German/Grammar/Alphabet and Pronunciation
|Nations of the World|
Like English, the German alphabet consists of 26 basic letters. However, there are also combined letters and three umlauted forms. An umlaut is the pair of dots placed over certain vowels; in German, Umlaut describes the dotted letter, not just the dots.
As in English, letters may be pronounced differently depending on word and location. The first column is the German letter, the second describes the IPA pronunciation and rough English approximation of the letter name. The third gives an English word that matches or approximates the German letter sound.
Reading down this column and pronouncing the "English" words will recite the alphabet auf Deutsch ("in German"). Note that letter order is exactly the same as in English, but pronunciation is not for many of the letters. In the list of pronunciation notes, no entry means essentially "pronounced as in English".
Unique German Letters
- Umlauts were originally written as 'ae', 'oe', and 'ue'.
The ss-Ligature, ß
|Pronunciation: ß-ligature — Eszett|
|ß||(es-zet or scharfes es) /ɛsˈtsɛt/||Pronounced like 's' in 'set' or 'c' in 'nice'; see below for uses.|
|Pronunciation: Combined letters — Buchstabenkombinationen|
|ch||(ce-ha) //||Pronounced various ways (see Konsonanten sounds below)|
|ie||(i-e) //||Pronounced like the 'ee' in the English word 'meet'|
|ei||(e-i) //||Pronounced like the 'ie' in 'tie', or the English letter 'I'|
|eu||(e-u) //||Pronounced like the 'oi' in the English word 'oil'|
|äu||(ä-u) //||Pronounced like the 'oi' in the English word 'oil'|
|au||(a-u) //||Pronounced like the 'ow' in the English word 'cow'|
|st||(es-te) //||Pronounced like English 'sh' followed by 't' when at the beginning of words or a syllable|
|sp||(es-pe) //||Pronounced like English 'sh' followed by 'p' when at the beginning of words or a syllable|
|sch||(es-ce-ha) //||Pronounced like English 'sh'|
|tsch, zsch, tzsch||Pronounced like English 'ch'|
|ph||(pe-ha) //||Pronounced like 'f'. Often used in the old orthography, now nearly always replaced: old: Photographie new: Fotografie|
|pf||(pe-ef) //||Difficult pronunciation for non-speakers. Both letters are pronounced.|
|qu||(ku-u) //||Pronounced like 'kv'.|
|LL||(ll-LL) //||Double LL converts to one soft and long L, if at the end of word (parallel, virtuell)[?]|
Deutsche Aussprache ~ German Pronunciation Guide
Vokale ~ Vowels
German vowels are either long or short, but never drawled as in some English dialects. A simple method of recognizing whether a vowel is likely to be long or short in a German word is called the Rule of double consonants. If a vowel is followed by a single consonant — as in haben (have), dir (you, dat.), Peter (Peter), and schon (already) — the vowel sound is usually long. If there are two or more consonants following the vowel — as in falsch (false), elf (eleven), immer (always), and noch (still) — the vowel sound is usually short. There are some German words that are exceptions to the double consonant rule: bin, bis, das, es, hat, and was all have short vowel sounds. It is also the case that the silent 'h' does not count as a consonant and the preceding vowel is always long, e.g. ihnen.
This "rule" is applied to the use of 'ss' vs. 'ß' (see below)—'ß' is treated as a single consonant for purposes of vowel length. Thus, the vowel before 'ß' in der Fuß /fuːs/ (foot) is long, while that before 'ss' in das Fass /fas/ (cask) is short.
- au /aʊ/ (read as 'ah-oo') – is pronounced like 'ow' in English 'cow'. German examples are blau /blaʊ/ (blue) and auch /aʊx/ (also).
- äu /ɔʏ/ (read as 'ah-umlaut-oo') – is pronounced like 'oi' in the English word 'oil', which is equivalent to the German eu. German examples are Häuser /hɔʏzɐ/ (houses) and Mäuse /mɔʏzə/ (mice).
- eu /ɔʏ/ (read like 'ay-oo') – is pronounced like 'oi' in the English word 'oil'. German examples are neun /nɔʏn/ (nine) and heute /hɔʏtə/ (today).
- ie /iː/ (read like 'ee-ay') – has exactly the same sound as a German long 'i'; that is, like the 'ee' in 'seen'. German examples are liebe /liːbə/ (love) and vier /fiːɐ/ (four).
- ei /aɪ/ (read like 'ay-ee') – is pronounced like the 'ei' in 'height'. German examples are ein /aɪn/ (one) and Arbeit /aʁbaɪt/ (work).
Note that 'ie' and 'ei' are pronounced in the opposite manner as they would be pronounced in English, where the rule is that the first vowel is long and the second is silent. In German, die is pronounced 'dee', but in English it sounds like 'dye'. The word mein in German is pronounced like the English 'mine'. A useful tip for English speakers learning German is to pronounce the English name of the second vowel in the combination.
Konsonanten ~ Consonants
Most German consonants are pronounced similarly to the way they are pronounced in English, with exceptions noted in column 3 above. Details of certain consonant sounds and uses are discussed further here:
- ch – The general pronunciation of 'ch' is the "ich-sound" discussed below. However, in some words of foreign origin, its sound corresponds to an English consonant: it is pronounced like 'k' /k/ in many words of Greek origin like Christ /kʁɪst/ or Charakter /kaˈʁaktɐ/, 'sh' /ʃ/ in words of French origin, and 'tch' /tʃ/ in words of English origin. Additionally, in Southern Germany and Austria, initial 'ch' is pronounced like 'k', as in China /ˈkiːna/.
