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A Quick Guide to German Pronunciation and Alphabet

German Alphabet and Pronunciation

There is no shortage of myths and prejudices about the German language. People talk about how hard it is, how bad it sounds, and how different it is from English, from other European languages - and from world languages as a whole.

Did you know German and English used to be one language? They started separating off after the first century AD, but before that, it was a language Germanic tribes shared, hence the term “German languages”; a language group that includes German, English, and the Scandinavian languages. 

This explains so many of the similarities. We have Brot – bread, Wasser – water, Mann – man, etc.  

German pronunciation is a lot easier than English pronunciation. You could never fit all the pronunciation rules for English in an article of the length you’re about to read! 

Getting pronunciation right is easier than you think. You just need to learn the rules and patterns. 

I will walk you through some of the most common (and more difficult) German sounds and provide you with some tips to help you sound more similar to how a native would. To learn all you need to know about the German alphabet and pronunciation, read on!

The Different Sounds in German

Letter

Pronunciation 

a

[ah] as in the first “a” of amaze

ä

This letter is called the a-umlaut. The two dots above the letter are called umlaut. It is pronounced [ae], as in apple.

b

[be] as in “beer”

c

[tse]

Before “a”, “o”, and “u”, the pronunciation of c is similar to the English “k.” Before “i”, “e”, “ö”, “ä”, and “ü”, it sounds like “ts”: Imagine the sound of a water drop falling on a hot stove.

‘ts’ rarely used on its own, but it is part of the extremely commonly used consonant clusters below.

Ch

Corresponds to the English “h” as in “hard”

Sch

Corresponds to the English “sh” as in “sheet”

Tsch

Corresponds to the English “ch” as in “chair”

d

[de] as in “Dora”

e

[eh] as in “egg”. There is no such thing as a silent e at the end of a word in German, like there is in English. These are very common, ex. cake, make, fake, take. In German, Karte, Lampe, etc. are pronounced exactly as written.

Ei

[ai] The diphthong is very common and sounds like the pronoun “I” in English

Eu/äu

[oi] The diphthong is very common and sounds like the one in “oil”

f

[ef] as in “four”

g

[ge] as in “great”

Ng

Pronounced as “ŋ” like in English (e.g., in the word “spring”).

Ig

At the end of a word, it is pronounced as the German soft “ch” sound. The combination “ig” thus becomes “ich”

h

[ha:] as in “hair” when it’s at the beginning of the word. Silent after vowels, but lengthens them. Also silent at the end of words.

i

[i:] as in “Ida”

ie

[eeh] The long “e” as in “teeth’

j

[jοt] as in “yo-yo”

k

[ka:] as in “kind”

l

[εl] as in “lick”

m

[εm] as in “man”

n

[εn] as in “man”

o

[o:] as in “Otto”

ö

This letter is called the o-umlaut. It sounds like the i in girl.

p

[pe:] as in “Paul”

q

[ku:] Aa in “quick”, but there is an important difference to English: In German, “qu” are almost always found at the beginning of words and q and u go together,  pronounced “kw”

r

[εr:] as in “radio” or “red”. At the beginning of a word, ‘r’ makes a rolling sound in the back of your throat. Pretend you are gurgling while you say ‘r’. This is only when the r is at the beginning. Everywhere else, its sound is softer, like an “uh” or “ah”. Ex. Mutter, Messer (mutah, messuh)

s

[εs]

pronounced like the z in zoo when it’s before a vowel, like the sh in sheet before p and t at the beginning of words, and as ‘es’ in all other cases.

Ex. Sommer (pronounced “zomah”) – summer 

Stark (pronounced shtark) – strong 

Spiel (pron. shpeel) – game  

Post – same as in English but with short “o”

t

[te:]

as in “tea”

Some words begin with “th”, like Theater, Theke, etc. Only the “t” is pronounced. The “th” sound in English (theta) does not exist in German.

u

[u:] as in “Ulrich”

ü

This letter is called the u-umlaut. It sounds like the u in “dude”.

v

[fau:] as in “father” (no difference to “f”.) Why are there two letters for the same sound in the alphabet? I have no idea.

w

[ve:] pronounced like the English “v” as in “van”

x

[iks] as in “xylophone”

y

[ypsilεn] very rarely used. Pronounced like the short “i” in “window”.

z

[tsεt] Corresponds to “ts” or “tz” in English. The word ‘zoo’ would be pronounced “Tsoo” in German. (German “der Zoo”)

ß

Eszett or scharfes S. This is like a long “s” hissing sound, “ssss.” There is a movement in Germany to eliminate this letter and replace it with a double -s (ss).  The word for street, “Straße”, is pronounced “shtrasse”

The Umlauts – Clarification

Put simply, the umlaut shows that a hidden ‘e’ follows the vowel. You can read ä as ae, ö as oe, and ü as ue. Do not ignore the umlaut because it carries meaning.

