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German pronunciation

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The basis of the German pronunciation is of course the German alphabet, which has a few letters more than the English one (ß, ä, ö, ü) and in which some letters are pronounced differently (w, v). This chapter introduces to you the most important rules for pronouncing German correctly

  • What is a double vowel?
  • What is the ß and when do you use it?
  • How do you pronounce "sch" and "ch"?
  • How do you pronounce "st" and "sp"?
  • What is the difference in the pronunciation of J, V, and W in German to English?
  • How to pronounce the German "Umlaute" Ä, Ö, Ü?
  • What is the "stretching-h"?

1.) German double vowels

Double vowels are, like the name suggests, two vowels that come up together in a word. Some of these have special rules. For example "ei" sounds just like "ai", so like the English "I". 

Additionally, the combination of "eu" sounds exactly the same as "äu". Like "Eule" (owl) and "Häuser" (houses). So when to use which? For that you just have to look at the word-stem. "Häuser" is the plural for "Haus" (house), in German the "a" always transforms to "ä" in plural, that's why you use "äu" in this case, instead of "eu"!

Here you have a table of the German double vowels, you can also listen to them to make sure you understand the pronunciation!

Double vowelPronunciationExample
aulike "ow" in "owl"Auge (eye)
äulike "oi" in "boiling"Häuser (houses)
eusame as "äu"Eule (owl)
eilike "I" in EnglishEisen (iron)
aisame as "ei"Mai (may)
iea stretched "i" sound, like "ee" in "bee"Fliege (the fly)

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2.) The German "ß"

The letter ß, also called "Eszett" (s + z) or "scharfes S" (sharp S), is a letter that today only exists in the German language. Its pronunciation is exactly the same as the "s" in "see".

So when is the double consonant "ss" and when is the sharp-S "ß" used? These are the rules for their uses:

SSßß
follows vowels, that are pronounced shortlyfollows vowels that are pronounced longeralso follows double-vowels
Fass (barrel), Fluss (river), Stress (stress), Pass (pass), Kuss (kiss)Floß (float), Maß (the measure), Spaß (fun), Fuß (foot), Schoß (lap), Straße (street)draußen (outside), weiß (white), reißen (to rip), scheußlich (horrible)

3.) The German 'sch' and 'ch'

The German 'ch' poses often times a problem for German beginners, since there is no real equivalent in the English language. Also the pronunciation changes slightly, depending on which vowel proceeds it.

So for example in the word "Ich" (German for "I"), the pronunciation is soft, it can be compared t the 'h' in huge, or a variation of the English 'sh' sound (in fact, in some regions of Germany they actually pronounce it like 'sh').

On the other hand, if for example an 'a' proceeds the 'ch', like in the word "Bach" (brook), the pronunciation becomes much harsher. In this case you pronounce it in the back of your mouth

The German 'sch' sound is equivalent to the English 'sh' sound. 

chafter "a,o,u,au"harsher sound, pronounced at the back of your mouth Bach (brook)
chafter "e,i,eu,ei,ä,ö,ü,äu,ai", or consonantsimilar to "h" in "huge", variation of 'sh'Fichte (spruce)
schalways the samelike the English 'sh'Schachtel (case)

4.) How to pronounce 'st' and 'sp'?

The pronunciation of 'st' and 'sp' is handled as if it was 'sch + t/', so it's a combination of 'sh' and t/p. This is always the case, if those two consonants stand in the beginning of the word. However, does this combination occur in the middle or end of the word, it is pronounced simply as 's + t/p' (so for example like the 'st' in "street).

'St/Sp' as 'Sht/Sht'Normal pronounciaton of 'St/Sp'
Straße (street)Gast (guest)
Stein (stone)Liste (list)
Spiel (game)Samstag (saturday)

5.) The different pronunciation of the German 'J', 'V', and 'W'

The three letters 'J', 'V' and 'W' are pronounced a little differently in German than in English. 

Pronunciation of JPronunciation of VPronunciation of W
like the English 'Y', as in "yes"always pronounced like 'F'always pronounced like the English 'V', as in "video"
example: jung (young)example: Vogel (bird)example: Wein (wine)

6.) How to pronounce the German "Umlaute" 'Ä', 'Ö' and 'Ü'?

The "Umlaute" (or "altered sound") are letters in the German language, that are marked by the two dots on top of them. Their pronunciation is somewhat similar to their origin vowels (A, O, U), yet you need to learn their pronunciation separately. Being able to pronounce these words is very important, since their are used very frequently, for example of the plural: Haus - Häuser (house - houses).

This table provides you with an explanation of how to pronounce the altered sounds and gives you also examples to listen to:

Äpronounced similar to the 'a' in apple or 'ai' in "air"

Ärmel (sleeve)

Äpfel (apples)

Öpronounced similar to the 'i' in "girl"

König (king)

Öfter (more often)

Üno English equivalent

Übung (exercise)

Müde (tired)

enlightened If you don't know how to write these letters, it is also common In German to express the "Umlaute" like this: ae = ä ; oe = ö ; ue = ü

7.) The German stretching-h

The stretching-h indicates that a vowel in a word needs to be pronounced longer. It usually occurs in the middle of the word. However there are a few exceptions. Here is a good way to remember when to use the stretching-h and when not to.

Stretching-hNo Stretching-h
Before the consonants l, m, n, rWords that begin with q, sch, sp or t
Examples: das Mehl (the flour), die Wahl (the election), die Bahn (the track), die Bühne (the stage)Examples: die Schule (the school), sparen (to save), quälen (to torture), der Ton (the tone)

enlightened Normally there is no stretching-h following au, äu, ai, eu and ei. Except for these exceptions: verzeihen (to forgive), Weihnachten (christmas)

yes Now that you know the most important rules for the German translation, practice your knowledge with the following free exercises!


Exercises

  1. Exercise: S, SS or ẞ?

Exercise: S, SS or ẞ?


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