German Pronunciation
Tips for singers

Consonants
Vowels
References

The goal of this little guide is to help those with little or no knowledge of German pronunciation avoid some of the errors most commonly made by American English speakers. If you've sung or spoken much German, you probably already know most or all of what's in here.

Consonants

Pronounce all the consonants!

You can't get away with lazy, American English habits in German. Consonants in clusters are all pronounced; final consonants must be present and clear.

CH

is pronounced somewhat differently depending on what vowel it follows. You hold the position you had for the preceding vowel, except you have to constrict the air flow somewhere to make the characteristic CH sound. Exactly where you constrict it also depends on the vowel:

Following front vowels like E or I, CH is similar to the sound the "h" makes in "huge", but more drawn out in time. You should feel the air flowing past the front of your hard palate, near your teeth. Examples: dich, gleich, Becher.

When CH follows a back vowel such as O, A or U you should feel the air flow further back in your mouth, approximately between the back of the tongue and the front of the soft palate. Examples: Buch, Nacht, noch. Don't forget the rest of your mouth keeps the shape of the vowel. In particular, for "Buch", your lips should be very round and closed.

Final D pronounced like T

Examples: und, Felsenwand, Abend

G is usually pronounced like English "hard" G

That is, it's usually pronounced like the G in "good". Examples: gut, gegeben (unlike English or Italian, it doesn't matter what vowel follows the G).

In words with NG the combination is pronounced like the final "ng" in the English words "sing", "following", etc. There is no hard G sound. Examples: Hoffnung, Klange

In words ending in IG the G is pronounced like (German) ch. Examples: ruhig, lustig

Otherwise (not following I, not following N) final G is pronounced like English K or somewhere in between hard G and K. Examples: frag

J is pronounced like English consonant Y

Examples: ja, Jahr

R

is usually flipped. Examples: Viktoria, Rest, Braut

At the end of a syllable an R may be hardly pronounced at all or, in some cases, turned into a schwa. Example: der is pronounced as if it had two vowels: a long E followed by a schwa.

The uvular R often used in spoken German doesn't work well for singing; it's too far back. The American English pronunciation is never appropriate.

Initial S followed by a vowel is voiced (sounds like English Z)

Example German words: so, sie, sagen

Initial S followed by P or T has English SH sound

Example German words: Sternlein, spielen, Beispiel.

Note that if the SP or ST occurs at the start of a syllable as in "Beispiel", that still counts as initial, but other occurrences in the middle of a word do not have an SH sound. For example, the S in "lustig" has the English value.

Initial V is pronounced like English F

Examples: vertraue, Verlust, Veilchen. (But—a rare exception—the initial V in "Viktoria" is pronounced as in English.)

W is pronounced like English V

Examples: wird, etwas

Z is pronounced TS

Examples: zu, stürzte

Vowels

Vowels in German can be long or short. For most vowels, the long version not only takes longer to say (in spoken German), but has a different value than the short version. See [2] below for a full discussion of short and long vowels and [1] for sound files of the vowels being pronounced.

It isn't always obvious from spelling whether a vowel is long or short but usually a vowel followed by an H is long whereas vowels followed by a double consonant or two different consonants are short. Like Italian, vowels are pure: the sound does not change during the course of the vowel. There are also several diphthongs.

E and Ä

Short E is very like English short E in words like "best". German examples: Rest, denn.

Long E is similar to Italian closed E (e.g. in the word "che") or the sound "a" makes in the English word "chaos" but more closed than either. German examples: geben (first "e" only), seht, den. Note the difference between "denn" and "den".

Unstressed E often turns into a schwa. Examples: gegeben (first and last E), Auge.

Long Ä makes the same sound as long E; short Ä makes the same sound as short E. Examples: Jäger (long), Wälder (short)

I

Short I is pronounced like English, e.g. in the word "mitt". Examples: dich, mit, ist, nimmer

Long I is pronounced like "ee" in the English word "beet". In German it's almost always spelled either "ih" or "ie". Examples: ihn, wie, liegen.

Ö, Ü

Nothing quite like Ö exists in English. Form your mouth as if to pronounce German long E (e.g., similar to Italian closed E in "che") but then round your lips as you would for "o".

Similarly, for Ü form your mouth for "ee" but then round your lips for "oo" as in English "woo". Ö and Ü come in long and short varieties like the other vowels but the differences are difficult to describe; best to just listen to them properly pronounced.

U

Long U is similar to the "oo" in the English word "woo"; very closed and round. Examples: zu

Short U is more like the "u" in "bush". Example: Verlust.

References

  1. A Guide to German Pronunciation. Includes sound files for all vowels and consonants.
  2. German Language Guide, including vocabulary, grammar and more. See in particular the German vowels section.

Please send corrections or questions concerning this page to jrb@stanford.edu

Last update: 22 February, 2012