- d, t, l, and n – In German, these letters are pronounced with the tongue extended up to the back of the base of the teeth, creating a more dental sound. As noted above, 'd' is a 'dental d' except at the end of a word, where it becomes a 'dental t'.
- sch – this combination is pronounced like 'sh' /ʃ/, not 'sk' as in English. A German example is Schüler /ˈʃyːlɐ/ (student).
- sp and st – Where these combinations appear at the beginning of a word, the 's' sound becomes an 'sh' /ʃ/ sound. German examples are spielen /ʃpiːlən/ (play) and Stelle /ˈʃtɛlə/ (place). An interesting "exception" is compound words, where the second word begins with 'sp' or 'st': thus, in a word like Bleistift /ˈblaɪ̯ʃtɪft/ (pencil), which is made of Blei (lead) and Stift (pen), the 'sti' would be pronounced as 'shti'. Some local dialects pronounce all occurrences "sharp" (with an 's' sound /s/ -- typical for North German dialects, especially near Hamburg) or "soft" (with an 'sh' sound /ʃ/ -- typical for the Swabian dialect).
- ß – The former ligature (of 'ss' or 'sz'), 'ess-tset' is widely used in German, but its use is somewhat more restricted in very modern German (always pronounced like /s/, the 's' in 'sound'). 'ß' is used for the sound 's' in cases where 'ss' or 's' can't be used: this is especially after long vowels and diphthongs (cf. the English usage of 'c' like in 'vice' or 'grocery'). Thus, the vowel before 'ß' in der Fuß (foot) is long, while that before 'ss' in das Fass (cask) is short. 'ß' appears after diphthongs ('au', 'ei', 'eu') because they are long. In written and printed German, 'ss' can be an acceptable substitute for 'ß' if the letter is unavailable. The Greek letter β is not to be used as a substitute for 'ß'. Note that in Switzerland, 'ß' is always written as 'ss'.
German Sounds not found in English
There are sounds in the German language that have no real equivalent in the English language. These are discussed here.
- r – Most Germans pronounce 'r' as /ʁ/, a guttural sound resembling a fractionated 'g', as found in French r, Arabic غ, as well as modern Hebrew ר (the modern sound was affected by German). In Switzerland, Austria, and parts of Southern Germany, 'r' is pronounced as /r/, "rolled" as in Spanish or Scots.
- ö (read as oh-umlaut) – This vowel is pronounced similarly to the 'u' in the word 'murder' (spoken with a British accent), but with the lips rounded. Commonly, the 'long ö' /øː/ is made by first sounding 'oo' as in moon, then pursing the lips as if to whistle, and changing the sound to 'a' as in 'late'. An example of "long ö" is schön /ʃøːn/ (beautiful). The 'short ö' sound /œ/ is made by first sounding 'oo', pursing the lips, and changing the sound to 'e' as in 'pet', and it sounds very similar to the 'i' in 'sir'. An example of the "short ö" is zwölf /t͡svœlf/ (twelve). If you have problems pronouncing ö, do not replace it by 'o' but by 'e' (as in elf), which occurs in some German dialects. In written and printed German, 'oe' can be an acceptable substitute for 'ö' if the latter is unavailable.
- ü (read as oo-umlaut) – As with 'ö', 'ü' is a rounded vowel sound with no real English equivalent. The 'long ü' /yː/ is made by first sounding 'oo' as in moon, then pursing the lips as if to whistle, and changing the sound to 'ee' as in 'seen'. A simpler approach is to simply shape your lips and tongue as if you are going to whistle, and then put some voice. An example of "long ü" is früh /fʁyː/ (early). The "short ü" sound /ʏ/ is made by first sounding 'oo', pursing the lips, and changing the sound to 'i' as in 'pit. An example of "short ü" is fünf /fʏnf/ (five). If you have problems pronouncing ü, do not replace it by 'u' but by 'i' (as in fish), which occurs in some German dialects. In written and printed German, 'ue' can be an acceptable substitute for 'ü' if the latter is unavailable.
- ach – When 'ch' is preceded by 'a', 'o', 'u', or 'au', it makes the "ach-sound" /x/, which resembles a throat-clearing (guttural) sound. It is similar to English 'h', but occurs farther back in the throat. It is pronounced somewhat like "och" in Loch Ness. An example is auch /aʊx/ (also). The Hebrew letter ח, the Arabic letter خ, as well as continental Spanish j are pronounced the same as the "ach-sound".
- ich – In all other circumstances, 'ch' is pronounced as the "ich-sound" /ç/, as well as the combination 'ig' at the end of a word. The sound resembles a more forceful 'h' from English "hue", "huge". One approach is to say "sh" while (almost) touching the top of your mouth with the middle of your tongue, rather than with the tip. An example is richtig /'ʀɪçtɪç/ ("correct"), where both the 'ich' and the final 'ig' have this sound. If you have problems pronouncing ich, replace with the sound of 'hue' or by 'sh', but never by a hard 'k' (never "ick")! In some parts of Germany, 'ich' and final 'ig' are pronounced "ish". In Austria and some local dialects of Germany, the final 'ig' (as in "richtig") is simply pronounced as in English "dig".
Audio: OGG (37KB) ~ ach, auch, ich, richtig
The general rule in German is that words are stressed on the first syllable. However, there are exceptions. Almost all exceptions are of Latin, French, or Greek origin. These words are generally stressed on the last syllable, for example, Vokal, Konsonant, and Lektion.
These words (not stressed on the first syllable) appear in the (Level II and III) lesson vocabularies as Vokal, Lektion (in some regions: Lektion), etc.
Words starting in common prefixes (ge-, be-, ver-, etc.) stress the syllable following said prefix. Examples are Gemüse, Beamte, and Vereinigung.
For very advanced Readers: