A section of A guide to German.


The German accent is not really that different from English, and pronouncing German isn't as hard as it may seem. There are only a couple of sounds or sound-distinctions which do not appear in English, and the overall sound pattern is much closer to English than either language is to, for example, French or Italian. Additionally, most German spelling is regular, meaning that a word's pronunciation can be inferred from its spelling with either near or complete certainity - very much unlike English.

Words in German are stressed on the root syllable, which is the first syllable excluding certain prefixes. Thus Schulter, "shoulder", is pronounced SCHULT-er, while Vergessen, "forgetting", is ver-GESS-en - ver- is a common German prefix. "Shoulder" and "forgetting" are Germanic English words, like their German counterparts, and the placing of stress is the same in German and Germanic English words. Conversely, German does not contain as many Latin and Romance borrowings, such as "arrive", with the stress somewhere after the first syllable.

German contains four letters not found in English - three umlauted vowels, ä, ö and ü, and the so-called "Scharfes S" ("sharp S"), ß, which is simply an abbreviated double s - e.g. heiss can also be spelt heiß. German phonetics is similar to English, but with some important differences.

In 1996, German spelling was officially reformed into a new set of rules known as die neue Rechtschreibung. These rules are wide-reaching and specific - some might say pedantic - but their effect on any one spelling is small. The old spellings will officially become incorrect at the end of the 2004-2005 school year, so no one can say they weren't given time to prepare, although what exactly they will do to people who continue using the old spellings is a mystery.

This guide to pronunciation letter-by-letter is based on one found in Teach Yourself German Grammar (1970).

a - like the long a in "father" or the short a in "cat". Not always predictable - for example hat (meaning "has") sounds like the English "hat", whereas bat sounds more like "Bart".
ai - like the i in "bite".
au - like the ow in "owl".
ä - when short, like the e in bed; when long, roughly like the word "air" - e.g. Bäder (baths), pronounced "bairder".
äu - like the oy in boy.
b - as in English except when at the end of a word or part of a word, when it is pronounced like a p; for example ab ("off") is pronounced "ap".
c - usually found in combination with h or k; exceptions are mostly foreign words, e.g. Computer and Cello.
ch - after a, o, u and au, this is pronounced like the ch in Scottish "loch"; after i, e, ü, ö, ä, äu and eu it is a sound intermediate between the hard ch of "loch" and the "sh" sound in "shot"; Tuch and Tücher, for example, have different sound values for ch. A number of imported words begin with ch, and usually keep their native pronunciation - Chorus is pronounced as in English, while Chance is pronounced like the French.
d - as in English except for at the end of a word or part of a word, when it is pronounced like a t; for example fand ("found") is pronounced "fant".
e - when short, like the e in "bed"; when long, like the a in "game"; when unaccented, a schwa, like the er in "ladder".
ei - as for ai.
f - as in English.
g - as in English, except when at the end of a word or part of a word, when it is usually pronounced as a ch would be in the same position; hungrig ("hungry") is pronounced as if it were spelt hungrich, although the g in some short words like mag does not act like a ch.
h - as in English.
i - when short, like the i in "fit"; when long, like the i in "machine"; never like the i in "time".
j - like the English y in "you".
k - as in English, but never silent - Knie ("knee") is pronounced "kuh-nee".
l - as in English.
m - as in English.
n - as in English; ng is always pronounced as in "singer", never as in "finger".
o - when short, like the o in "on"; when long, like the or in "cord"; never like the o in "bone" or "other".
ö - when short, roughly like the oo in "took"; when long, roughly like the ir in "fir".
p - as in English; in pf, both letters are pronounced.
q - always followed by u, as in English, but qu is pronounced kv.
r - as in English.
s - usually like an English z, otherwise like the s in "seem"; ss or ß is like an English ss.
sch - like the English sh in "shoot".
sp and st - when at the beginning of a word or part of a word, pronounced as if they were spelt "shp" or "sht" in English, so spinnen ("to spin") is "shpinnen".
t, th, dt - like the English t.
u - when short, like the u in "put"; when long, like the oo in "soon"; never like the u in "cut" (if you're from northern England and pronounce "cut" to rhyme with "put", ignore the last bit).
ü - pronounced like u in the French "tu". ü with an umlaut has a sound closer to ee than u without an umlaut, and in German they're two different vowels. Learning to distinguish between them can be hard for an English-speaker, but the distinction is often significant.
v - like an English f.
w - like an English v.
x - as in English.
y - usually pronounced like ü.
z - like ts in "waits"; never like z in "zoom". Dazu, for example, is "dat-zoo".

The sounds which are not usually found in English are the two varieties of ch, and the distinction between u and ü. Conversely, English sounds which do not appear in German include the ch of "charm", the th of "the" and "thick", the w of "want", the qu of "quit", and the u of "cut" as pronounced in the U.S. and southern England.