The German language uses the Latin alphabet, just like English, and, with a few exceptions, the letters are pronounced largely the same. The German language does have certain additional letters which aren’t used in English, but overall the pronunciation is highly consistent and predictable, unlike the nightmare which English presents learners (and even sometimes native speakers!).
To get started learning German, it’s essential to master pronunciation and, by doing so, both be able to comprehend the language being spoken to you and express yourself in speaking the language to others.
Below, I will guide you through the alphabet and basics of pronunciation, drawing comparisons to similar sounds existent in English as well as describing techniques to correctly pronounce a sound unique to German with tongue and lip position.
I will also discuss pronunciation of foreign words, where to place stress when pronouncing words and how to break down the long words that German is famous for.
The German alphabet consists of all 26 letters existent in the English alphabet, with the addition of the “special” letters ä, ü, ö and ß.
In the following table I will guide you through the pronunciation of the alphabet, indicating in the first column the letter (both capital and lowercase), how the letter itself is pronounced (for example, in English, A is “aye”, B is “bee”), then how the letter is pronounced in a word (for example, in English, A is “Ate”, B is Bite“), and finally some examples of German words with that letter and sound (with English translations).
|Letter||Pronounced Like||Pronounced in a Word Like||Examples of German Words|
|A/a||ah||father (long variant)||Apfel (apple)|
|nut (short variant)||Kurzhantel (dumbbell)|
|B/b||beh||beer (if “b” is at the beginning of a word)||Bier (beer)|
|cup (if “b” is at the end of a word)||Korb (basket)|
|*this letter is most commonly found in consonant clusters (discussed later)|
|D/d||deh||dad ( if “d” is at the beginning of a word)||Donut (donut)|
|pat (if “d” is at the end of a word)||Rad (wheel)|
|E/e||eh||bay (long variant)||egal (no matter)|
|met (short variant)||Netz (net)|
|G/g||geh||goat (if “g” is at the beginning of a word)||Glas (glass)|
|thick (if “g” is at the end of a word)||richtig (correct)|
|H/h||hah||ham (if “h” is at the beginning of a word)||Hund (dog)|
|ah (if “h” comes after a vowel it is silent)||eher (rather)|
|I/i||ee||be (long variant)||Igel (hedgehog)|
|bit (short variant)||Igitt! (Yuck!)|
|L/l||ell||lion||Lupe (magnifying glass)|
|N/n||en||nice||Note (school grade)|
|O/o||oh||hope (long variant)||Opal (orange fruit)|
|bun (short variant||Flotte (fleet)|
|*the letter “q” is always paired in spelling with a “u” and is pronounced like “kv” and not “kw” (like in English)|
|R/r||air||rhombus (if “r” is at the beginning of a word)||Regen (rain)|
|father (if “r” is at the end of a word)||Lehrer (teaher)|
|S/s||es||Zack (if a single “s”)||Segelboot (sailboat)|
|pass (if a double “ss”)||Fitness (fitness)|
|T/t||teh||Taylor Swift||Tee (tea)|
|U/u||ooh||move (long variant)||Uhr (watch)|
|bush (short variant)||kaputt (broken)|
|Y/y||oopsilohn||goofy (if the word is from Greek)||Physik (physics)|
|lobby (if the word is from English)||Hobby (hobby)|
|Ä/ä||eh||May (long variant)||Äpfel (apples)|
|let (short variant)|
Short and Long Vowels
In German, there is the concept of short and long vowels, necessitating different pronunciations of a vowel based on a vowel’s positioning within the word.
In English, this can be seen in words like pan (short) vs pane (long).
While the most effective (and only effective) method to learning where German vowels are short and long is, unfortunately, listening carefully and accumulating experience, there are some common indicators for where the vowels will be short or long.
A vowel is often long if…
- the vowel is followed by “h” : Ehre (honor)
- the vowel is followed by “ß” : Fußball (soccer)
- the vowel is found as a pair : Turnsaal (gymnastics gym)
A vowel is often short if…
- the vowel is followed by “ch” : Koch (cook/chef)
- the vowel is followed by “tz” : Lakritze (licorice)
- the vowel is followed by “ck” : Socke (sock)
- the vowel is followed by a double-pair of consonants : Sonne (sun)
But what does this mean for pronunciation? Contrary to the idea that you may have (hold the sound for a longer or shorter time when pronouncing the vowel), the pronunciation will be altered into a new sound which resembles but does not exactly match the sound of the letter in pronouncing the alphabet.
Here are the approximate pronunciations for short and long German vowels.
