Don’t get me wrong. I love the English language. I’m a writer after all. And language is my passion. But all languages are rich with their own fun quirks.
German is one of those. That orderly, logical, complex and lovely language. One little part is especially delectable. The umlaut.
What’s an umlaut? Glad you asked! (wink, wink)
What The Heck Is An Umlaut?
That’s a great question. And if you’re a word nerd (like I am), you’ll love the answer.
An umlaut is that little symbol in words like Glück and fröhlich (fröhlich is German for “happiness”). That little double-dot mark tells the reader that the “u” in this word is pronounced a little different than usual.
Unlike English, where we use the same old vowel for lots of different sounds (the “u” in “umbrella” sounds nothing like the “u” in “ukulele,” for example). German warns the reader that they should alter that “u” sound so it sounds more like the ‘ur’ in “murder.”
Aren’t those Germans sensible?
If you’re totally confused, listen to a native German speaker pronounce the letter “ü.”
And don’t feel bad if you don’t nail the pronunciation. Germans have trouble pronouncing English words too. Here’s ten Germans trying to say “squirrel.”
What’s So Great About The Umlaut, Anyway?
Is there anything more foreign than the umlaut? Probably. But that would mess up the point I’m trying to make, so let’s ignore it.
I mean, an accent mark is easy. Right? It’s familiar. Accents pop up everywhere. Like in your high school Spanish and French homework. Some of our English words have accent marks. Sure, those words may be on loan from the French, like frappé and resumé. But so many of us use that little swish that it may as well be English.
Even that “ñ” in piñata and jalapeño. That may as well be ours now too. English is notorious for stealing language. “Whatever works!” That’s our motto.
The problem with defending the purity of the English language is that English is about as pure as a cribhouse whore. We don’t just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and riffle their pockets for new vocabulary. – James Nicoll
But the umlaut. You don’t see too much of him. That thrilling betrayer. Those two little dots that transform the familiar into the foreign. That make our roman letters an unknowable thing. The umlaut.
The umlaut is in fröhlich. The German word for happiness. It makes fröhlich feel so far away. Especially when you’re 5800 miles from home, and nobody speaks your language. Then it isn’t just the umlaut that makes “happiness” a foreign concept.
Until you get home. Or the culture shock wears off. And you’re left with that tiny concept. A little nostalgic remembrance of what it feels like to be so far from home.
The umlaut. Maybe it’s not all that foreign. Once you know what it means.
Want A Little More Luscious Language? Wrap Your Mouth Around This.
How harsh is the German language? Here are a few German words next to their five European counterparts.
This is what English would sound like if you didn’t speak it.
How to swear like a German.
The hilarious Flula Borg as he tries to make sense of the English idiom, “party pooper.”
And explore the lexicon gap with Robyn Schneider for some seriously cool German words that don’t exist in English.
What’s your favorite foreign word? Share it in the comments.