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Old 03.09.2006, 20:03
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[German] Basic pronunciation guide

Pronunciation is very important in many languages. It determines whether you will be taken seriously in German, since it gives a clue to the person listening to you about your ability to speak the language. Good pronunciation will not only make you feel more comfortable with the language, it will help to avoid those situations where people switch to English out of "politeness".

As English-speakers we naturally bring our own pronunciation into German - it's just a matter of habit. Learning the correct pronunciation of certain vowels and a few consonants can go a long way.

The following table is from my first German notebook. It is listed on the very first page, as it was the very first thing I learned. I wasn't allowed to proceed further until I was able to pronounce each letter correctly.

a (short) - almost the same as the "a" sound in cut, but never the same as the "a" in hat. Mann (man), kalt (cold)
a (long) - as in father. Vater (father), Abend (evening)
e (short) - as in bed. Feld (field), eng (narrow)
e (long) - as in they. Nebel (fog), eben (even)
i (short) - as in film. bitte (please), Milch (milk)
i (long) - as in chief. ihn (him), Kino (cinema)
o (short) - as in fog. folgen (to follow), oft (often)
o (long) - deeper that the "o" in vote, but slightly higher than "oo" in hook. gross (big), Brot (bread)
u (short) - as in put, never as in cut. Puppe (doll), und (and)
u (long) - as in rude. Stuhl (chair), Stunde (hour) [note: I don't agree with this, but can't think of an alternative!]
Modified Vowels (Umlaut)
ä (short) - as "ea" in head. Gepäck (luggage), Männer (men)
ä (long) - as in way or gate. Mädchen (girl), spät (late)
ö (long) - as the "u" in burn. Schön (lovely), hören (to hear)
ü (short) - close to the "oo" in goose, but shorter. über (above), Tür (door)
ü (long) - as above but longer. grün (green), süss (sweet)
au - as in cow. Haus (house), blau (blue)
äu, eu - as in toy. Häuser (houses), Deutsch (German)
ie - as in piece. tief (deep), lieb (dear)
ai, ei - as in my. Kaiser (emperor), Ei (egg)
ch - as the Scots pronounce loch. Buch (book), auch (also)
g - is hard, except when a word ends in "ig" when it is a soft "ch". König (king), lustig (merry)
h - is prnounced before a vowel, but silent after a vowel - the sound is then lengthened. Hecke (hedge), gehen (to go)
j - as the "y" in yes. ja (yes), jetzt (now)
s - as in "soft" at the end of a word or syllable. Glas (glass), Gastgeber (host)
s - as "z" at the beginning of a word or syllable. sehen (to see), Esel (donkey)
s - as "sh" at the beginning of a word when it is followed by "p" or "t". spät (late), Stadt (town)
sch - is pronounced like "shoe", "shawl". Schule (school), schade (pity)
v - as "f". Vogel (bird), Verlust (loss)
w - as "v". warum (why), Wasser (water)
z - as "ts" in boots. Zahn (tooth), zu (to, too)
I've modified this table from the original slightly as I didn't fully agree with some of the examples. It should also be noted that the examples given are for standard English, if you speak with an accent in English, try to think of how the sound should be in standard English before trying the German examples.

Other differences to English

The "d" in German tends to be a little shorter and doesn't linger quite as long as it does in English. Consider "landed" - the d sound can be heard quite distictly. "und" in German is halfway between a "d" and a "t", and the sound doesn't linger - it's very crisp and short.
The "y" in German is closer to ü. Consider "typical" in English - the "y" sounds more like the "i" in tip. German typisch is actually more like toopish, except with a much shorter "oo" than the sound in "goose".
The "th" in German doesn't exist as it does in English where the letters are combined into a single sound as in "thistle". In German if you encounter it in a word like "Mathias" (male name) the "t" and the "h" will be pronounced separately, but in quick succession.

Common problems

People have different problems with different parts of German pronunciation, often depending on where they are from. The following observations are generalisations and not true in all cases. If you fall into one of these groups you may want to double-check certain aspects of your pronunciation so that you can get it correct as you progress.

British people tend to have the biggest problem with the deeper vowel sounds in German. Vowels like "u" are quite deep and the British tend to move their tounge further forward in the mouth to create a vowel sound with a higher pitch. This often sounds as if they have added an umlaut to the vowel, resulting in u sounding like ü or ö, etc. A classic example is "Zug" (the town, and a train). It should sound like tsug (with a low sounding "u", quite short), but if often sounds like zoog (as in the oo in goose), with the oo sound often extended to "ooo".

Almost all English-speakers have problems with the rolling "r" of German, with perhaps the exception of South Africans who are used to the more guteral sound of Afrikaans. Americans and Irish have the greatest problem as their own "r" sound in English is more drawn out and pronounced than with other nationalities. Special care should be taken with German "r" - the tip of the tounge actually almost touches the roof of the mouth as air is forced past. Imagine imitating the sound of a cat purring, while simultaneously attempting the "r" sound. Practice with the word drei. The "r" should be crisp and quick with the tip of the tounge moving upward to the roof of the mouth, not flat and drawn out.

Irish should have an advantage with "th" since in Irish English many "th" sounds are shortened into "t". This should make it easier to cope with the separate pronunciation of "t" and "h" in German (see above).

German "z" and "s" are often problematic for native English speakers. It's important to remember that generally there is a "shift" of these letters. In other words "s" normally sounds like "z" and "z" normally sounds like "ts". The difference is the position of your tounge - with an English "s" the tounge sits further back in the mouth as you breathe out. As you move the tounge further out toward the lips the sound will change from "s" to "z" and then to "ts" before stopping altogether. As you pronounce these sounds in German, hold your tounge slightly further forward to get the shift. Note that the "ss" in German which is sometimes written as ß (but never in Switzerland) sounds exactly like English "s" - no shifting toward "z" is required, in fact it can be treated just as "ss" would be in English

German "ch" is often a big source of problems. Taking the word Ich (I) for example, English speakers often say it as "Ish" or "Ick". The correct pronunciation is exactly in the middle and sounds almost like a hiss is being emitted. Some people may like to think of a word they might have heard often which ends in "....loch" - this is the same "ch" sound used in Ich, mich, dich, etc.

Finally a note regarding the correct pronunciation of "g" in words like zwanzig (twenty). The correct pronunciation is a soft "ch" sound, but it is more often than not heard as a hard "g" - this is known as hyper-correction - an attempt to over-correct other common mispronunciations in other words. It's not really wrong, but you'll never be able to get a straight answer from a German native-speaker or a teacher. The academics are still arguing about it . Zwanzish as heard in the area around Frankfurt is definitely not correct (unless trying to speak in Hessisch dialect).

You may also find the Wikipedia entry on the German alphabet useful.

Last edited by mark; 03.09.2006 at 20:23. Reason: Putting in some extra stuff
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