Letzte Änderung / Last update: 2022-Jul-22
Pronunciation of the German Language
When you come across a German text or just a name, and you want to pronounce them correctly, without causing confusion among German listeners, these hints here might be helpful to you. There are many similarities, but also some severe differences, where it is often astonishing for Germans, that Americans never seem to have heard about the issue. So here you get some enlightenment. By the way, here we do not need to take differences between British and American English into consideration, this might only come up in very special cases. German as another European language is definitely closer in pronunciation to British English than to American English, and at school, a German pupil also first learns British English, as they are practically direct neighbours, only parted by some North Sea water. In general, German is considered a "mostly phonetic language", i.e. a language where you can easily derive the pronunciation from the spelling. Nothing is perfect, though, there are still exceptions. Yet definitely much fewer than in English. To increase the quality, you should discern the diphthongs, tell the original German words from some imported loan words, which often follow their original pronunciation. (In this regard, German is more flexible than e.g. French, where much more terms are strictly submitted to French pronunciation rules.) Then you are on a good way. Please note that in the relatively recent past Germany consisted of dozens of smaller or bigger kingdoms, all with their own deliberately chosen individuality, especially in terms of accents and dialects. Those differ often from one village to the next one over the hill, to such an extent that people just do not understand one another. Modern communication media have settled this to some degree, but still you have to cope with highly varying accents. — Let alone really different languages within the German borders. Near the borders to the many different neighboring countries with their different languages, this is quite common. But then there is also the sorbische (Sorbian) language, a Slavic dialect on its own spoken in a region bordering Poland, however differing strongly from Polish. Or up in the north, we have the friesische (Frisian) language, which is in fact some Gaelic variety. This also is the region called Angeln, and now you know where the term "Anglo-Saxon" comes from: from this Angeln and from the Saxons (German "Sachsen") a bit farther down south and a bit east. — And do not even mention Swiss German: An ordinary German can hardly understand any word of Swiss-German TV news, where they are not supposed to speak with a strong accent. Now guess what happens out in remote rural Swiss areas. Basically, this text is about the pronunciation of single letters, plus some cases of diphthongs and some such. A general issue with German pronunciation is that words are normally not linked to the following one when speaking, as opposite to the uses in English or also in French. This does not mean you are supposed to speak in a staccato style, you just need not make any effort to bind the words together. (Of course, in the case of words printed together, which is a major feature of the German language, then you also pronounce them accordingly.) By the way, there's a very special place for Americans to learn or practise the German pronunciation: Hawaii! As the story was told to me, there was a German monk, who lived on Hawaii and who was the first one to attempt to find a way to write down the original Hawaiian language. Being a German, he simply used the pronunciation rules he knew from his old country. So Hawaiian was written down in a way to be pronounced like an ordinary German text. Today, you can still experience that without really being able to speak the Hawaiian language: The names of places and mountains can already be pronounced properly. So, if you see names like Oahu or Haleakala or Halemaumau, just use the hints given here to pronounce them, and you will sound like a real Hawaiian insider. Then you will find, that the often attached hints for pronunciation or phonetic transcriptions into American English are less perfect, as they do not eliminate some of the pitfalls especially with regard to the pronunciation of vowels. Plain text here is to be read as an English text with English pronunciation. When a text is printed in italics (Schrägschrift), it is supposed to be a German text in German pronunciation. Here we will mainly discuss Hochdeutsch, or High German, the standard German way of writing and speaking. The variation of local dialects within Germany is much higher than in the USA, I think. In Britain, with its Gaelic portions (which have close relations to northern German Frisian regions) and Scottish varieties, cases are comparable, though. A hint concerning web links, if you read this text printed on paper and cannot directly click on the provided links: For a Wikipedia link [en-WP xyz] or [de-WP xyz] (en or de, respectively, mark the English or German language version of Wikipedia), type the text after the key word WP into the search field in the top right corner of any Wikipedia page, and so you get to the desired page. The same is valid for YouTube videos and their key word YT.
