Although it seems complicated, German pronunciation is easier than it looks: no letters are silent, it is phonetically consistent, and some of the more peculiar looking vowel sounds (the umlauts, in particular) actually resemble sounds that are familiar.
Most guides are really only about pronunciation rules for languages. They tend to fall short of teaching you how to actually hear and pronounce said sounds. But here at The Mimic Method, we think this latter part is much more important than recognizing letters in a written word but not recognizing it when you hear it from a native speaker.
By the end of this German pronunciation guide, you’ll be familiar with most of the sounds associated with the different combinations of the German alphabet. You may even discover a few tricks to overcome things like the dreaded “CH” and “R” sounds.
German Alphabet vs. Sounds
English and Deutsch share the same alphabet, but the same letters often don’t represent the same sound in both languages, and some represent sounds that don’t event exist in English. The challenge will be to rewire your brain so you can produce the sounds that are different from what you’re used to.
Even though there are only 26 letters, there are at least 56 Elemental Sounds in modern German speech. So what’s important to us is learning to hear and pronounce all of these sounds. The good thing is, there’s only a finite number of them, and learning to hear and speak a language well is really just a matter of hearing them, training them, and incorporating them into your own speech.
Alphabet "Name" of Letter In Words
A a Aal
B beh Bär
C tseh Celsius
D deh Oder
E eh Essen
F eff Freund
G geh Gut
H hah Hammer
I ih Idee
J yott Jahr
K kah Kamel
L ell Lampe
M emm Mann
N enn Nase
O oh Ostern
P peh Person
Q kuh Quiz
R err Regen
S ess Summen
T teh Telefon
U uh Mund
V fau Nerven
W veh Wilkommen
X iks X-Beine
Y ypsilon Yucca
Z tzett Zeitung
As I said, most guides just teach you things like the alphabet and totally ignore the nuances of the sounds which you need for better understanding and pronunciation. This traditional approach is a “learn by eye” approach. Here at The Mimic Method however, we like to use a “learn by ear” approach to language learning, teaching you how to hear and pronounce the language’s spoken sounds instead of just how to read and write it.
To make things easier for you, we’re going to be talking about German alphabet pronunciation as well as the sounds behind the patterns in the alphabet starting with the most important group – vowel sounds.
German Alphabet Pronunciation
What is a vowel?
Vowels are created by completely opening the vocal tract and allowing air to flow out unobstructed. What determines the sound of a vowel is the position of your tongue within your mouth, as well as the roundedness of your lips. To help in this process, you will first develop a physical awareness of your tongue’s location in your mouth.
The diagram below is a Vowel Chart. A vowel chart plots the location of a vowel sound in your mouth.
The three vowel sounds on this page are the extremes in Vowel Height and Backness. In other words, the other vowel sounds for a given language are going to occur at some point between these three extremes.
You will rely mostly on your ear to do this, listening carefully to native speakers and practicing mimicking exactly what they’re doing with their mouths. But it can help you a great deal by starting on the closest English vowel and going in the right direction from there.
Do as the speaker in the audio file and alternate back and forth out loud to yourself: EEEE! —> UUUU! —> AAAA! —> UUUU! —> EEEE! —> UUUU! etc. Feel how your tongue moves in up and down, back and forth in your moth, as represented on the chart. Look at it and try to create a mental connection between the visual directions on the chart and your tongue’s movements in the mouth.
In ‘standard’ German, there are about 15 different vowel sounds, six of which don’t exist in English. When you learn these sounds, your pronunciation and comprehension of the language are going to get a lot better.
Every vowel has a long and a short pronunciation, and there are consistent rules that will tell you when a vowel is pronounced short or long (more on that later).
First, we’re going to cover unrounded vowels, which will probably come more naturally to us. Rounded vowels might feel more awkward at first. Our aim will be for you to be able to identify and feel the difference between these vowels. To a non-native speaker, they can sound very similar at first.
Since we all speak our native languages without thinking about the movements in our mouths, you probably can’t feel what direction your tongue is moving when you speak. That’s why the first step is developing an awareness and control over your tongue’s movement. Let’s start by examining the vowels in more detail.
