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Umlaut

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In linguistics, the process of umlaut (from German um-: around, transformation, "re-" + laut: sound) is a change of a vowel, causing it to be pronounced more to the front of the mouth to accommodate a vowel in the following syllable, especially when that syllable is an inflectional suffix. The original conditioning environment was an i or j in the following syllable, though once umlaut had acquired grammatical function it was extended by analogy.

The word is also used to refer to the diacritic mark composed of two small dots placed over a vowel to indicate this change in German and Hungarian (the same mark as used to indicate diaeresis in other languages). The origin of the graphical symbol lies in the following "e", which in script form simplified to the two dots.

For example, the German noun Mann ("man"), with the a pronounced as in English "father", becomes Männer in the plural, with the ä pronounced like the ai in "hair", a front vowel sound that is assimilated to the vowel in the -er suffix. Note that English, a Germanic language, has preserved some of these changes in irregular inflected forms such as man/men, tooth/teeth, long/length, etc., even though it has lost the suffixes that originally caused them, and has changed their spelling.

In Switzerland, capital umlauts are often printed as digraphs, i.e. "Ae", "Oe", "Ue".

The Hungarian umlauts are and , the German ones are , , and . Their respective pronunciation is similar in both languages.

In Finnish and North Germanic languages (i.e. Danish, Icelandic, Norwegian and Swedish) characters looking similar to German umlauts ('', '', '', '') are in fact considered as letters of their own merits, despite them representing sounds similar to the corresponding sounds in German. As it's not a case of marking grammatical variation, i.e. of tempus, numbers or modus, nor of syllable modification, it is in fact not a case of diacritical marking, and it ought to be improper to call these characters umlauts. However, no better name is known in English.

With typing, when umlaut letters are not available, they are usually replaced by the underlying vowel and a following e. With HTML, they are circumscribed with an &?uml; entity. All umlauts, as well as the ess-tsett (another letter used in German that is technically no umlaut, but included here for reference), are part of the ISO 8859-1 character set and thus have the same codepoints in ISO 8859-1 and Unicode. See the following table:

Character Replacement HTML entity Unicode/ISO 8859-1 codepoint
ae ä x00E4
oe ö x00F6
ue ü x00FC
ss ß x00DF
Ae Ä x00C4
Oe Ö x00D6
Ue Ü x00DC

Umlaut should be distinguished from a change in vowel indicating a difference in grammatic function, called an ablaut, as in sing/sang/sung. Ablaut originated in Proto-Indo-European, whereas umlaut originated later, in Proto-Germanic. These terms may also be used for similar changes in other language families.

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