1. OverviewLet's view the whole alphabet and first sort out the easy cases, where there is no significant difference between German and English pronunciation.
2. ConsonantsHere are found only few differences, some of them not really a problem, but nonetheless why not try to do it even a little better. Let's work through the cases one by one:
3. VowelsFirst, in general, German vowels (and their umlauts, see below) are pronounced strictly straight and constant. No diphthongs like in the English A (in German spelling, that English pronunciation would look like Ä-I). A German A is not such a diphthong, but a constant AHHHHHHH.
About Light and Dark Vowels, or Closed and Open Vowels. You know perhaps about the accents in French language. An accent aigu on an E (é) marks it as a light e. This sound does not exist in English, and it's one of the most horrible situations when an American tries to reproduce that (do you know the Champs Elysées in Paris? Ouch. This is often soo totally, absolutely, cruely, evily wrong pronounced!). Often, it degenerates into some diphthong like aye, but I already told you, there are no diphthongs in the pronunciation of single vowels, period. (About written diphthongs and their pronunciation, see below.) As Europeans, we simply cannot understand where there's a difficulty producing this sound, for us it's easy. (Compare that to the injuries of our tongues we risk during learning to pronounce your TH.) There are closed and open variants of some of the vowels, not all. Affected are E, O, and O-Umlaut. The principle difference between closed and open vowels is in your lips. When you keep them nearly closed or keep them wide open, that makes for a difference. Closed here means a decreased width of your lips opening, only about half of the full width. For first steps, you can try to tip your lips like for kissing, but afterwards this is not necessary anymore, just close the sides of your lips. Here come the vowels:
About Umlauts Now we get to the umlauts, the vowel variants with the two dots on top. This is not to be mixed up with the trema, that's some very different issue. Also the umlaut dots are NOT considered as "accents", the whole characters including the dots count as own characters. Historically the umlaut dots looked different: sometimes as a little e on top of the vowel, sometimes like a double quotation mark (") on top of the vowel. You can watch this together with additional information on [en-WP Germanic umlaut]. The umlauts are considered the dirty, fuzzy, or distorted variant of the respective vowel. That is especially interesting in the case of the Ä, which is practically identical to the pronunciation of the letter A in English. Thus English sounds a little dirty to German ears. Don't feel offended, it's just some weird coincidence. This text is about pronunciation. But let me here insert something about writing German text: If you come across an umlaut, and your keyboard does not provide one, there are several ways to solve this situation. Either you step down a little deeper into your computer and find one way to still type such exotic characters, on modern computers this is no feat anymore. Or in worst case, you can resort to replacing the umlauts by their base vowel PLUS an extra E trailing. So Ärger becomes Aerger, rösten becomes roesten, etc. But you never, NEVER, NEVER EVER are allowed to just omit the dots and write the naked vowels! This is a deadly sin, every day ruthlessly executed by many, many englishmen, and they will rot in hell for this slaughter! Again, please excuse my loud voice, but this is very depressing, when one has to see how others deprive your own loved language. Please note also the other way round: Whenever you see in a printed text a vowel A, O, or U followed bei an E, then the chance is near 100 % that this has to be pronounced as an umlaut. Especially in names, such forms of spelling occur. The most prominent example is our German poetry and author hero, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (pronounce him like Yo-hunn Volfgahng fonn Götha). His last name is definitely pronounced with a light ö umlaut. A slightly different issue is the history of some mister Böing, who emigrated from Germany to USA, there spelled his name Boeing by correctly transcribing the umlaut, and eventually began building famous airplanes. When a German sees this name and doesn't know a thing about airplanes, he might pronounce it like Böing, and from the above you find that that's not as wrong as it would appear initially. — One exception of this rule is again with names, especially of towns like Soest, Coesfeld, and Itzehoe, where the E after the O serves to mark an elongated vowel, as if the E were replaced by an H: "Westfälisches Dehnungs-E". Yet this is a very regional issue, not typical for general German. Another issue to mention are German crossword puzzles and similar puzzles. In all of them, by convention never ever a real umlaut does occur. They are always transcribed as a plain vowel plus an E. So again: Never just omit the umlaut dots, but transcribe an umlaut by its plain vowel followed by an E. Yet there is one exception: The German version of the Scrabble game (isn't that of American origin?) comes also with umlauts, which carry rather high point rates. Ok, the umlauts one after the other:
