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) //||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 simply the personal '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 as a short 'ow' such as when experiencing pain|
|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.|
|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. Ihnen is an example.
This "rule" is applied to the use of 'ss' vs. 'ß' (see below), in that 'ß' is treated as 'hs'. Thus, the vowel before 'ß' in der Fuß (foot) is long, while that before 'ss' in das Fass (cask) is short.
- au – 'Ah-oo' is pronounced like 'ow' in English 'cow'. German examples are blau (blue) and auch (also see below under ach ~ unique German sounds).
- äu – 'Ah-umlaut-oo' is pronounced like the German eu (ay-oo; see next). In written and printed German, 'ae' can be an acceptable substitute for 'ä' if the latter is unavailable.
- eu – 'Ay-oo' is pronounced like 'oi' in English word 'oil'. German examples are neun (nine) and heute (today).
- ie and ei – 'Ee-ay' has exactly the same sound as a German long 'i'; that is, like the 'ee' in 'seen'. 'Ay-ee' is pronounced like the 'ei' in 'height'. Note that this appears to be the opposite for these two vowel combinations in English, where the rule is that the first vowel is long and the second is silent. Consider this word: 'die' — in German it is pronounced 'dee', in English like 'dye'. The word mein in German is the English 'mine'. In effect, 'ie' follows the same rule as in English, with the first vowel long (ee in German) and the second vowel silent; 'ei' is the equivalent sound in German to the English long 'i' as in 'mine'.
Konsonanten ~ Consonants
Most German consonants are pronounced similar to the way they are in English, with exceptions noted in column 3 above. Details of certain consonant sounds and uses are discussed further here:
- ch – Pronounced like 'k' in many words of Greek origin like Christ or Charakter, but like 'sh' in words of French origin, and 'tch' in words of English origin. The German sechs (six) is pronounced very much similar to the English 'sex', but with a voiced 's' (so it's more like 'zex'). See also the discussion of "ich-sound" below. The pronunciation of words with an initial 'ch' followed by e or i, as in China or Chemie varies: in High German the "ich-sound" is the standard pronunciation, but in South German dialect and Austrian German 'k' is preferred.
- d, t, l, and n – These letters are pronounced similarly in English and German. However, in pronouncing these letters, the German extends his tongue 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 – in German 'Ess-tsay-hah' is pronounced like 'sh', not 'sk' as in English. German word example: Schüler (student).
- sp and st – Where the combinations 'ess-pay' or 'ess-tay' appear at the beginning of a word, the 'ess' sound becomes an 'sh' sound. German examples are spielen (play) and spät (late). An interesting "exception" is a word like Bleistift (pencil), where the inside 'sti' is pronounced 'shti' — however, this is a compound word from Blei (lead) and Stift (pen). Some local dialects however pronounce all occurrences "sharp" (with an 'ess' sound -- typical for North German dialects, especially near Hamburg) or "soft" (with an 'sh' sound -- 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' 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 – German language has two pronunciations for r: The more common is similar to the French r, a guttural sound resembling a fractionated g, as found in Arabic غ or some pronunciations of modern Greek γ, as well as modern Hebrew ר (the modern sound was affected by German). The second pronunciation is a "rolled" r as in Spanish or Scots. Its use is limited to Switzerland and parts of Southern Germany.
- ö (oh-umlaut) – The word "umlaut" means "change in sound" and an umlauted 'o' changes to a sound with no equivalent in English. An easy way to get this sound is to think of it as the 'u' in the British word 'murder'. Commonly, the 'long ö' 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 word is schön (beautiful). The 'short ö' sound is made by first sounding 'oo', pursing the lips, and changing the sound to 'e' as in 'pet. A 'short ö' sounds actually very similar to the 'i' in 'sir'. An example word is zwölf (twelve). If you have problems pronouncing ö, do not replace it by "o" but by "e" (as in elf) like in many German dialects. In written and printed German, 'oe' can be an acceptable substitute for 'ö' if the latter is unavailable.
- ü (oo-umlaut) – As with 'ö', 'oo-umlaut' is a rounded vowel sound with no real English equivalent. The 'long ü' 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 as if you were to whistle, and then put some voice. An example word is früh. The 'short ü' sound is made by first sounding 'oo', pursing the lips, and changing the sound to 'i' as in 'pit. An example word is fünf (five). If you have problems pronouncing ü, do not replace it by "u" but by "i" (as in fish) like in many German dialects. In written and printed German, 'ue' can be an acceptable substitute for 'ü' if the latter is unavailable.
- ach – The letter combination 'ch' as in auch (also) is called the "ach-sound" and resembles a throat-clearing (guttural) sound. It is used after 'a', 'o', 'u', and 'au'. It is pronounced somewhat like "och" in Loch Ness (lock, not loke) in its original form. The Hebrew letter ח and the Arabic letter خ as well as continental Spanish j are pronounced the same as the "ach-sound".
- ich – The "ich-sound" in German is also somewhat guttural, like a more forceful 'h' in English "hue", "huge". Another approach is to say "sh" while (almost) touching the palate not with the tip but with the middle of your tongue. In the word richtig ("correct") both the 'ich' and the final 'ig' have this sound. It is used after 'e', 'i', 'y', 'ä', 'ö', 'ü', 'ei', 'eu', 'äu', after consonant-letters and sometimes at the beginning of words (especially before 'e', 'i', 'y', 'ä', 'ö'). 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", as well as the final 'ig', is 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. Mostly these are words stressed on the last syllable, as shown by the following:
Vo=`kal Kon=so=`nant Lek=ti=`on
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: