-sound, that is, ɛ̂ or ê written as 〈ä〉 or 〈e〉, can have many different origins in gmh: a long ê, a short old Germanic ë which was lengthened, a short umlaut e or ä which was lengthened, or a long umlaut æ. The already long and close ê has consistently remained ê written with 〈e〉. Immediately recognisable umlauts such as derivatives of words with 〈a〉 got an 〈ä〉, of course. The other origins, to wit genuine open ë and clandestine umlauts e/ä/æ contained in all forms of a word, have become either 〈ä〉 or 〈e〉, often in unpredictable ways. In the following table, some examples are collected. Most of the modern words with 〈ä〉 in the table are those where the umlaut is not obvious by a close cognate with 〈a〉. Note the words mehr, Meer, mären, Mähre, and Mär none of which are cognates, having four different vowels in gmh, two of them short, but only two different vowels today, both long.

Modern long e and ä
gmhmodern emodern ä
êmehr, Lehrer, Fehde, Ehre, See
ëBesen, Kehle, Erde, Leder, Krebs, nehmenmären, Bär, Käfer, Schädel, spähen, Strähne
eMeer, Beere, Heer, Regen, Hefe, MehlMähre, Käfig, Säge
æleer, schwer, bequem, stetMär, Käse, jäh
äJäger, Mädchen

Despite this spelling chaos, the educated have oriented their pronunciation at the spelling. The effect is, that the present-day standard pronunciation is a consequence and not the basis of the spelling.

Again, some dialects preserve old distictions. For instance, many words in the fourth line have long open ā in the Bavarian language, reflecting an un-umlauted version, thus demonstrating that these are indeed umlauts: laar, schwaar, staad, Kaas, gaach. Other dialects as well have leeren pronounced more open than lehren.

Unrounding and rounding

Umlaut and unrounding
back
rounded
front
rounded
front
unrounded
umlaut
unround
uüi
oöe
auäuai

Besides the umlaut vowel shift which created the four front rounded vowels of German, to wit ö, œ, ü, and ű, there is another vowel shift called unrounding which destroyed them. It is not the opposite of umlaut-formation as it does not yield the un-umlauted vowels. Quite the contrary: it produces vowels that are even more distinct from the un-umlauted vowels than the umlauts were; see the table to the right. For simplicity, long and short vowels are not distinguished – the shifts are parallel. The table is anachronistic in that the umlauting occurred before the general shift of long vowels and unrounding occurred afterwards, so that there was no direct step from û to ű but rather a chain from uo (the gmh predecessor of modern û) via üe to ű, and analogous for the diphthong.

Unrounding occurred mainly, but not exclusively, in dialects of the Eastern High German region (in particular the dialects in the table containing the dialects except Swiss German), which have had a major influence on present-day standard German, but the influence on standard German was not uniform.

Unrounding and rounding, examples
deugmhdeu cognates
ereigneneröugnenAuge
ergötzenergetzenvergessen, en: get
Gimpelgümpelgumpen (=jump, dial.)
Höllehelle
Kissenküssenen: cushion
KreiselkriuselKräusel (=little pot, dial.)
Löffelleffel
Löwelewe
lügenliegen
MiedermüederMutter
Pilzbülz
Schöffescheffeschaffen
spritzensprützen
wölbenwelben
Würdewirdewert
zwölfzwelf

Before the common German orthography consolidated, we frequently find unrounded spellings like *heren (hören) or *mide (müde): people just wrote as they spoke, and the difference between rounded and unrounded pronunciation had disappeared in large parts of Germany. A few of such spellings became standard later, most of them did not.

On the other hand, we find a number of rounded front vowels in the modern orthography where there were none in gmh. Some dialects do indeed have rounding in some contexts, e.g. Göld for Geld in Northern Bavarian, but newly rounded as well as newly unrounded vowels in the modern written form have other reasons: a hypercorrection (because many other unrounded vowels were perceived as dialectal), an assumed but non-existing etymological connection, (e.g. of Kreisel (spinning top) with Kreis (circle)), sometimes the wish to write unrelated words differently (e.g. Hölle (hell) from hell (bright), or Kissen (cushion) from küssen (kiss)), and, last but not least, mere chance which spelling prevailed during the long time while both were in use.

Whatever the cause of a modern spelling with rounded or unrounded vowels, it determines today which pronunciation is considered correct and standard. Again, as in the preceding section, the spelling has determined the standard pronunciation and not vice versa.