4. DiphthongsIn diphthongs, letters can sound differently from the combined single letters.
5. Ordinals, date, timeFirst let me point out to those who are not already aware of this special quirk with German pronunciation: In numbers beyond 10, we pronounce first the ones value and only then the tens value, the bigger factors remain unaffected, luckily. Example: 23 is dreiundzwanzig, 361 is dreihunderteinundsechzig (or should I spell it drei hundert einundsechzig? Nah, this is about German). Ordinal numbers (or ordinals) - Now, where English counts like 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th, etc., German just uses a simple dot: 1., 2., 3., 4., 5., etc. So when you see a dot after a number, you better check whether this is the end of a sentence or an ordinal. In the latter case, it's pronounced as erster (or erste/erstes/..., all those declinations, yes, German is very complicated here), zweiter, dritter, vierter, fünfter, etc. All these are referred to as "ordinals". This also affects royals. When Queen Elizabeth II is mentioned in German, you normally find another dot after the "II": A sentence like "Elizabeth II likes parades." becomes translated "Elizabeth II. liebt Paraden." This is pronounced like "Eleezabet die tsvyete liebt Parahden." ("die zweite" meaning "the second"), using the dot as indicator for an ordinal, not as the end of the sentence. Dates - This is also important in the case of dates. You know perhaps already, that in Germany the format dd.mm.yyyy is used, or in German tt.mm.jjjj for Tag, Monat, Jahr. After the information from the preceding paragraph, you will understand that the dots are not just separators, but they work to mark ordinals. Thus a date is also often written with spaces, like dd. mm. yyyy. As an example, the 15th of January (never "January, 15th" in German) is written as 15. 1. 2016 or 15.1.2016 or 15.01.2016 with zeros as fillers. It's pronounced as fünfzehnter erster Zweitausendsechzehn. Due to the dots serving for ordinals and not as simple separators, alternative spellings like "15/01/2016" or "15-01-2016" like in Britain are very unusual in German. It just wouldn't make much sense to a German reader, we need those dots there. The year is in most cases pronounced as the full figure: 1981 = neunzehnhunderteinundachtzig, 2022 = zweitausendzweiundzwanzig. Only now in the new millenium, you often hear the shorter variants like zwanzigzweiundzwanzig. Times - The latter issue is different with clock readings. They are not written nor pronounced as ordinals, thus a wide variety of separators can occur in German texts. There is no hard standard, sometimes pure chaos can occur, you have to be ready for any possible combination. An American time of "3.11 pm" can appear in German as 15.11 Uhr, or just 15.11, or 15:11 Uhr, or 15:11, or 1511, plus a couple more. The pronunciation is always the same: fünfzehn Uhr elf, or also more similar to American use drei Uhr elf nachmittags. As we don't have these am/pm shortcuts in German, the long winding vormittags or nachmittags is not a very attractive alternative to the 24-hour wording. Only when it's totally obvious what is meant, the short form of drei Uhr elf or elf nach drei (11 past 3) is used also in the afternoon. In Germany, the 24-hour time is quite common, so it's a normal option. And please note that in German, you don't say something like "three hundred hours", no hundreds involved here ever. There are special pronunciations for quarters and halves of hours. They are very similar to English, but not quite. A time of 03:30 Uhr is not half past 3, but halb vier. So the outlook is here for the next hour. When it comes to the quarter hours, there is a regional variation. In the northwest they pronounce 03:15 Uhr as viertel nach 3 Uhr (practically like in English), but in the southeast (including Berlin, there is the same diagonal separation line as mentioned below with Samstag/Sonnabend) as viertel vier (a quarter of the hour leading to 4), again with the outlook to the next hour. And 03:45 Uhr is pronounced in the northwest as viertel vor 4 (quarter to 4) and in the southeast as dreiviertel 4 (three quarters of the hour leading to 4). Fractions - When we talk about halves and quarters, let's also look at all the other fractions. Where in English a fraction of 1/5 is pronounced as one fifth, in German there is a "-tel" appended to the denominator: ein fünftel. With the only exception of the already mentioned halves for 2 as the denominator, this applies to all fractions, e.g. 14/27 is pronounced as vierzehn siebenundzwanzigstel. Ok, there is also an S inserted to make