U vs Ü

Driving in the car with my family the other day, I overheard my four-year old son say to his younger brother: “I am so frustrating! No! I am so frustrating! Stop doing that!”

I had difficulty suppressing my laughter, tickled at the irony of his statement. Yes, I thought, I sometimes find you frustrating too. Of course, he wanted to tell his brother that he was frustrated. I’m sure the tone of his voice communicated exactly what he meant, and his brother doesn’t really talk yet so the message most likely came across as intended.

Living in Germany and learning to speak the language as an adult has often left me feeling a bit like a four-year old at times, or even younger. My ability to articulate is painfully stunted, and my vocabulary limited, even after 10 years in the country. My frustrating (frustrated) son reminded me of one of my own blunders in learning German.

Fresh from a trip to the States, I came back to Germany with numerous new products, one of which was a special hairspray designed to withstand humidity. Considering the humidity I suffer through in a Stuttgart summer, I was excited about this purchase and told my German sister-in-law all about it.

“Stell Dir vor, ich habe auch ein neues Haarspray gekauft, und es ist schwulresistent!” (Imagine, I also bought new hairspray and it’s gay resistant!)

“Das klingt vielversprechend…” (That sounds promising…)

“Ja, ich finde es toll, jetzt wird meine Frisur auch im Sommer richtig sitzen.” (Yeah, I think it’s great, now my hair will look good in the summer too.)

“Naja, wozu braucht man das eigentlich?” (Well, what do you actually need it for?)

“Wozu? Damit meine Frisur im heissen, schwulen Sommer nicht sofort schlecht aussieht…” (What for? So my hair doesn’t look bad in hot gay weather…)

“Ach so! Dein Haarspray ist schwülresistent! Nicht schwulresistent!!” (Aha! You mean it’s humidity resistant! Not gay resistant!)

… and laughter ensued …

The two little dots of the umlaut make a big difference in meaning at times, particularly in cases like my example above. Schwül means humid, while schwul means homosexual. This tiny difference in pronunciation changed the entire meaning of my statements, somewhat shockingly! The u is pronounced as in “do” or “through”, and the ü is more of an ue sound, where the speaker shapes their mouth for a u sound, then says an “ee”.

For non-native German speakers, the difference between the u sound and the ü sound can be difficult to hear and pronounce. I was happy that my ü faux pas was only communicated to a relative and not to some random member of the general public. As a result of this conversation I have created a mnemonic for myself so that I don’t make that mistake again. However, after many years of speaking the language fluently, the ü still shows up in my German where it doesn’t belong, such as in the word Nudeln (noodles), which I consistently pronounce Nüüüüdeln. I am destined to always have a bit of an accent, it seems. I am so frustrating.