German is one of those foreign languages that most people in the world can clearly recognize by its sound even if they do not speak a word of German. No matter how harsh the German language may sound to your ear, the good news is that mastering German pronunciation is not too difficult, especially if you are a native speaker of another European language. If you manage all the basics of German pronunciation presented in this brief guide, your German should soon sound well enough for a native listener.
German uses the 26 letters of the English alphabet. In addition, German has a character ß called eszett (or scharfes-S) and three umlaut vowels ä, ö and ü. So, altogether there are 30 letters in the German alphabet but there are a lot more sounds than letters (to get started watch this video to learn how to pronounce individual German letters).
In most cases, pronunciation of the sounds used in the German language follows certain rules and patterns that you need to learn by heart. Unlike English words, German words are pronounced as they are written. That is, if you learn how to correctly pronounce individual letters and letter combinations and where to place accents you will be able to pronounce German words correctly without even ever having heard them from a native speaker’s mouth. Here is a brief overview of all sounds and basic rules that should help you get to grips with German pronunciation:
English speakers, particularly Americans, tend to be careless with vowel pronunciation and get away with it. You cannot do this with German. The German vowels must be as clearly and cleanly enunciated as consonants for understanding. German vowels are pronounced long or short.
Short vowels: A stressed vowel followed by two consonants is usually pronounced short (Bett, hacken, kann, selber), but long vowels in a root form remain long even if inflected to be followed by two consonants (groß – größte or leben – gelebt). The vowel preceding CK is always short (Bock, locken, Lücke, trocken).
Long vowels: A vowel followed by a silent H or doubled is pronounced long (fahren, wohnen, Boot, Seele, Stuhl). A vowel is usually long if its syllable is not closed by a consonant (ja, so, ha-ben, o-ben) or followed by a single consonant (gut, kam, rot, schon). The combination IE is usually pronounced as a long i (sieben, tief, viel). Unstressed vowels except E at the end of a word are usually pronounced long (Schere, Sofa, Vati).
Pronunciation of individual German vowels is as follows:
- A: The German short A is pronounced like the U in “hut” only more open and tense. The German long A is pronounced like the A in “father”.
Examples: Short A alle, kann, Land, Stadt Long A Abend, Jahr, haben, nach
- E: The German short E is pronounced like the E in “get” or in “men”. The German long E is pronounced like the A in “laid” but longer and without gliding. In some words, the E is doubled to show that it is long. Many German words end with a final E or ER. The final E, as well as E in a final ER, is hardly voiced. It is pronounced similar to the final A in the English word “idea”.
Examples: Short E echt, Elch, fertig, Kette Long E Lehrer, leer, legen, Reh
- I: The short i (capitalized I not L) is pronounced like the I in “mitten”. The German long I is pronounced like the EE in “seed” but without gliding. Sometimes the letter I is followed by the letter E to indicate that it is long.
Examples: Short I Bild, Gipfel, ich, richtig Long I ihnen, Titel, wider/wieder
Note: The combination IE is almost always pronounced as a long I, but in the word Familie the IE is pronounced as two separate vowels.
- O: The short O is pronounced like the O in “knot” or in “hot” if you are British. The long O is pronounced like the O in “so” but with the lips more rounded and without gliding.
Examples: Short O bockig, toll, Tochter, Woche Long O Boden, Ober, rot, Wohl
- U: The short U is pronounced like the OO in “foot”. The long U is pronounced like the OO in “pool” or “stool” but with the lips more rounded and without gliding.
Examples: Short U Luft, lustig, unter, Wunsch Long U Buch, Kur, ruhig, Ufer
- Ä: The German long and short Ä are usually pronounced like the German long and short E although some native speakers may pronounce them somewhat differently.
Examples: Short Ä Bänder, hätte, Lärm, Sänger Long Ä Mädchen, Käse, täglich, zählen
- Ö: There are no English equivalents for the German long or short Ö. They are pronounced like a German E with the lips rounded.
Examples: Short Ö Hölle, können, Löffel, öffnen Long Ö böse, krönen, Kröte, Löwe
- Ü: There are no English equivalents for the German short or long Ü either. They are pronounced like a German i with the lips rounded. Or better, the EW of the word “yew” said in disgust with the lips rounded but tensed and no gliding.
Examples: Short Ü dünn, drücken, Münze, tüchtig Long Ü fühlen, Tür, Lüge, über
German diphthongs are usually shorter and tenser (less glide) than English diphthongs.
- EI, AI, AY, EY are all pronounced like the English word “eye” or the Y in “by” or “my” or the i in “dine” or “mine”.
- AU is pronounced like the OU in “house” or the OW in “brow” or “crown”.
- EU, ÄU are pronounced like the OY in “annoy” or “boy” or “Troy”.
Careful: English speakers tend to confuse the diphthong EI (pronounced “eye”) with IE (pronounced “ee”).
Most German consonants are pronounced much as they are in English. The exceptions are C, J, L, Q, R, S, V, W, and Z.
- B: This letter is pronounced as it is in English, except a final B is pronounced more like a P. The word halb (“half”) is pronounced as if it were spelled halp.
- C: Except in the ligatures CH and SCH, the letter C is not a genuine German letter and is used only in borrowed foreign words. Pronunciation tends to follow the original source language. Many of the borrowed words come from French. Therefore, the CH in words like Chance, Chef, Chauvinist, etc. is pronounced like the CH in champagne. The Words Chat, Cheeseburger or checken, which were borrowed from English, are pronounced like in English. The initial CH in words like Chor, Christ and Chromatik is pronounced like a K.
