As Hans-Gert Pöttering takes over the presidency of the European Parliament, this might be the time to look at German pronunciation and orthography. Umlaut is a phenomenon that affects three letters, the back vowels a, o and u making ä, ö and ü, respectively pronounced /e/ (like English e in men), /ø/ (as in French peu, coeur, place the lips as to say a pure o but say an e as in bed) and /y/ (as in French lune, place the lips as to say oo but say ee). What happens in umlaut is that a back vowel is modified so as to have the form of the corresponding front vowel when there is a front vowel in the following syllable; this typically happens in plural forms of nouns, comparative forms of adjectives, and other words that have suffixes, so Mann (man) becomes Männer (men), lang (long) becomes länger (longer), and Tod (death) becomes tödlich (deathly, lethal). It is more complicated than that, as past subjunctive forms of irregular (strong) verbs also have umlaut (brachte, brächte (brought); wurde – würde (became, would)) and some monosyllables also have it (für, zwölf – for, twelve), but the basic reason for this modification is that the speech organs are already preparing for a following front vowel while pronouncing the previous one, so the tongue moves forwards in the mouth.
In written German the umlaut symbol is usually used. Originally umlaut was shown by writing an e after the vowel in question and the symbol itself (¨) derives from that letter, which developed into a tiny letter e placed above the vowel in question*. Even now it is perfectly correct (though very unusual) to write e.g. Maenner, toedlich and so on; the previous German chancellor’s name could be written Schroeder and it would be quite correct for those who do not have European keyboards to write about Mr Poettering. On the other hand, Goethe’s name is never written as Göthe. German alphabetic lists are not always consistent; some ignore the umlaut and follow the order of the simple vowel while others list the words as if there were in fact an e following it.
Umlaut is the reason for English irregular plurals such as foot – feet (German Fuß/Fuss – Füße/Füsse) and tooth – teeth, and for formations such as long – length, although the following suffixes with their front vowels have long since been lost
Umlaut is a German compound word. The preposition um means around or surrounding, but as a prefix the word has the idea of changing or modifying; laut means sound, so an umlaut is a modified sound.
*Similarly, the Spanish letter ñ (which is always considered as a separate letter, not as a form of n) is usually found in words that had a double nn in Latin: annus – año (Romance languages form their nouns from the Latin ablative case, anno in this case). As the pronunciation changed, the second n developed into a little squiggle above the letter.