German has two kinds of vowel sounds: Unrounded and Rounded, where roundedness refers to the heavy rounding of your lips when you make these sounds (more on that later). For now, we will start with the 11 unrounded vowels. The first 9 of these will be familiar to native English speakers because we have very similar sounds in English, too.
Now the symbols you will see in this guide just represent the phoneme. That just means unit of sound rather than the letter. Linguists use these symbols to represent sounds because – if you think about it – the same written letter can actually represent a whole load of different sounds.
The first vowel is the long “i” as in “seed.” It’s easier to start with a word that we know and break it down until we’re left with the sound that we’re interested in. Say “seed,” “see,” ee.” Notice that your tongue is at the top and front of your mouth. Now try saying the German words “die” and “Wie”, pronounced “dee” and “Vee“, not like the English words die or why.
The long “i” is not to be confused with our next vowel, the short “i” as in “sit.” Your tongue should be slightly further back and lower. This sound is found in words like “bin” and “ist”.
Next we have the long “e,” as in “Hey,” although in English we actually put two vowels together here. Listen: “He-i.” “e–i.” “e“. Cut off the “i” on the end to just say the first “e” sound. This sound is in the words “den” and “Zehn”, pronounced “TSen”.
This is not to be confused with the short “e” as in “send,” found in German words like “es” and “wenn”, pronounced “Ven”.
Next we have the long “u,” as in “dude,” found in the words “du” and “gut.”
Not to be confused with the short “u” from “good” and “would,” found in the German words “um” and “uns.”
Next we have the long “o” like of the English words “tow.” It’s actually two vowels in there, “to-u”,but it’s that first one we want. This is the sound in the German words “ohne” and “Opa.”
Not to be confused with the short “o” as in “dog,” in the German words “oft” and “offen.”
Finally we have “a,” as in the first vowel sound in “father.” In this case, the long and and short versions of the sound actually differ only in duration, whereas all the others actually are a completely different sound. This is the sound is the German words “das,” “kann,” and “Vater” (pronounced “Fata“).
There we have the 9 unrounded German vowels that are the same or very similar to English vowels.
There are 4 rounded vowels in German. When we make them, our lips are rounded. Now, these ones might not come as naturally to us as we don’t have them in English, but now that we’ve become more familiar with unrounded vowels, we might just be able to feel our way towards making these new ones.
We can do this by comparing the vowel to its unrounded pair. This means we have two vowels: one is rounded and one is unrounded. The unrounded one comes more naturally to us, so we start with that, and these two vowels also happen to have the exact same tongue position, which means that, if we say the unrounded vowel and then we purse and round our lips while focusing on not moving our tongue, then we will arrive at the rounded vowel we want.
The first vowel we’re going to start with is u from the German word “fruh.” The unrounded equivalent of this sound is E, as in the tongue position is the same.
There we have it: 15 German vowel sounds. You should now be able to hear and feel the difference between them, which will do wonders for your German pronunciation. Just remember there’s no magic to it, just practice.
We’ve already covered two aspects of German vowels: unrounded and rounded lips. There is a third aspect of these German vowel sounds: movement. This means that we’re actually gliding our tongue from point A to point B when we make these sounds. The first one, the tongue position you start at, the second one is the tongue position you end at.
In phonetics, we call them diphthongs. Since the word diphthong is complicated, I like to call them movement vowels because that makes you think about what’s actually going on physically in your mouth, which is your tongue is moving and changing tongue position during these sounds.
These sounds will also be the same no matter what accent it is. There’s not much variation, at least not that I have heard in Swiss, Austrian, German, Hochdeutsch. If you see German written down, and you see the letter R anywhere next to a vowel in the middle of word, that means its going to be one of these, so listen closely.
What is a consonant?
Unlike vowel sounds, you create consonant sounds by blocking air from coming out of your mouth. In general, you need to pronounce all the consonants of German words. Consonants in clusters are all pronounced; final consonants must be present and clear.
In this section, we’ll review some important differences between these consonants.
Consonant IPA German Words IPA
b the beginning or middle of a word [b] Buch, geben [bux] ['ge.bən]
b the end of a word [p] Dieb [dip]
b before the letter s [p] lebst [lepst]
bb next to each other [b] Ebbe ['ɛ.bə]
b-b with a letter in between [p.b] abbauen ['ap.bao.ən]
c before a front vowel sound [ts] circa ['tsɪr.ka]
c before a back vowel sound or cons.
except for h
[k] Café [ka.'fe]
c in words of Greek origin [k] Chor ['koɐ̯]
ch after a front vowel sound or cons.
[ç] ich, welche [ɪç] ['vɛl.çə]
ch after a back vowel sound - Ach-laut [x] Bach, doch [bax] [dɔx]
chs within one element [ks] sechs [zɛks]
ch-s in separate elements [ç.s] lieblichsten ['lip.lɪçs'tən]
ck including the old spelling of -kk [k] backen ['ba.kən]
d initial or medial in a word element [d] Dolch, anders [dɔlç] ['an.dɐs]
d final in a word element [t] Tod, und [tot] [ʊnt]
d before -s or another unvoiced cons [t] Bands [bants]
dd in the same element [d] Widder ['vɪ.dɐ]
d-d between two elements [t.d] Rad-dampfer ['rat.,damp.fɐ]
dt cons. combination [t] Stadt [ʃtat]
f [f] fein, Tafel [faen] ['ta.fəl]
ff [f] Neffe, offen ['nɛ.fə] ['ɔ.fən]
g initial or medial in a word element [g] Gott, fragen [gɔt] ['fra.gən]
g final in a word element [k] Tag, Flug-zeug [tak] ['fluk.,tsɔʏk]
g before -s or an unvoiced cons. [k] fragst [frakst]
gg in the same element [g] Flagge ['fla.gə]
g-g between two elements [k.g] weg-gehen ['vɛk.ge.ən]
ig when final or before a cons [ç] König, Ewigkeit ['kø.nɪç] ['e.vɪç.kaet]
ig before a vowel [ɪg] Heilige ['hae.lɪ.gə]
ig when followed by a syllable with the
[ɪk] ewiglich ['e.vɪk.lɪç]
g in words of French origin [ʒ] Genie (fr) [ʒe.'ni]
h initial in a word or element [h] Held, Gottheit [hɛlt] ['gɔt.haet]
h after a vowel in the same syllable silent Wahn, gehen [van] [ 'ge.ən]
j in all German words [j] Jahr, ja [[jaɐ̯] [ja]
j in some words of French origin [ʒ] Journalist [ʒuɾ.na.'lɪst]
k [k] Klause, zurück ['klao.zə] [tsu.'rʏk]
I [l] loben ['lo.bən]
II [l] Wellen, soll ['vɛ.lən] [zɔl]
m [m] Mond, träumen [mont] ['trɔʏ.mən]
mm [m] Himmel ['hɪ.məl
n [n] Wein [vaen]
nn [n] Nonne ['nɔ.nə]
ng in the same element [ŋ] lang, singen [laŋ] ['zɪ.ŋən]
n-g in separate elements [ng] hingehen ['hɪn.ge.ən]
nk in the same element [ŋk] danken [daŋ.kən]
nk in separate elements [n.k] Anklage ['an.kla.gə]
p [p] prosit ['pro.zɪt]
pp in the same element [p] Puppe ['pʊ.pə]
ph Phrase ['fra.zə]
qu always followed by -u [kv] Quelle ['kvɛ.lə]
r beginning or middle after a cons. [r] Regen, albre ['re.gən] ['al.brə]
r before a consonant [r] hart [hart]
r end of a word [ɐ̯] Bier, hört [biɐ̯] [høɐ̯t]
r between two vowels [ɾ] wɑ̈re ['vɛ.rə]
rr in the same element between vowels [ɾ] sperren ['ʃpɛ.rən]
rr in the same element not between vowels [ɾ] harrt, Irr-sein [hart] ['ɪr.ˌzaen]
rr in separate elements [ɐ̯.ɾ] verraten [fɛɐ̯.ˈratən]
r final in prefixes [ɐ̯] erhabener [ɛɐ̯.ˈha.bə.nɐ]
s initial or medial in a word element [z] Silber, Absicht ['zɪl.bɐ
s between vowels [z] Rose ['ro.zə]
s final in a word element [s] Glas, löslich [glas] ['løs.lɪç]
ss, β in the same element [s] müssen, Kuβ ['mʏ.sən] [kʊs]
s-s between two elements [s.z] aussetzen ['aos.zɛ.tsən]
sch next to each other [ʃ] schnell, Tisch [ʃnɛl] [tɪʃ]
s-ch with a space in between them [s.ç] Häuschen ['hɔʏs.çən]
sp at the beginning of a word [ʃp] spielen ['ʃpi..lən]
sp in all other cases [sp] Knospe ['knɔs.pə]
st at the beginning of a word [ʃt] Stein [ʃtaen]
st in all other cases [st] ist, trösten [ɪst] ['trøs.tən]
t in all positions [t] Mutter ['mʊ.tɐ]
tt next to each other [t] Thema, Theater [te.ma] [te.'a.tɐ]
th in separate words [t.h] Rathaus ['rat.,haos]
t-h in the endings -tion, and -tient [tsj] Nation, Patient [na.'tsjon] [pa.'tsjɛnt]
v in all words of German origin, and final in all foreign words [f] Vater, brav ['fa.tɐ] [braf]
v other positions in foreign words [v] Vase ['vazə]
w in all positions [v] Welt [vɛlt]
x in all positions [ks] Hexe ['hɛ.ksə]
z in all positions [ts] Zimmer, Hertz ['tsɪ.mɐ] [hɛrts]
In the German language, fricatives play a significant role. The word fricative may be intimidating, but it refers to a sound that you are already familiar with so there’s no need to worry.
Fricatives are all sounds produced from the lip shape that produces the letters f and v in English. You’re basically creating a friction sound by pushing air through a contracted space. You may notice that Germans put these fricatives in all kinds of places when they speak English (“ve are valking to ze vall”) and you need to reverse-engineer that effect when you learn German.
The most difficult movements to master are the Rhotic (German R) consonants. This sound does indeed exist in some dialects of English, but not very many and you’ve likely never heard it.
As a German learner, you may have a strong tendency as an English speaker to replace the German /ɾ/ with the English /ɹ/ sound. Even more important, they are also one of the most common speech sounds in the language. As you saw in the vowel section, English speakers already have a tendency to “R-Color” in between vowel sounds as well.
Doing this wrong is perhaps the biggest giveaway of whether you have a bad accent. Acoustically, the English /ɹ/ sound is completely different from the German R /ɾ/. Yet this is still the most common pronunciation error that English speakers make. Persist in saying the English ‘r’ in your German, and you will always be immediately recognized by your strong English accent.
The first thing you want to do with the German R is… nothing! Really. Replace any sounds you associate with the letter with totally empty space. When you see a word like “mir” or “er”, say “mi-” and “e-” (refer to the vowel section above to remind yourself how these vowels are pronounced in German).
How Intonation Works
Intonation has to do with the emphasis or stress of some syllables or words over others. If we keep the rhythm and phonemes the same for a phrase, a change in intonation will result in a change in meaning.
In the English phrase, “Great, we’re having steak for dinner again” I seem to be expressing a genuine feeling of excitement, but with a different tone it seems sarcastic and perhaps suggestive of the exact opposite meaning.
Most language programs focus exclusively on vocabulary and grammar and completely overlook the question of intonation. As a result, most language-learners maintain their native intonation patterns when speaking a foreign language.
Intonation is the most characteristic element of an accent. That’s why when people make fun of accents, they tend to exaggerate the intonation more than anything else.
I know many adults are embarrassed about speaking with a foreign intonation. Our personalities are closely linked to the intonation patterns of our voice, so completely changing them requires stepping out of our comfort zone. You might feel “silly” stepping our of your comfort zone and sounding like someone else, but trust that you will look even sillier if you don’t.
German Intonation Patterns
When in doubt, you should stress most German words on the first syllable.
Some general exceptions:
- Words that begin with various prefixes (ge-, be-, ver-, zer-, er- and ent-). However, in other instances this will not be the case.
- Words with “ier” (reserviert, regierende), you stress the “ier.”
- Some exceptions occur because of cognates originating from French or English like in the German word “Musik” (moo-zeek).
German Pronunciation Guide – Conclusion
Becoming aware of the nuances of how to sound more like a native speaker is the first step towards fluency. And that prompts the question: Why do you want to learn German in the first place?
At The Mimic Method, we teach that the goal of learning a language is to connect with people and cultures. So that’s why we make the first step to learning a language about learning what the people actually sound like so you can sound like them, too.