Saturday, June 4, 2011

The Wily Umlaut

 Warning: this is not a catechetical post.

 English is just the best; it's so rich in words. Not only do we have oodles of  'regular' English words such as chicken, deer, lawyer, pig, and cow, but also thousands of French words such as poultry, venison, attorney, pork, and beef. And words from India such as shampoo, bungalow, ketchup, punch, khaki, and jungle. Not to mention several thousand more loanwords from all over the planet. I will not mention them. But English isn't just a mix of vocabularies: it's also a mix of grammars.

One of the many charms (or aggravations) of English is its plurals. The easiest don't even require a change: deer, fish, moose.  Other easy ones all end in s: cats, dogs. Fussier ones take an s but have a consonant change: leaf/leaves; house/houses; mouth/mouths. The oddest (and oldest) require a vowel change to make the plural: geese, men, mice, lice, brethren, cistern (kidding), and my favorite, women. Women is my favorite because both vowels change to make the plural. German, one of English's cousins, requires vowel changes even more than English does. How nice that in German the change may be indicated by an umlaut, those two dots that occasionally appear over its vowels. Like so: Mötley Crüe. Just kidding. I mean like so: ä,  ö,  ü. Thus in German there is one Buch/ book, and two Büche; one Hand, two Hände. The umlauted vowels sound different. If we used such marks, we might spell particular plurals like this: man/ män; woman/ wömän; and goose/ göse. English umlauts all sorts of words, not just nouns (e.g., sink/sank/sunk); but doesn't ever use the marks.

Now Anglophones learning German often don't want to worry about the umlauts; they're content to show the plain vowels. After all, English don't need no stinkin' umlauts to indicate vowel change...but failure to use the umlaut can radically change a word's meaning.

Here's a little Anglo-Deutsch example which visually makes the point.

With an Umlaut:

Without an Umlaut:

Which example is your favorite? Well, probably neither one...but you get the, uh, point.



allison welch said...

just a language lover an catechist, what do you think about the impending changes to the Mass?...

kkollwitz said...

I'm pleased with the changes. In fact in this past year I used the new bits in our Mass classes.

Catechetically, the changes move the text of the Mass closer to its Bible sources, and thus make it easier to teach the kids the relationship between the Mass & the Bible.

I recap some of that here:

and here:

In September I'll be doing a class as part of our Deanery's catechist workshop on the changes. I'll probably post about it here & link to Snippets.

NC Sue said...


You didn't tell us the actual English words that the pictures depict. And I'm worried about the word that might be indicated by the second picture.

Of course, if the first picture is, as I suspect, a high-ranking Nazi, the two words may be quite similar.

Magister Christianus said...

How much of a nerd am I that I was drawn to this post by its title.

My friend, your wit is fantastic. Motley Crue, indeed! And those pictures...hilarious!

kkollwitz said...

"No Fair!"

Hey that's what my kids say in catechism class!

Anyway here's a hint: the first guy's name is Hermann Göring.

"I was drawn to this post by its title."


Barb Schoeneberger said...

This is a fun post. You should write more of them.

I learned to pronounce German well because I sang so much Schubert, Brahms, et al. Those umlauts do make a difference.

Those pictures were funny.

Moonshadow said...

I think singing is a good way to get an accent and, like you, I also memorized Schubert, Schumann and Brahms: Winterreise, Leiderkreis Op. 24 und 39, Vier ernste Gesänge. Great, haunting music.

kkollwitz said...

Hey, not only is singing great for accent, but also good for learning the language to start with.

To learn German, the only classical music I learned was An Der Freude from Beethoven's 9th. But I learned lots of German popular stuff from Nena, Nina Hagen, Falco, and Marius Muller-Westernhagen.

Moonshadow said...

Pop music goes too fast.

I needed drawn out words to get the pronunciation.

But, yes, learning the language as well, especially with liner notes in a couple of languages!