The “Standard” Vowels
- Long: pronounced like the “a” in father : Vater (father)
- Short: pronounced like the “u” in butt : Schatten (shadow)
- Long: pronounced like the “a” in pay : Leben (life)
- Short: pronounced like the “e” in bet : nett (nice)
- Long: pronounced like the “ea” in sea : Island (Iceland)
- Short: pronounced like the “i” in fin : kicken (to play soccer)
- Long: pronounced like the “o” in slope : Oberfläche (surface)
- Short: pronounced like the “o” in ton : trotz (despite)
- Long: pronounced like the “u” tune : Unterschied (difference)
- Short: pronounced like the “u” in push : putzen (to clean up)
The Accented Vowels
Here come the umlauts, the two dots placed above the standard vowels. The idea behind the umlaut vowels is that they are a standard vowel (a, e, i, o, or u) with an extra “e” pronounced immediately following. In fact, an alternate acceptable spelling for ä, ö, and ü are accordingly ae, oe, and ue, however this is usually only written as such in the case of a lack of a German keyboard, or for URL/website requirements (ex: a famous brand of bread in Austria is Gutes vom Bäcker, but the URL must be /gutes-vom-baecker).
This additional “e”, however, does not mean that there is a sort of swing to the pronunciation. This merely entails that a sonic pitch shift is necessary, often achievable by altering lip or tongue position.
- Long: pronounced similar to the “a” in bay. The tongue should be lower in the mouth, and the lips wider : Ärgerniss (an annoyance)
- Short: pronounced similar to the “e” in net : Bäckerei (bakery)
- Long: pronounced similar to the “u” in purr. The lips should be round and open, as if you are balancing a marble between your lips : Österreich (Austria)
- Short: in this case, the pronunciation of the short vowel is essentially a shorter (in terms of duration) pronunciation of the long vowel. It is a bit sharper, but the sound should be nearly identical : Vorhängeschlösser (padlocks)
- Long: pronounced like the “e” in pew-pew-pew (if you’re making star wars laser gun noises), or the “e” in few, but with a very narrow hole between rounded lips. You can practice it by pronouncing “U” and narrowing the hole, as if going in for a kiss : über (over)
- Short: again, as in the case of “Ö” above, this is a briefer pronunciation of the long variant : süß (sweet)
The Letter R
The pronunciation of the German letter “r” depends on the placement of the letter within a word. At the beginning of a word or syllable, it can be compared to the French “r”, in that it is trilled, or rolled. At the end of the a or syllable, it can be compared to an “uh” or “a” sound, like in British English at the end of “father”.
While the latter mentioned r-sound is existent in the English language, the former mentioned is not. My guidance for best approaching the sound would be to imitate a gurgling sound, but cut it short.
Additionally, trying to hiss like a cat while gurgling (as crazy as it may sound) will achieve a similar sound to the German r-sound at the beginning of the word.
Of course, this pronunciation is always in combination with other letters, for example a vowel pronunciation immediately following the “r”, and thus the sound should be quick.
Here are some examples of words with the “r” pronunciation, at the beginning, middle, and the end of the word:
- rot (red)
- fahren (to drive)
- Rabatt (the discount)
- Fahrrad (the bicycle)
- Fahrer (the driver)
- Adler (the eagle)
Diphthongs and Consonant Clusters
First, what are diphthongs and consonant clusters? They are combinations of back-to-back vowels (diphthongs) or consonants (consonant clusters) within the same syllable. In English, this can be found in a word like “choice”, in which the “ch” is a consonant cluster and the “oi” is a diphthong. Obviously, the word is not pronounced like “keh-hoe-eye-keh-eh” but rather the diphthong and consonant cluster have special pronunciations. The same is the case in German.
As previously discussed, every syllable in the German language pronunciation is pronounced, and diphthongs and consonant clusters are no exception. However, as opposed to the standard pronunciation of letters addressed in The Alphabet, the diphthongs and consonant clusters assume pronunciations unsimilar to the original components which combine to form them, similar to the demonstration I provided above with “choice”.
To sum up the most common diphthongs and consonant clusters, I will provide a table below similar to the one in the alphabet section, first indicating the combination, then what it is pronounced like and how it is pronounced in a word.
Finally, examples of German words will once again be given with English translations.
|Combo||Pronounced Like||Pronounced in a Word Like||Examples of German Words|
|ah||aah||pond||Ahnung (idea, clue)|
|ch||hh||Loch Ness (the Scottish pronunciation)||ich (I)|
|ch||Chat (for English words)||Chat (chat, like in a live stream)|
|sh||Shoe (for French words)||Chef (boss)|
|h||Hair (for exceptions)||Chemie (chemistry)|
|*note that the g is a subtle pronunciation, unlike the g in younger|
|qu||kv||quickview||Quizabend (trivia night)|
|sp||shp||pushpin||sparen (to save)|
|tsch||ch||choice||Tschechien (Czech Republic)|
Where to Place the Stress
As a solid rule of thumb, the first syllable of a word is stressed. A syllable in German is structured with the base of a standard or accented vowel or diphthong, and additionally can contain various combinations of consonants. Here are some examples, with the stress underlined and the syllables divided by slashes.