pronunciation easier. This is called a "[de-WP Fugen-S]" ("gap S"). More on Dates - But let's get back to dates: A calendar in Germany looks a little bit different from one in USA. A week in Germany starts with a monday, not a sunday like in USA. The sunday is part of the weekend, and so it cannot logically be the start of a week. — The weekdays are named a bit differently, but that is not the issue here. I only want you to note the fact that the weekdays are commonly abbreviated with only two letters and not three like in USA: Mo = Montag, Di = Dienstag (tuesday), Mi = Mittwoch (wednesday, middle of the week), Do = Donnerstag (thursday), Fr = Freitag, Sa = Samstag/Sonnabend (saturday), So = Sonntag. When to say Samstag or Sonnabend depends on the region. Germany is roughly divided by a diagonal line into a northwestern part, where they say Sonnabend, and a southeastern part, where they say Samstag (same division like above for the quarter hours). — For business people, an appointment is often referring to a certain calendar week. But please be aware that these are counted again differently in Germany vs. the USA: In the USA, every 1st of January is in the 1st calendar week of the year, in Germany it isn't necessarily! In Germany, the first calendar week of a year is the week which contains at least 4 days of the new year. So if the 1st of January falls onto a friday, then it counts for the last week of the previous year, and the first calendar week only starts with the 4th of January on the following monday. So you will have to fix WHICH or WHOSE calendar week you are going to rely on. You risk an offset of a whole week when meddling this up. Special cases - In the case where high precision is necessary when reporting some numbers from one person to another, you want to avoid mixups. As the figures zwei (2) and drei (3) sound rather similar, the speaker often replaces the zwei by a zwo (TSVOH). A bit more rarely, the fünf (5) is replaced by füneff (just like that "fiver" in English). — Similarly, when pronouncing dates, the names of the months Juni (june) and Juli (july) are critical to distinguish. The solution is to pronounce Juno (YOONOH) instead of Juni and Julei (YOOLYE) instead of Juli. Numbers with many digits - When you come across numbers with many digits, you will note that the thousands and decimal separators are just exchanged, and the latter is also pronounced as "Komma": 123.456.789,123.456. Note that in Swiss-German texts, the thousands separator is often an apostrophe: 123'456'789,123'456. For really big numbers beyond a million, you will also have to handle the completely different naming schemes for billion (Milliarde in German), trillion (Billion in German), and so on. See [en-WP Long and short scales] or the German equivalent [de-WP Lange und kurze Skala] for insight on this really complicated matter. Those big factors are also abbreviated differently in German: A million is written as Mio (NOT just M!, but pronounced "Million"), a "Milliarde" as Mrd (of course not a B), and for the even bigger factors, there are no abbreviations common. By the way, the smaller factor 1000, German tausend, is sometimes abbreviated as a simple T. Only scientists or engineers use the k, with the exception of the units km (Kilometer) and kg (Kilogramm), which are universally used. There are also shortcuts possible: When a number contains a 1xx or 1xxx part, you can pronounce it either like einhundert..., eintausend... or shorter like hundert..., tausend.... The first version is the more precise one, but in many cases you can get around with the shorter one without problems. You remember the remarks above about the German method to pronounce first the ones value of a number and only after that the tens value? Well, this also occurs in the big numbers, multifold. Example: 864.973 (note again the dot as the thousands separator) is pronounced as achthundertvierundsechzig tausend (und) neunhundertdreiundsiebzig. Decimals and Units - Last not least let's mention the pronunciation of numerical values with decimals and units. The good news is that this is very, very similar in German and English. When you ask someone how tall he is, he will perhaps answer "ein Meter zweiundachtzig" or short "eins zweiundachtzig", which means 1,82 m. Or prices: There you will hear "Das kostet drei (Euro) vierzig" for 3,40 Euro. Surprisingly, this is not common for some other types of values, e.g. a battery marked with "2.3 V" will always get pronounced like "zwei Komma drei Volt". I can't really tell where it is this way and when the other. Just listen to the people. When it is about lengths, Americans are also accustomed to speak of fractions of an inch, half, quarter, eighths, etc. In German you speak about a "halbe(n) Meter" (half) or a "viertel Meter" (quarter), but never for the smaller units. Same with clock timings: "halbe Stunde" or "Viertelstunde" (yes, this is one word, while the "halbe Stunde" never gets bound together, don't ask me why) is common, but no smaller fractions. — There is one special case: The fraction 1 1/2 (1.5 or 1,5) is pronounced in German as "anderthalb". By the way, we are in Europe. You are supposed to use the metric system, no inches, no feet, no miles, no Fahrenheit. It's Meter and "Grad Celsius" (the C pronounced like a TS). We have the "Kilogramm" and the "Pfund" which is not at all identical to the American pound, but exactly 500 g, i.e. exactly half a kg. And when it comes to fuel consumptions of cars, we express this as a value of "x Liter pro 100 Kilometer", which can be derived from your MPG (miles per gallon) value by dividing the number 236 by your value and the other way round. So, if a German tells you his car only consumes "4 Liter pro 100 Kilometer", you calculate 236/4=59, and the latter is the same consumption in MPG. And the other way round: Given a value of 59 MPG, you calculate 236/59=4, and this is the value in liters per 100 km. Same with speeds. We don't use the kph abbreviation for km/h like in USA. We use always this km/h and pronounce it as Kilometer pro Stunde. You will also often hear the term "Stundenkilometer" instead, yet this is considered a bit sluggish and is not recommended.
6. No word bindingsIn English, you bind words together when it fits. "It is" is pronounced like it were spelled "Itiz". This does not happen in German! There is always a little pause between separate words, the official term is "glottal stop". Yet this must not turn into a staccato-like pronunciation. But you know that we love to spell words together like Damenhandtasche (ladie's hand bag), and inside such coompounds, the words will be pronounced together.
7. SyllablesOne potential pitfall concerns syllables. Let me state an example: The German word bisschen (a bit of) does NOT contain the SCH diphthong! No, it contains the syllables biss and chen (the latter marking a diminutive), and so they are pronounced separately. Same with compound words like Buchseite (book page), which is pronounced like Buch-Seite, so the CHS inside does not get changed into an x like with Fuchs.
8. Reverse approachLet's try a reverse approach by showing how some English words would have to be spelt, so that some German reader would pronounce them correctly, just by applying his normal, German pronunciation rules. This of course won't work with all English words, but there are some which can perhaps lead to a bit of enlightenment. Let's start with the English word "ouch!", when you suddenly feel some pain. A German will emit the exact same sound, but will spell it autsch! to achieve this exactly identical pronunciation. When you look closer, you will recognize the leading diphthong AU, the T is needed to reproduce a part of the English CH sound which does not exist in the German version, and finally the SCH, producing the same sound as the English SH or the trailing part of the English CH. This English CH with a leading T in its pronunciation is more obviously visible in the English word "church". To produce this sound, you would have to spell it Tschörtsch (with an open, dark Ö) in German. That looks funny, and it also sounds funny to German ears. Then there is the English word "ice". Again, the translated German word is pronounced 100 % identically, but is spelt "Eis". It starts with the EI diphthong, the S is the phonetically logical end. A more fun example is the English word "why". At school, our English teacher told us, we could easily pronounce this when we just chain all the five normal vowels (pronounced German) together in the appropriate order: U-O-A-E-I. Hey, it really works! Let's talk about the tiger, an impressive, elegant animal. The German word for it is spelt identically, but pronounced differently, with a long "EE" for the I in second place. To achieve the English pronunciation, you would have to spell it "Teiger" for a German, featuring the EI diphthong. Ok, the R will still differ heavily, there's no way to indicate this in German spelling. Similarly to the I in "Tiger", our capital city Berlin is pronounced with a long, light I. This name ending in -in is typical for many names in the eastern part of Germany with some Slavic background or history, and all are pronounced with that long, light I, like in English "teen".
