Tërrïbly Ünhäppy Germans

Marginal Revolution points us to a study by an American professor which blames umlauts for German grumpiness: "Hope College psychology professor David Myers says saying a vowel with an umlaut forces a speaker to turn down his mouth in a frown, and may induce the sadness associated with the facial expression."  English, he claims, involves broad ‘ah’ and ‘eh’ sounds which require you to mimic smiling motions.  This story was originally reported back in 2000 by the BBC

Hat-tip to Marian Wirth, valued German Joys Commenter and freshly-minted blogger, for the link.

Now to the substance: I have my doubts. I’m not going to address Myers’ theory in detail, because there’s not enough information about it in the article to draw an informed conclusion. I have an email in to Myers to see if he published his results anywhere; I’d love to learn more about the methodology and conclusions.

However, I can’t see how umlauts could be the culprit here. Some background for non-German speaking readers, umlauts are the two little dots on top of a, o, and u in the German language.  They change both the pronunciation and the meaning of words considerably.  ‘A’ in German is pronounced like the ‘o’ in ‘gone,’ while ‘ä’ is more like the ‘a’ in ‘bake.’  ‘O’ is pronounced a lot like the English ‘o,’ but ‘ö’ is pronounced like "er."  Pronouncing ‘u’ with an umlaut is tricky, it’s a sound halfway between ‘u’ and ‘e’ that non-native speakers almost never master.

What I don’t understand about the theory is that rough equivalents of the umlauted sounds of ‘a’ and ‘o’ exist in English, so the umlauted ‘u’ is really the only way in which umlauts introduce a sound into German that doesn’t exist in English. I have tried smiling while saying umlauted vowels, and it seems to work just fine, it’s only a little tricky with the ‘ü’, since you’ve got to tighten your cheek muscles a bit to really get it right.

Mr. Wirth noted another potential objection: If Germans are so glum because they have a few umlauts, what about Finns and Turks, who decorate their vowels (and even their consonants) with an almost-ludicrous variety of diacritical marks?

As I said, I’ll withhold an analysis until I get more details. But color me, so far, not yet convinced.

10 thoughts on “Tërrïbly Ünhäppy Germans

  1. “I have tried smiling while saying umlauted vowels, and it seems to work just fine”

    You could as well laugh out loud using them: Hähähähä! Höhöhöhö!


  2. So that’s the reason why Finns have the highest suicide rate in Europe…

    What a nonsense. The sound of “ä” is nearly equivalent to the italian “e”; “ö” and “ü” are among the most frequent french vowels. And from an inter-cultural point of view I already doubt the premise that Germans are generally “grumpier” than others.


  3. A little linguistics, since you really seem to be interested in that. “ü” and “ö” are front vowels, the rounded counterparts of “i” and “e” respectively. At the same time, they are the fronted counterparts of the rounded back vowels “u” and “o”.

    Now, if grumpiness comes from being round, then English speaking people would have their share via “u” and “o”. However, if we attribute it to the feature “fronted” (which incidentally also holds of several variants of “ä”), then it’s “i”, “e” which would grumpify speakers of English.

    Since there is no genuine feature corresponding to “umlaut”, this quirky theory is not very viable.


  4. I’m hoping not to embarass myself because I just scanned your post quickly. I wouldn’t support the Umlaut-Hypothesis but there is “proof” (let’s say evidence) of the connection between emotion and muscle activity (this is taught in 1st semester emotionpsychology classes).

    One of the possible sources for further study is the current issue of “Gehirn und Geist” (03/2006), which features an article called “Das Kuli-Komplott” written by Annette Lessmöllmann. For further studies, she recommends

    Glenberg, A.M., Havas, D., Becker, R. & Rinck, M.(2005): Grounding language in bodily states: the case of emotion. In: R. Zwaan & D. Pecher (Hrsg.): The grounding of cognition: the role of perception and action in memory, language, and thinking. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


  5. The first words that come to my mind with an umlaut in them are all positive. Right now I can’t seem to find negative words (got one: Behörde 🙂 ). I don’t think language would have evolved this way if there was any credibility to this professors (ridiculous) claim. The first that came to mind were Glück (happiness/luck), fröhlich (happy) and Frühling (spring).


  6. I might be pronouncing my native language incorrectly, but it seems to me that the only difference between, say, u and ü is the position of the tounge, while the rest of the face is in exactly the same position.


  7. You are full of crap. Ä is pronounced like an e and a is pronounced like… well an a. Ö and ü require a little of practice to master, but it is more than possible. The way germans explain the pronunciation of ö is:”Make a mouth like an O but say e” (e as in heaven). The same goes with ü, but making a u mouth while letting an i out. Verpiss dich!


  8. ” ‘A’ in German is pronounced like the ‘o’ in ‘gone,’ ”

    In my region the a sounds more like the u in gun…
    Maybe different in another part of Germany.
    (okay, gone and gun can be pronounced in nearly the same way but in my opinion it’s definitly gun 🙂 )
    TITLE: Schlechte Laune
    URL: http://www.sahanya.perun.net/archiv/2006/02/21/schlechte-laune/
    BLOG NAME: Sahanya
    DATE: 02/21/2006 06:12:09 PM
    Der amerikanische Psychologieprofessor David G. Myers hat in einer Studie festgestellt, warum wir Deutschen so miesepetrig sind. Es sind unsere Umlaute. Sie zwingen den Sprecher zu Gesichtsausdrücken, die eine negative Stimmung und sogar Traurigkeit…


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