Created | Updated Mar 27, 2009
German and English are both Germanic languages. English came into existence when Angles and Saxons (from present day Germany) and Jutes (from Jutland) landed in eastern Britain. Since then, English has changed radically, and while German has changed less, the two languages are quite different now, and this is particularly true of the pronunciation. Some of these differences are explored here.
German is the official language of Germany, Austria and tiny Liechtenstein, and one of the official languages of Switzerland. The total number of speakers is about 120 million. It is also spoken by minorities in the fringes around these countries, and in Eastern Europe, where it is important as a second language. Believe it or not, Kazakhstan has nearly a million German speakers. German is an internationally important language in terms of business, science and technology.
Standard German is a compromise between southern and northern dialects: High German from the southern uplands and Low German from the northern plains. High German dominates the pronunciation of Standard German, which is generally simple, though there is a little variation with the spelling. Although there is a variety of dialects, especially in Switzerland, all German speakers are taught the Standard German pronunciation used in this entry.
Understanding this Entry
This entry is intended to provide a firm grounding in German pronunciation, but if you concentrate on the tables, you should be able to get the gist of things.
The tables break down as follows:
Column One gives the letter in German.
Column Two gives a representation of the sound of the letter using English-style spelling.
Column Three has an example English word containing this sound.
Column Four contains an example German word. Where possible, cognate words1 have been used.
Column Five is a notes column containing mostly positional rules and pronunciation tips.
Some of the sounds can only be approximated in English. These appear in bold, and there is more information about them in the notes column or below the main table. Approximations are made mostly using British accents, with American equivalents included where necessary.
Features of German Pronunciation
Compound Nouns and Juncture
In German, several consonants are pronounced differently at the start of a syllable ('initial' in the tables below) from the end (final). For example, whereas English and German 'Deck' sound the same, German 'Hand' sounds like the English word 'hunt' - the 'd' is voiceless2 at the end of a syllable. There is a similar pattern for several other consonants.
Like English, German is a language with a lot of short, simple words. In both languages, the most basic method of word formation is to add words together to form new words, known as compound nouns. The building blocks of compound nouns are called root words. For example, in German you can put the two root words 'Hand' and 'Buch' together to make 'Handbuch', just as English 'hand' and 'book' make 'handbook'. Compounding is very much more common and flexible in German, leading to those famously long words. In order to decipher them, you need to be able to identify each root word - it's probably best working backwards from the end.
The letters in root words must be pronounced distinctly: each sound should be pronounced in 'Handbuch', not like the English version, which often sounds like 'hambook'. Aslo two vowel sounds should be kept separate in German. For example, in 'die Arbeit' (work), you should put a glottal stop (like the 't' in how a Cockney says 'water') before the 'A'. The same is true for compound nouns, so 'Handarbeit' (manual labour), should not be pronounced 'han-dar-bite'!
When a suffix beginning with a consonant, such as the diminutive -chen, is added, the root word's final consonant is similarly unvoiced, as in 'Händchen'. But suffixes beginning with a vowel, such as the plural and feminine ending, are liaised or linked to the end of the root word. It follows that the final consonant of the root word is now at the start of the next syllable, and it is therefore voiced. So, the plural 'Hände' is pronounced 'hender'. Note that, as is often the case, the vowel in the root word here has gained an umlaut when a suffix is added.
In August 1998, after years of deliberation and frantic argument, the four main German-speaking countries passed laws changing the spelling system for German. However, the issue remains highly controversial.
The main effect of the spelling reform is the restriction of the use of ß to after long vowels and diphthongs - for example the word 'daß' (that) is spelled 'dass' under the new system. Also 'f' can be used for 'ph', and likewise 't' for 'th'. But, for the most part, it seems that people will carry on spelling German the way they always have.
In the tables to follow, the short vowels appear first in this table and are shorter than their English equivalents. The long vowels are all pure - their sound quality does not change. The next section helps to determine whether vowels are pronounced long or short.
|e||uh||about||bitte||in final syllables - see below|
|i||ee||see||wider||this is rare (see 'ie')|
a (short) - like RP u in butter; like Northern English and US a in father.
e (long) - like Scots 'eh', a longer version of short 'e' but tighter.
e (neutral vowel) - only when 'e' is the last letter in a syllable and in the endings -el, -en and -er.
i (long) - the lips should be spread wide, and the sound kept distinct.
o (long) - like Northern English or Scots 'oh': lips should be quite tightly pursed.
u (short and long) - put your lips in a small circle.
