Pronunciation: Consonants

Many German consonants have the same pronunciation as they do in English. These are the main exceptions:

  • B at the end of a syllable is softened (“devoiced”) to more of a P sound; similarily, D and G at the end of a syllable sound like T and K, respectively
  • J is pronounced like the English “Y” (so “jung” has the same initial sound as its English cognate “young”)
  • In the combinations “kn,” “pf,” and "ps," both letters are pronounced. This is not as hard as it sounds, although it takes some getting used to. You may already know the kn sound from the Yiddish word "knish." In the case of pf (as in Pferd, a horse) and ps (as in Psychologie), just get ready to say a p, with your lips closed, and say the second letter instead, letting it force them open a bit.
  • V is like the English (and German) “F” in words of Germanic origin (so “Vater” has the same initial sound as “father”), but in words of foreign origin it's usually pronounced like the English V / German W (below)
  • W is very similar to the English “V” (and our W sound doesn’t exist in German)
  • Z is pronounced like “ts”
  • Qu is pronounced like “kv” (as opposed to the “kw” sound in English). We have this in the Yiddish word "kvetch" (to complain) in English, which comes from the German quetschen (to crush or squeeze).
  • a single S is usually pronounced like an English Z, with a few exceptions:
    • Before another consonant, it’s a normal soft ("voiceless") S as in English (so "Skulptur" has the same initial sound as the English "Sculpture")
    • Sp- and St- at the beginning of a syllable are pronounced Shp- and Sht- (ex. "Spaten," a spade/shovel)
    • To differentiate it from “sechs” (the number six), the S in “Sex” is soft
    • (and a double S or ß is soft just like in English, e.g. “assassin”)

The above sounds are relatively easy to pronounce, as long as you can remember the rules. For most English speakers, the most difficult sounds in German are R and CH. They come in multiple varieties:

  • R at the end of a word or syllable: this is not always given in textbooks or dictionary pronunciations, but most native speakers pronounce a terminal r very weakly; it’s more of an "uh" sound that sometimes draws out the preceding vowel. For example, der usually sounds more like day-uh. This is a particular problem for North Americans: if you ask a German (or anyone really) to imitate a standard American accent, the first thing they’ll do is lean on those terminal Rs. Irish accents have pretty strong Rs too.
  • R at the beginning of a word or syllable, as in rot (red), is pronounced at the back of the throat with a bit of a scratch, although in parts of southern Germany (notably Franconia) it can also be rolled in the manner of a Spanish R.
  • Hard CH: A ch is pronounced “hard” when it comes after a, o, u or au, as in auch (also), doch (but), or the exclamation ach! It sounds like a harsh or throaty "kh", as in the beginning of the Yiddish word "chutzpah" (when it is correctly pronounced!)
  • Soft CH: A “ch” after any other vowel (as in the pronouns ich and dich), or at the beginning of a few words (China, Chemie) is pronounced “softly.” Many foreign speakers, and even some young native speakers, pronounce this as an English sh sound (as in "shy"); this is understandable but incorrect. The correct pronunciation is very close to the sound of a cat hissing, with the corners of your mouth pulled apart and the air being pressed out laterally between the top of your tongue and the roof of your mouth
  • Greek CH: There is a third, less common "ch" sound that is identical to a K. We have this one in English too. It comes from the Greek letter chi (χ) and appears most often in Greek-derived words (Chaos, Charakter), but it also appears in a few Germanic words, like the aforementioned sechs (the number six)
  • Foreign CH: There are many loan words in German that keep their original CH sounds, e.g. from French (Chef, Chauffeur), English (Cheeseburger, Chips) or Spanish (Chile, Chihuahua)

There are some other minor differences in the pronunciation of consonants, but they’re really too subtle to be learned this way, and they’re not as important for being understood. If you can remember everything above (even if you’re not perfect on the R and CH sounds), you’ll be well ahead of most foreign speakers.