When learning to speak German, very often little emphasis is given to pronouncing the words correctly. After all, vocabulary and grammar are at the core of the language, and regional dialects have their own pronunciation and words anyway.
However, nothing brands you as an “Ausländer” faster than a pronounced English (or American) accent, as Mark Twain found out in Heidelberg castle:
“I went often to look at the collection of curiosities in Heidelberg Castle, and one day I surprised the keeper of it with my German. I spoke entirely in that language. He was greatly interested; and after I had talked a while he said my German was very rare, possibly a "unique"; and wanted to add it to his museum.” (Mark Twain, The Awful German Language)
Here are a little how-to guide on pronouncing German correctly.
Pronouncing German Vowels
There is a reason Ancient Egyptian, Hebrew and Arabic do not write vowels: they are among the most changeable part of a language.
Listen to two people with different accents speaking the same language: a large part of the discrepancy between them is in the way they pronounce vowels. We will focus on "Hochdeutsch" or High German pronunciation, but of course you will hear alternate versions depending on where you are.
One problem is that English is fraught with diphtongues - that is, vowel sounds made of more than one actual sound. Henry Higgins says it best in “My Fair Lady” when talking to his friend Pickering:
" HIGGINS. Aaaa-eeee-eeuu-aaaa. Now how many vowel sounds do you think you've heard altogether?
PICKERING [looking at his notes] I believe I counted twenty-four.
HIGGINS. Wrong by a hundred."
High German, however, has very pure vowel sounds. One of the great challenges for the English speaker is getting rid of all that extraneous luggage to pronounce German vowels correctly.
Pronouncing the German “A” Correctly
The German A is not the diphtongue “a” of the word late (listen carefully and you’ll notice a tiny “i” at the end of it), nor the flat “a” of mad or sad”.
It is what our dentists want when they ask us to say “aaah” - closest, perhaps, to March, closer still to March with an American accent. It is spoken more toward the back of the throat, more open, than most English “a”s.
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Most people used to British pronunciation should peel back the corners of their mouths more when pronouncing a German “a”.
The German “a” comes in three lengths:
- Short: arm, Matte, Sand (poor, mat, sand). The sound is open, but you don’t dwell on it. Usually used when the “a” is followed by two or more consonants.
- Standard: garen, Laden, Made (cook, shop, grub) - slightly longer. Used when “a” is followed by consonant + vowel.
- Long: Fahne, Strahl, Maß (flag, beam, measurement). Remember that dentist’s “a”? This is it. Used when “a” is followed by an “h” or and “ß” or, and this is important, used to be followed by an “ß” before the spelling reform changed it to a “ss” - which confuses everybody because “ss” usually means the “a” should be short.
- Really long: Paar, Haar (pair, hair). Technically, a “aa” is a tad longer than “ah”, but in reality you can rarely hear the difference.
How to Pronounce “E” Sounds in German
Similar to the “e” in mend or send if followed by two consonants or in the last syllable of a word: Herr, Messer, lernen (Mr., knife, learn).
Similar to a French é - or and Australian “eh?” - if followed by an “h” or or only one consonant: Regel (the first e=é, the second like “send”), Reh, Sehne (rule, deer, sinew).
At the end of the word, it is usually pronounced like a very faint “uh”. Meere (plural of Meer, sea), Seele (soul), kleine (small). One of the biggest mistakes is overpronouncing a final “e”. Another is leaving it out altogether.
If the word ends in “-er”, you want a very short “ah” sound with just the slightest smidgeon of a closed throat - Reiher, Bäcker, lecker (heron, baker, yummy).
Learning the German "I" Sound
When followed by a consonant+vowel, the German “i” corresponds to the English pronunciation of the letter “e”, or as in meet, greet or sweet. Shorten it just a tad, but not too much: “Linie”, “Brise”, “Dinosaurier” (line, breeze, dinosaur).
When followed by two consonants, or in the last syllable of a word, it is shortened to something similar to the “i” in “middle”: mickrig, Liste, hissen.
Before a -ch, it is shorter than “meet” but more like it than the “i” in middle: Richter, Licht, sicht.
The Correct Way to Say the German “O”
“O” is difficult.
When followed by a double consonant (two of the same), it is shortened to a semblance of the English “ uh”, but slightly more open: Sonne, Ross, Molle (sun, steed, kneading trough).
In the combination consonant + vowel, or followed by “h”, it resembles the French “o”. Take the “o” of low, shorten it slightly and tighten your lips a little to make it sound rounder.
Americans will have less trouble with this. Used in Rose, lose, bohren, Kohle (rose, loose, to bore (a hole), coal).
Technically, o+h is longer, but the difference is hard to hear in everyday speech.
Pronouncing the German “U” Correctly
"u" resembles English “oo”, but don’t draw it out as much unless you have an “h” after the u. As usual, a double consonant shortens it ("Summe", sum; "Bulle", bull).
How to Pronounce "Y" in German
“Y” is pronounced like “Ü” - which leads us to:
Learning German Vowels: Umlauts
At some point, beginners in German have all asked themselves what those little dots above some letters mean. Umlauts designate sound shifts that affect the vowel sounds.
They originally were written “ae”, “ue”, “oe”, but over time the “e” got smaller and smaller and gravitated toward the top of the vowel before it, eventually becoming the little dots we all know and hate.
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Pronouncing the A with Umlaut: “Ä”
When followed by consonant + vowel, it is somewhere between the sharp é of an “eh” sound and the open “e” of "lernen" or “fest”: Käse, Dänemark (cheese, Denmark).
