Have you ever wondered why some letters in languages like German have those funny dots above them? Do they have a purpose? And if so, what is it?
Fear not, we’re here to help! Those little dots are called umlauts. Here’s a brief history to explain what they are, why they exist and what they mean.
What is an umlaut?
In linguistics, an umlaut is “a sound change in which a vowel is pronounced more like a following vowel or semivowel.” Languages change over time. And since people are inherently lazy, these changes are often motivated by a desire to reduce the amount of effort needed to create a given sound. Hence, the umlaut.
In German, the umlaut punctuation mark is used to indicate this sound shift. In medieval times, scribes indicated umlauted vowels by placing a small letter “e” directly above them. Over time, the “e” evolved into 2 bars, and then finally into two dots.
German orthography includes ä, ö, ü as “special characters.” They aren’t considered part of the alphabet in their own right. But they’re still important.
So, what do they sound like? If the words “vowel fronting” don’t mean anything to you, this handy YouTube video should clear up the confusion: