At least according to an unbelievably silly BBC story from the year 2000:

An American professor has developed a theory that Germans are bad-tempered because pronouncing German sounds puts a frown on the face.
Professor David Myers believes that the facial contortions needed to pronounce vowels modified by the umlaut may be getting the Germans down in the mouth…
Saying “u” [ü?—LH] – one of German’s most recognisable sounds – causes the mouth to turn down. But the English sounds of “e” and “ah” – expressions used in smiling and laughing – have the opposite effect.
Professor Myers told the Royal Society of Edinburgh on Thursday that frequent use of the muscles which the brain associates with sadness can adversely affect a person’s mood…
“This could be a good reason why German people have got a reputation for being humourless and grumpy,” said Professor Myers, who heads Psychology at Hope College, Michigan.

The story is illustrated with photographs of Michael Schumacher (looking wry, I’d say, rather than grumpy), Gerhard Schroeder (pensive), and Helmut Kohl (definitely grumpy).

Via Mark Liberman at Language Log.


  1. Was this a joke? Why single out the Germans? Many other languages have the same or similar vowel sounds – the French, the Hungarians, the Turks. Hmm, maybe there is something to this. Italians and Spanish are less grumpy than the French, and the Bavarians tend to be cheerier than the Prussians. Also don’t the “dour Scots” front their vowels in a similar way?

  2. No, it’s the irrational noun declensions, along with Wagner’s operas, which caused Hitler. Umlauts are cool.

  3. Marie-Lucie Tarpent says

    It is not only Scots among English speakers who front their high back vowels. More and more anglophone Canadians are doing it too, for instance in saying “good food” with what sounds almost (not quite yet) like a French as in the word “mur” or a German umlauted u as in the word meaning “feet” (sorry, I haven’t figured out the phonetic fonts yet). As a particularly striking example, not too long ago I heard on CBC radio a Canadian journalist reporting from, I think, Kabul, describing how bombs were going on around her once in a while, so one would hear “a big BOOM” – the onomatopeic effect was completely spoiled and made ridiculous rather than terrifying by her extremely fronted vowel in the word BOOM.

  4. Umlauts are cool.
    I think you mean “Ümlauts are kühl.”

  5. Ümläute I think you mean, Hat!

  6. Ach, ich fühl’s: es ist verschwünden!

  7. You know, this WOULD explain why they are so popular in heavy metal band names.

  8. Mark Lieberman has posted over at Language Log concerning this article. The BBC got the story very wrong.

  9. Matt, you’re so right! And don’t forget this famous Onion article. 😉

  10. I understand where this is coming from, sorta. You’ll learn in any Pysch 101 class that there is a theory that emotions are reinforced by facial movements, so that if you ask a chipper person to frown for a few minutes, he will actually become less easygoing. Still, my textbook emphasized that one would have to hold the expression for many minutes before a change in how one feels. Just saying a quick ö or ü won’t do anything.

  11. Well, I guess I should have looked at the LanguageLog post before commenting here. Oh well.

  12. Siganus Sutor says

    John Emerson : « No, it’s the irrational noun declensions, along with Wagner’s operas, which caused Hitler. »
    Is that all? Remember that the Neander valley is in Germany. Therefore maybe Germans were bound to speak in a somehow unpolished way…
    Two days ago it was announced that the genome of a Neandertal would be fully sequenced. Those who think that any particular language is embedded in the genes may be waiting for the first prehistoric groan to be played back. Will it have any umlaut?
    By the way, regarding one of the scientists involved in this project, Svante Pääbo from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, the journal Nature seems to have some problems with these multiple Finnish-looking umlauts: within the same article sometimes they are displayed, sometimes not.

  13. Why should we listen to a man with not one but two umlauts in his name? He’s obviously hopelessly depressed and can’t think straight.

  14. @Siganus: unpolished? Überpolished, I think you mean.

  15. Michael Schumacher does talk out of the side of his mouth in a rather funny way, but I doubt it’s the umlauts to blame. My theory is he was a very bad ventriloquist before he gave it all up for a career in Formula One.

  16. Andrew Dunbar says

    S̈öm̈ë p̈ëöp̈l̈ë j̈üs̈ẗ g̈ö öv̈ër̈b̈öär̈d̈ ẅïẗḧ üm̈l̈äüẗs̈.

  17. Siganus Sutor says

    LH, hopefully his first name isn’t Loïc — or Väinö.
    But who can choose his own surname, apart on the internet?
    (By the way again, the surname Pääbo may be more Estonian than Finnish, though some Finnish names do have a lot of umlauts…)

  18. Siganus Sutor says

    P.-S. : Though, strictly speaking, in Loïc there is no umlaut but a trema…

  19. John Emerson says

    So what is the Estonian / Finnish shibboleth? I’d hate to wrongly massacre anyone.

  20. Finnish shibboleths:
    höyryjyrä : steamroller
    öljylamppu : oil lamp
    Note that y is has a hidden umlaut. It really is ü and makes us just as grumpy as Germans too.

  21. Something I’d say that’s more of a detector of Finnish vs. Estonians by way of accent is palatization in certain contexts, and then intonation.
    Estonians tend to have a sort of rising and falling intonation within words more often than Finns (when say, speaking Finnish).
    If there’s any sound or word that Finns would be unlikely to pronounce though, well I might go with anything with õ (unrounded /o/) in it, like kõik ‘all’ (Finnish kaikki). Or then my favourite, jõeäärne õueaiamaa ‘garden at the side of a river’.
    On another note, a sentence often used in Finnish to prove how ‘ugly’ it might be is this: Älä rääkkää sitä kääkkää, emmä rääkkääkää sitä kääkkää ‘Don’t torment the old person, i’m not tormenting the old person’. The ugliness is decidedly based on all the ä /æ/. 😉

  22. John Emerson says

    Damn! I think that I just put some Estonians to the sword by mistake.

  23. That’s OK, they’re used to it.

  24. Is tongue position being considered a component of facial expression? I wouldn’t have expected it to be, except if the tongue is actually sticking out. Is one’s facial expression really that different when saying /y/ and /u/?

  25. So, what will psychologists say of our Swedish uber-, eh, über-rounded pronunciation of our letter u? It looks rather like when blowing a kiss. Will it compensate or reinforce the proposed effects of our y’s [ü] and ö’s?

  26. Brittany M Pavlovich says

    Umlaute sind kühl! Sie sollen so eifersüchtig nicht sein! Ich habe gedacht, dass Professoren waren, nimmt an, klug zu sein. Ich errate, dass ich falsch war. Das ist Rassismus gerufen, und er soll beschämt sein.
    Wie können Sie Leute wie das beurteilen? Scheißen Sie Kopf!
    Was kommt die Welt zu heute?

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