- CH: This letter is pronounced as a rasping sound made in the back of the mouth something like clearing the throat before you spit. The Scots use this sound to pronounce “loch” (as in Loch Ness). CH is pronounced this way. Here are some examples: machen, Buch, Sache, ach!
- CHS is a separated KS sound as in the English word “vixen”. Examples include sechs, wachsen, Fuchs, Ochse.
- CK is pronounced K. The preceding vowel is always short.
- D: This letter is pronounced as it is in English, except a final D is pronounced more like a T. The word Rad (“wheel”) is pronounced as if it were spelled Rat.
- G: This letter is pronounced like it usually is in English (“good” or “green”).
- IG: The suffix IG (used to convert a noun into an adjective) can be pronounced in various ways. The Westphalians pronounce it as if it were spelled ICH (see CH above). The Rhinelanders pronounce it as if it were spelled ISCH. Others pronounce it like the IG in “pig.” Take your choice.
- J: This letter is pronounced like the English initial Y in “yes”.
- L: The German L is pronounced somewhat different than the English. Try curling the tip of your tongue up to touch just behind the top front teeth and keep the back part of the tongue lower as you pronounce it.
- NG: The German N is pronounced as in English, but English speakers have a tendency to insert an extra G following an NG sound if another syllable follows. The Germans pronounce the word länger as läng-er, not läng-ger.
- PF: This letter combination is pronounced very nearly like a simple F, but not quite. It is more like the PF in “stepfather”. The P becomes a little explosive puff before the F. Examples include Pferd, Pfarre, Pfeffer, Pfütze.
- Q: As in English, Q is always followed by U in German words. The combination QU is pronounced KW (except in the borrowed word “queue”). Examples are quälen, quer, Quelle, Quatsch!.
- R: Most North Germans tend to swallow their final R’s to the point of nonexistence (like Bostonians or New Zealanders who pronounce “car” as cah). South Germans, Swiss German speakers and Austrians almost tongue trill their R’s like a Scotch “burr”.
- S: A single S at the beginning of or in the middle of a word is pronounced like the English Z. At the end of a word an S is pronounced as it is in English. A double S (ss) is pronounced like the English S although it may be broken into separate syllables (was-ser). A double S following a long vowel is often represented by an eszett (ß).
Note: There has been a highly controversial reform of German spelling in 1996 in which the use of eszetts (ß) has been changed. The usages given in this course refer to German as it has existed for nearly the last hundred years because many people still use eszetts in the old way.
- SCH: represents the sound SH as in “ship”, “shoe”, “shred” or “shadow”.
- SP and ST: when at the beginning of a word or following verb prefixes they are pronounced SCHP or SCHT. In the body or at the end of a word they are pronounced as they would be in English. Examples for SP include Spachtel, Spur, spinnen, versprechen pronounced SCHP but Haspel, Raspel or Wespe pronounced SP. Regarding the combination ST, in the words Storch, Stoß, Stuhl, Sturm it is pronounced as SCHT but in the words Dienstag, Gäste, Kasten or Kunst it is ST.
- V: This letter is pronounced like F except in a few borrowed words (Vase, Verb, Veranda) in which it is pronounced like in English.
- W: This letter is pronounced like V in English.
- Z: This letter is pronounced like TS in “sits” or “tsunami”. Examples are Herz, plötzlich, Zimmer, zerbrechen.
German Syllables and Stress
German syllables begin with a consonant if one is present and divide before single consonants or between double consonants. Each syllable is pronounced clearly and distinctly, often separated by a glottal stop. There is no slurring together of syllables or liaison between words (if you are trying to sound sober). Typically, the first syllable of a word is stressed. The main exceptions to this rule are inseparable verb prefixes such as be-, er-, ent-, miss-, ver-, wider-, zer-, and ge- which prefixes past participles. Separable verb prefixes are stressed when attached to the verb. Compound nouns have a secondary stress on their component parts. Words of foreign origin such as The’ater and Exekuti’on bring their foreign stress with them.
Apart from separate languages like Low(land) German/Frisian and Swiss German, there are many dialects of High(land) German or Hochdeutsch; the language this guide tries to address. Some of the more extreme of these dialects are Saxon, Swabian, and the dialects spoken in rural Bavaria and Cologne. Other big cities have language idiosyncrasies. In Hamburg the SP’s and ST’s are pronounced more like they are in English. The Berliners have a tendency to pronounce the past participle prefix ge- as if it were spelled ye- (as in Old English – Anglo-Saxon – where it lingered on in such forms as y-ronne and y-falle in Chaucer’s Middle English). Being human, a German enjoys speaking his own dialect and disparages or laughs at the dialects of others.
If you are still not sure about your German pronunciation check out these web resources dedicated to helping German learners practice pronunciation of individual German sounds:
The Best Web Resources for Training German Pronunciation
Alternatively, as pronunciation and listening comprehension go hand in hand, watch German TV or German videos on YouTube and listen to German radio to become familiar with German sounds. If you lack exposure to native speakers, hire a German tutor or find a native German-speaking conversation partner online to find out how Germans would react to your pronunciation and to help you sound more like a native German.
As you will certainly appreciate, German pronunciation (unlike English) follows set patterns, vowels are pronounced clearly and there are logical rules for placing accents in words. Therefore, if you learn the above rules, you will know how to pronounce each German word as German spelling is phonetic. In turn, this will also help you spell German words correctly. After having spent some time practicing German pronunciation you will most likely agree that it is not as bad as its reputation.