Examples:

fordern" (to demand) and "fördern” (to promote) 

Schon” (already) and “schön” (beautiful)

Silent Letters in German and English

Silent letters are far less common in German than in English. Apart from those listed in the table above, there is only one silent letter rule; that involving the sound ‘ph’. Like in English, it is pronounced ‘f’:

Example:

philosophie” [philosophy] – don’t forget the long “i” (eeh) at the end.  

Kn as in Knoblauch (garlic)Rule: say both sounds. (In English, we keep the k silent, but not in German!)

Ps as in Psychiater (psychiatrist)Rule: Pronounce both letters.

Pf as in Pfeffer (pepper), Pferd (horse) 

Pronounce both letters, even if it sounds wrong to you.

German Vowels 

German vowels tend to be short and “pure,” unlike English, a language dominated by diphthongs and triphthongs.

Long German Words

You’ve probably noticed German has some pretty long words. Lengths such as Höchstgeschwindigkeit (maximum speed) and Schwangerschaftsabbruch (abortion) are customary.

The longest word that ever existed in a human language was the German (what a surprise) Rindfleischetikettierungsüberwachungsaufgabenübertragungsgesetz, the name of a law for proper packaging of beef. After they repealed the law, this word was dropped from the dictionary, but that didn’t happen until recently.  

We know compound words look scary, but here’s the trick: split long words up into shorter ones and pronounce each. Then just string them together. Don’t worry, natives do it too.

All long words are several shorter ones put together. When you come across a long word, divide it into chunks by drawing lines between syllables on paper and work on reading each part on its own.

German Words in English

A lot of German words have made their way into English: Fahrenheit, Strudel, Zeppelin, Schadenfreude, Kindergarten, Hamburger, Leitmotiv, Wanderlust, Rucksack, Poltergeist, Glockenspiel, Rottweiler, and Gestalt. Did you know any of these? Think about how they are pronounced in English.

From Exposure to Recognition

Now that you know all the rules, you need to get as much exposure to German sounds as possible. Set some time aside every day to listen to German podcasts, German songs, and German conversations suitable to your language level. Watch German TV shows and German movies with German subtitles. Watch YouTube videos, also with German subtitles. 

You can probably pronounce a lot of long and hard words in your native language. The only reason you may not be able to do that in German yet is because you’re not used to the German words. With time and practice, the sounds will become familiar to you. Even the trickiest ones will become a piece of cake.

Rules Recap

  1. 1
    The r (at the end of the word) sounds like “uh” or “ah”
  2. 2
    The r (at the beginning of the word) sounds like gurgling
  3. 3
    v sounds like the English and German f
  4. 4
    The ch sounds like a cat hiss
  5. 5
    j sounds like the English y
  6. 6
    ß is just a “ss” sound
  7. 7
    w sounds like the English v

Exercises

Fill in the blanks: ss or ß?

Dafür wirst du mich ha_en!

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Warum haben wir diese Ma_e? 

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Schöne Grü_e 

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An der Ka_e zahlen. 

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Bitte vergi_ nicht, meine Blumen zu gie_en!  

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Kannst du auf meine Tasche aufpa_en?

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The h: silent or not?

Stehlen

Autobahn 

Lehne 

Ehe 

Mehl  

Sahne

Haar 

Hitze

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Y, i, or ü?

B_roklammern

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Deb_tant 

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G_mnasium

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Kost_m 

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Lobb_ist

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S_mpatisch 

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K_rche 

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D or t?

Hun_ 

_asche 

_eppich 

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B or p? 

Die_ (b)

_ackung (P)

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Multiple choice. What is the English equivalent of the sound in bold letters?

   über

      a)  ue

      b) u

      c) o

Click to reveal the correct answer:

brauchen

      a) ch

      b) sh

      c)  h

Click to reveal the correct answer:

spüren

      a) sp

      b) p

      c) sh

      d) shp

Click to reveal the correct answer:

singen

      a) s

      b) z

      c) sh

Click to reveal the correct answer:

unglaublich

      a) ae

      b) ai

      c) eu

      d) none of these

Click to reveal the correct answer:

Ärger

      a) a

      b) e

      c) ae

Click to reveal the correct answer:

jagen

      a) j

      b) y

      c) ae

Click to reveal the correct answer:

winkel

      a) w

      b) v

      c) neither

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höchste

      a) eo

      b) oe

      c) o

      c) e

Click to reveal the correct answer:

Quatsch

      a) qu

      b) kw

      c) both

      d) neither

Click to reveal the correct answer:

Final Thoughts 

I hope my article brought some understanding and insight into the basic German sounds. I also hope you’re not as anxious about pronouncing them after reading it.

Are you satisfied with what you’ve learned? Was it helpful? We do hope so! Please let us know by leaving a comment or ask us any question you may have!

About the Author Daniela Kirova

Daniela Kirova is a German and English language teacher, translator, and copywriter. She finished school in the US and holds degrees in English / German linguistics and psychology.

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