- Bel/gi/en (Belgium)
- Ei (egg)
- Ei/er (eggs)
There are instances where stress is not placed upon the first syllable of a word. This lies upon four main reasons: (1) an unstressed inseparable verb prefix, (2) a suffix requiring a secondary stress, (3) a compound noun, or (4) an exception (rare, and as such will not be listed here, but these should rather be learned from experience… included in this category are foreign words).
(1). I will discuss verb prefixes in German later in verbs, but essentially, verbs (or their derived nouns) beginning with be-, ent- emp-, er-, ge-, miss-, ver-, wider-, or zer- will have the stress placed upon the following syllable
- be/stel/len (to order)
- Be/stel/lung (the order)
- ver/kau/fen (to purchase)
- Ver/kauf (the purchase)
(2). Words with the suffixes -bar, -haft, -heit, -icht, -ig, -isch, -keit, -ler, -lich, -ling, -ner, -nis, -sal, -sam, -schaft, – tum, and -ung will have secondary stresses
- Luft/feuch/tig/keit (air humidity)
- Mann/schaft (the team)
(3). Compound nouns, nouns which contain individual words strung together (discussed in more detail in the next section) have secondary stresses on each noun component
- Fit/ness/stu/dio (gym): This word is composed of Fit/ness (fitness) and Stu/dio (studio)
- Hoch/leis/tung (high performance): This word is composed of hoch (high) and Leis/tung (performance)
(4). While I will not provide a complete list of exceptions and foreign words, here are a couple just to provide you with an example of what I mean
- Com/pu/ter (from English, “computer”)
- Porte/mon/naie (from French, “porte-monnaie”, meaning wallet)
Pronouncing Foreign Words
The German language is filled with foreign words. These can be divided into two categories: (1) deeply-rooted words adopted from other languages long ago, which have taken a recognizable form within the German language and are spoken with a German pronunciation; (2) newer words adopted from other languages which are generally spoken as close as possible to the word’s pronunciation in its mother tongue.
Deeply Rooted Words
Belonging to this category include, but are not limited to, words that come from French, such as those ending in “-tät” (in French, these words end in “-té”) like Universität (in French, université, in English, university), those from English such as words ending in “-ing” (in English, these words end in “-ing” as well) like Training (in English, training), or those from Italian such as words ending in “-o” (in Italian, these words end in “-o” as well) like Konto (in Italian, conto, in English, account).
These words now are pronounced largely with a traditional German letter pronunciation, yet with a different stress. The stress is found where the stress in the original word is found. To take the word Universität for an example (which represents all words ending in “-tät” in German), the stress is not on the first syllable, but rather the last, as in French, the “-té” at the end of “université” is the stressed syllable.
The most common endings in this category are the French-derived -ant, -är, -tät, -eur, -ik, -ment, and -tion, the Greek-derived -a, -ik, -logie, and -us, the Italian-derived -o, the Latin-derived -eum and -ium, and the English-derived -ing.
Belonging to this category are words that are newer-arrivals in the German language such as “Restaurant” (from French) or “random” (from English), where the pronunciation is purposefully kept similar to the original mother tongue. With Restaurant, the ending “-ant” is pronounced in a very french-esque manner (no final “t” pronunciation), and the “a” in “random” is pronounced in a very american-esque manner (american “r”, “a”, and “o”).
These words are usually employed for practicality or humor. Due to the globalization of culture and new creation and spreading of words via the internet, many English words have entered the German language.
This is due to the English language’s role as an international bridge language, as well as the desire to simply adopt an already standard and widely used word instead of creating a new German word for the same concept (for example, “Gamer”, “Stream”, or “Blogger”).
To sum this section up, foreign words are either already ingrained in the German language and follow German pronunciation rules (with the exception of the stress), or are newly adopted and follow the language of origin’s pronunciation and stress rules
What to Read Next
- Basic German Grammar Structure for Beginners
- German Declensions: Rules, Regulations, and Chart
- Long Words in German and Why You Shouldn’t Fear Them
- The Overview of German Verb and Verb Tense
- German Subjunctive and Conjugating Subjunctive
Or go back to our Learn German Language page for more learning resources.