When followed by an “h” or a double consonant, it opens up, as in the English word “said” or “led”. Make it a tad longer and close your throat around it more, and you have the “ä” of "März" (March) and "Ähre” (ear of wheat, rye etc.),
Some words are “mispronounced” - a “-chen” ending such as “Märchen” (fairy tale) “Mädchen” (little girl), though strictly speaking orble consonant sound following an “ä”, uses the é sound.
In case you were wondering, the "ä" in Häagen-Dasz ice cream is pure marketing and has nothing to do with German spelling or pronunciation.
The German Way of Saying U with Umlaut: Ü
If you have Turkish friends, have them show you the “ü” sound. It’s similar to the “u” in June, tune or rune, but close your mouth more and take away any diphtongues.
Scotsmen (and women) should have no problem with the German “ü”, they will simply have to shorten the rune or moon sound and make it crisper.
As usual, a double consonant will shorten it (to almost, “uh”, but with a bit more ü), and a consonant+vowel pair will lengthen it.
Pronouncing the O with Umlaut - Ö
Remember inspector Clouseau from the Pink Panther? “Ö” is closest to a French “eu”, so bring out your fake French accent to practice! Some English accents come close to it on know, low etc. Try saying “uh” as if it were an “o” sound and you might come close.
Again, a double consonant or -chen in the next syllable (Löckchen) with shorten it - make your mouth a little wider - and an“h” or consonant+vowel group will round it out more, with more of an “o” mouth: Röhre, böse, Sörup (pipe, evil, the town of Sörup).
Learn German online and get those vowel sounds down pat!
Pronouncing Combined Vowel Sounds in German
Who knew you were practising German when you called out to someon on the street or bemoaned your lot in Yiddish? “Eu” is basically “Oi!” or “oy”, as in Reue, neu, Heu (regret, new, hay).
"Ai" and "ei" are more or less “aye” as in "Aye, sir!” - remember not to draw it out too much. ("Mai", May and "Ei", egg)
“Au” is similar to “ow” - but open up the beginning in our dentist’s “aaah”, and don’t close your lips as much as you would for the “w” sound in “ow”.
“Ie” is a long “ee” sound.
How to Pronounce a German "R"
One of the banes of English-speakers learning to speak German fluently, there is no sound in English similar to the German “r”. Don’t go for a rolled Scots or Italian “r”; instead, start with the Irish or American “r”, at the back of the throat, and try to roll it there. Then, once you are proficient, figure out when not to say it.
In everyday speech, the “r” often gets elided or swallowed. Never roll it at the end of a word, but don’t forget it, either - just sort of start it, but don’t go all the way - though it’s better to leave it out than over-pronounce it.
Always pronounce after an initial consonant or vowel sound- “Brauen”, “Treue”, “Arche”, “Ire”, “Ehre” (brewing, loyalty, arch, Irishman, honour) - and if it’s a double-r (“Herren”, gentlemen, “Verrat”, treason), go over it lightly before a final konsonant (”Bart”, beard; "Herz”, heart).
Before a consonant in the middle of a word like in “Härte” (hardness) or “merkwürdig” (weird), just close your throat slightly after the vowel.
How To Pronounce the German CH
There are two distinct “ch”s in German.
One is always used after an “i”, “e”, “ie”, “ö”, “ä”, “ü” or a consonant.
To pronounce it, start to say the “sh” sound of shoe or shush, but widen your lips and open your mouth very slightly.
This should automatically bring the middle of your tongue to the roof of your mouth (”sh” is pronounced with the front of the tongue).
In “ich”, “endlich” “Lichtenstein”, “mechanik”, “recht”, “Märchen”, “Flittchen”, “Löchrig”, “hauptsächlich”, “brüchig” (I, finally, Lichtenstein, mechanic, right, fairy tale, tart, holey, mainly, friable).
The ending -ig is usually pronounced like “-ich”. Around Hamburg, you will pronounce any final -g like the “-ch” in “ich”, including the one in “Hamburg”.
The second “ch” is the one you associate most with German.
Remember those expectorating cartoon characters or pseudo-Nazis from television? That’s the one.
It is used after “a” and “o”. Start saying a “k”, but roll it slightly, letting air along the sides of your throat: “Bach”, “Sache”, “Loch” (stream, thing, hole).
A “Ch” at the beginning of a word is usually pronounced “k”: “Chor”, “Christ” (chorus, Christian) - unless it’s a word of foreign origin such as “Chanukkah”.
When to Pronounce "S" as "Sh" in German
When an "s" appears before a "p" or "t" at the beginning of a word, it is pronounced like the English "sh": Stiel, Spiel.
Careful, compound nouns retain the "sh" sound even when it now appears in the middle of the word, as in "Beispiel" or "Eisstiel".
How To Pronounce the Letters V and W in German
Ever hear a German saying the alphabet? When you come “uvw”, they will say “oo, fow, vé” - and that’s a tip if there ever was one.
“V” is pronounced like “f”, to the extent that if your name has the “f” sound, someone writing it will ask you if you use a “Vogel-Vau” - the “f”-sound used in the word “Vogel”, bird - a “v”.
And “W” is pronounced like the English “V”. When I was small, an ad on television had a man playing the piano. When asked, he said he was playing “uagner”. The correct pronunciation is “Vagner”.
This is why many Germans speaking English sound a bit like Elmer Fudd. They know that “v” and “w” are pronounced differently than in German, but get mixed up, saying things like “wery vell” for “very well” and “Darth Wader”.
How Do You Pronounce the "J" in German?
“J” is pronounced like “y” in you, yak or York. In fact, the is a town of York in northern Germany, spelled, of course, Jork.
Unsure of how to pronounce a new word? Langenscheidt, the leading German translation dictionary, lets you listen to the words and this German learning app lets you record your voice and compare with the proper pronunciation. Learn more about German learning apps in this blog.
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