German Mixed vowels: “Ü” made easy

18. January 2021
German Mixed Vowels: Ü made easy

Easy instructions, excercises and audio examples for singers to master the German mixed vowel or Umlaut Ü with ease!

The German mixed vowels or “Umlaute” Ö and Ü sometimes cause confusion with non-native singers and they are often mispronounced or ignored and treated as O and U. Some even say that German Umlaute are impossible to articulate correctly for non-German singers. Which is not true!

I have been asked to write a summary on this topic and voilà: here is the first part.

We will clarify what mixed vowels are and then have a closer look at the closed and the open Ü.

You will get instructions on how to produce a beautiful, correct Ü and I will explain when to use which version.

Last but not least, I recommend listening to the audio recordings to get a good impression of the right sound.

What are German mixed vowels?

There are so-called tongue vowels where – as the name states – mainly the tongue is involved in their production. In German these are the vowels E, I, Ä and A.

Secondly, we have the lip vowels that are mainly produced by the lips like o and u

And then, you might have guessed it, there are mixed vowels where both lips and tongue are involved. Mixed vowels do not exist in English.

Mixed vowels in German are ö and ü. They are written with two dots (or the diacritical mark) above O or U, indicating that the sound is altered. O becomes Ö and U becomes Ü. The expression for these vowels in German is “Umlaut” which means altered sound. (You will have realized that I omitted the Ä which is also an Umlaut, but counts as lip vowel.)

When you write or copy German texts it is important to write the diacritical mark; otherwise, this could change the meaning of a word, e.g. “lösen” (release; solve) – “losen” (to draw lots)
or lügen (lie) – lugen (peek).

If you do not have the appropriate key on your keyboard, you can also write OE for Ö and UE für Ü instead. (AE being the correct alternate spelling of Ä).

Mixed vowels in German, as well as lip and tongue vowels are always monophthongs, meaning that only one sound is to be heard. Depending on your mother tongue this might be quite a challenge for you. Never give in to the urge of pronouncing IU or UI instead of Ü or OE/EO instead of Ö.

Long and closed [y:]

How to form [y:]

In order to form the [y:], place the tongue in the position for a long and closed [i:]. Say the [i:] and while continuing to do so round your lips to an almost whistling position. There is no equivalent sound in English but it is very similar (if not the same) to the French “u” for example in “la lune” or “tu”.

Forming the y: requires a bit of practice at first. I recommend to always start with the [i:] position of your tongue than add the lip rounding. It is easier to start with the tongue first as the positioning of the lips can be monitored easier, e.g. by using a mirror.

If this is very new to you, singing [i:] [y:] [i:] [y:] on a comfortable pitch is a good exercise. Then you can add an [u:] [i:] [y:] [u:] and [u:] [y:] [i:].

Pay very close attention to any tongue or jaw stiffness at first. This is only due to lack of practice and can easily be trained away. 

When to use the long and closed [y:]

⭐ Pronunce the ü long and closed in spellings of the letter Ü

⫸ Before a single consonant letter:
müde (tired), Blüte (blossom), üben (practice)

⫸ Before a single final consonant:
Tür (door), für (for), Gemüt (disposition)

⫸ Before a single consonant letter and the diminutive endings -chen and -lein
Blümchen (little flower), Krüglein (little jug)

⫸ Before an ß followed by a vowel
Süße (sweetness), büßen (atone)

⫸ When ü is followed by a consonant plus l, n, or r where a schwa has been eliminated :
Lüg(e)ner – Lügner (liar), üb(e)rig – übrig (left over)

⫸ In the endings of -tün and -mütig (even when unstressed)
übermütig (exuberant), eigentümlich (peculiar)

⭐ In spellings of the letter combination üh:
früh (early), rühren (stir), Gefühl (feeling)

⭐ In spellings of the letter y

⫸ Stressed before a single consonant letter in loan words
Elysium (Elysium), typisch (typical)

❗️ Exception:

Pronounce the Ü short but closed [y] in spellings of the letter Ü/Y in unstressed syllables of loan words:
Büro (office), Zypresse (cypress)

Short and open y

How to form [y]

In order to form this sound, put the tongue into the position for a short and open [i] and then round the lips towards a short and open [ʊ].

In singing the difference between [y:] and [y]  may only be small and sometimes may mainly be distinguished by the length or shortness of the vowel.

As an exercise, I recommend singing [im]-[ym]-[im]-[ym] on a comfortable pitch, checking your lip and (at least to some extend) tongue position with a mirror.

You can also sing im [ym]  – rest – [ym]  with the objective to restart a clear [y]  after a rest.  Make sure the vowel does not restart as [j ʊ] instead of [y] and constantly check for relaxation of the jaw muscles.

When to use the short and open [y]

⭐ Pronounce the Ü short and open in spellings of the letter ü

⫸ Before two or more consonants
Mütter (mothers), stürzen (dive), Glück (happiness), Küche (kitchen)

❗️ Attention: no rules can be given for the length of ü before ch, ß, st or rt. Check the pronunciation of these spellings with a dictionary.

Bücher [Y:] – Sprüche [y]
Wüste [Y:] – Küste [y]

⫸ In spellings of the letter y before two or more consonants in loan words:
Nymphe (nymph), Hymne (hymn)