In addition to these, 'y' appears in a few words: in words from Ancient Greek, where it is pronounced like short or long 'ü - examples are 'Hypnose' and 'typisch'; in some German names such as Mayer, as an alternative to 'i'; in words from French and English, 'y' is usually3 pronounced like long 'i'.
The German vowels 'a', 'o' and 'u' can have two dots placed above them. This is called an umlaut and it changes the sound of the vowel - note that ä is pronounced the same as German 'e'. The umlaut is therefore different from a diaeresis, which separates vowel sounds. When necessary, in internet addresses for example, you can replace an umlaut by putting an 'e' after the vowel in question. Note that 'äu' has a different sound - see Diphthongs below.
|ö||ur||perk||können||made with rounder lips|
|ö||ur||burn||mögen||made with round lips|
ö (long or short) - say German 'e' but with your lips in position for 'o'.
ü (long or short) - say German 'i' but with your lips in position for 'u'.
Most of the time, the number of consonants after a vowel will give a guide as to whether it is short or long. Here is a full list of rules and guidelines which help decide a vowel's length.
Long - Always
Double vowels are pronounced long, as in the following three double vowels and one vowel combination.
|ie||ee||see||sie||commonest spelling of long 'i' sound|
All the single vowels can be followed by 'h',4 which is silent in this position, but means that the previous vowel is pronounced long. Examples are Bahn, sehr, and früh.
In monosyllabic words that end in a vowel, eg 'da' (there), the vowel is long.
Long - Usually
In monosyllabic words ending in one consonant, such as 'Bad' and 'gut' - note that 'i' is always short in these words.
Words where the stressed vowel is followed by only one consonant, eg 'Kredit'.
An unstressed vowel at the end of a word is usually long, as in 'Motto', with the exception of 'e' - see Vowels above.
Short - Always
Words where the stressed vowel comes before a doubled consonant, eg 'Bett', 'Mann' and 'Sonne' - see 'Double Consonants' below.
Short - Usually
Words where the stressed vowel comes before two or more consonants, eg 'Kunst' (art). Exceptions often have an 'r' in them, as in 'Pferd' (horse).
In addition to the pure vowel sounds, there are three diphthongs in German. All three have rough equivalents in English.
|ei||i||pine||eins||usual spelling of this sound|
Most of the German consonants are given here. However, 'c' and 'q' occur only in combination in native words (see Combinations below). When alone, 'c' tends to be pronounced like 'z' before 'e' or 'i', and usually like 'k' otherwise.
|b||p||pick||halb||final; before s or t|
|d||t||hunt||Hand||final; before s or t|
|g||k||take||Tag||final (generally); before s or t|
|g||ç||Honig||in final -ig like German 'ch' in 'ich' (see Combinations)|
|h||hour||zehn||'h' is silent when after a vowel|
|l||l||loud||laut||the tongue should touch the gum ridge|
|r||R||raus||initial: a trilled or gargled 'r' sound|
|r||r||hier||final: usually swallowed as in 'butter'|
|s||sh||ship||Stein||initial before 'p' and 't'|
|ß||s||mouse||Straße||see Double Consonants|
|x||ks||hex||Hexe||very rare in German|
|z||ts||cats||zwei||practice this one|
As mentioned in 'Vowel Length' above, a doubled consonant indicates that the preceding vowel is short. All double consonants are pronouned exactly the same as singular ones. Here is a list of which consonant letters double normally (note that b, d, and g rarely double), those which never double, and those which do not double normally.
Normal: b, d, f, g, l, m, n, p, r, t
Never: h, j, v, w, x
Different: k, s, z
The letter k doubles to 'ck', as in 'Brücke' (bridge), while z becomes 'tz', as in 'sitzen' (to sit).
Meanwhile, s is rather interesting. In most cases, it doubles normally, eg 'essen' (to eat). As noted in Spelling Reform above, after long vowels or a diphthong, ß (Esszet or scharfes S) is used, as in 'Straße' (street) and 'weiß' (white). The ß can, if necessary, be written 'ss'.
More than one letter is used to spell the following sounds in German.
|ch||kh||Loch||after a, o or u, as in 'loch', a harsh 'h' sound|
|ch||ç||huge||ich||after other vowels, l, n or r, a hissing 'h' sound.7|
|chs||ks||ox||Ochse||much more common than 'x'|
|ng||ng||strong||streng||always: never 'ng + g' as in 'linger'|
|pf||pf||capful||Pfeffer||a single sound - needs practice|
|ph||f||phase||Phase||rare - in words from Greek only|
|th||t||tick||Thron||very rare - in words from Greek only|