9. Hard exerciseWhen you are really out for a challenge, why not try German tongue twisters? These are Zungenbrecher (tongue breakers) in German. You find several of them in the German Wikipedia: [de-WP Zungenbrecher]. There you find also a number of audio files from the examples, see also the Commons files. The two most common Zungenbrecher I'll mention here:
10. Example pronunciations via InternetWhen you want to hear pronunciation samples of a certain single word, the web site forvo.com can serve you. You type a word, and if it is found in the internal list of available samples, you are offered even a number of various pronunciations by different speakers. Click on a blue triangle, the play button, to start the sample. A quite different approach is the use of browser add-ons for a feature called text-to-speech. With such a tool installed in your browser, you e.g. mark a word or a whole sentence, click a button and hear it pronounced in the language provided by the tool. (There are different ways these tools work, some will read out the whole web page to you, others only selected passages.) One such tool, which automatically detects German text and reads it out loud, is "Read aloud" (for Chrome or FireFox browsers). There are a lot more available, just look around in the add-on search lists for one that fits your needs best. — Of course, such tools are only applicable when you have loaded a German-language web page, they do not translate. Another source for well-pronounced German speech are TV news, which can be found on the net. They have typically their own web sites. The most reknown being tagesschau.de. The "second program" named ZDF (Zweites Deutsches Fernsehen) comes as zdf.de/nachrichten. Both offer a special service in that some clips (not all) come with sub titles, not translations but the German text in typing. To get to these clips is a bit tricky: In the top right corner you find a Suche (search) field. Type there Untertitel (sub titles) and send this. You get back a page with those clips listed which come with sub titles. When you start one of them, you will have to find the "UT" button (Untertitel, at tagesschau) or the Spracheinstellungen anzeigen (show settings) button (at ZDF) in the bottom right, which among others offers you to switch on the sub titles. A bit tedious, but eventually it works. There is of course THE standard for the German language, the Duden. (This is for German what Webster's is for American English.) It comes with additional information about grammar issues and pronunciation via phonetic spelling.
Not exactly pronunciation, but if you are looking around for a dictionary besides Google services, you might take a look at Leo which serves me well.
And a last time talking about a dictionary: When it comes to special terms from science or technical stuff, then I use Wikipedia! Yes. Just invoke your English Wikipedia with the word in question and then look down in the left side bar: There you find the parallel articles about the same issue in several other languages. And as German is the second biggest variant of Wikipedia, chances are high that you will find there (ok, you need to select "Deutsch" as language) an article under the title of the searched translation of the English term. And Wikipedia also often offers phonetic spelling information for pronunciation.
11. Finnish!The whole time I searched my memory for another language with similar pronunciation rules, besides Hawaiian I mentioned at the beginning. Now finally I found one: Finnish! It is pronounced way more roughly than German, but in principle in the same way, also with all those umlauts. From that side no problem for a German tourist there, but when it comes to the vocabulary, that's quite a different problem, and a big one.
13. Last wordsOne last gag about German and its pronunciation. The German word for a cold sickness (I caught a cold) is Schnupfen. This is indeed rather stressful to pronounce. BUT ... As soon as you really caught that cold, you are finally, definitely unable to pronounce it correctly. So much about the logical German language. See you.
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