These are eight standard German vowels – the same five as in English plus the three umlaut vowels ä, ö and ü – and they each have a “long” and a “short” variant. These terms refer first to how long the sound is held or drawn out, but there are sometimes also differences in the sound itself between the long and short variants of a vowel. Short vowels in German are very short and clipped compared to English, and long vowels are held a bit longer.
In general, a vowel is long when followed by a single consonant and short when followed by a combination of consonants. There are some exceptions to this rule, but they mainly involve unstressed syllables and short grammatical words (e.g. in, das, von). The following table gives some examples of these sounds and how to pronounce them.
Also keep in mind that most German syllables that begin with a vowel are led off by a glottal stop. An example of a glottal stop is the break in the middle of “uh-oh” – or, for British readers, the way Cockney speakers swallow their Ts. This is what makes German speech sound choppier than English and makes native Germans sound so distinctive when speaking English – just ask any German with a noticeable accent to read the words “each other” and notice how they put a stop between the words where no native English speaker would).
|a||Similar to the "a" in the English “father.”||Same sound as the long version, just a bit shorter, like the vowel in "mop."|
|ä||Like the sound in the British pronunciation of "hair." No direct equivalent in American English, but imagine saying "aaah" at the doctor's, with a tongue depressor pushing your tongue down.||Same sound but shorter, perhaps verging closer to a short "e" (below) but still a distinct sound.|
|e||Like the long A in English ("day") but "flatter," without the same rounding into an eee sound at the end. Keep the corners of your mouth pulled far apart.||The short e is identical to that in English (though perhaps a tad shorter), so German “nett” is just like English “net”, “denn” like “den,” etc.|
|i||Rather like the “ee” sound in English (“team”, ”meet”), but the tip of the tongue is actually positioned a little higher in German.||Very close to the English short i, so German and English “in” and “Mist” sound alike, except that the German vowel is slightly shorter.|
|o||Like the O in "no" without the w sound at the end.||Like the sound in “clots” in British English, or “bought” in American English if spoken quickly.|
|ö||Similar to the English vowel sound in "worst" or "worry," but even closer to the sound in French words like “bleu" or "coeur." Your lips should be tense and rounded, with a hole the size and shape of a small olive.||Akin to the long version, short ö is like short e with rounded lips, though the rounding is more slight and not as tense.|
|u||Rather like the English “oo” sound, as in “tube” and “moon,” but the lip rounding has more tension in German, like when blowing out a candle.||This is just like a clipped version of the English short u in words like “put” and “should” (NOT “but”!).|
|ü||For those who speak French, this is pronounced just like French u (as in “tu”). Your lips should be very tense, with the lower lip retracted and the air coming out downwards as if you're blowing into a flute.||This vowel is the result of many English speakers’ attempts to pronounce long ü: The tongue tip and lips are more relaxed (and its duration is much less, of course).|
In some instances, vowels are marked as long by being doubled, like in Staat (state), or by adding an h after a vowel, like in Stahl (steel).
The other basic vowels sounds are as follows:
- y appears as a vowel in some words of Greek origin, and it’s pronounced like a long ü. One common example is “typisch” (typical).
- e appearing at the end of a word, as in bitte (please), is an unstressed “uh” like a terminal –a in English (manna, mania) though the tongue is in a more neutral (central) position in the mouth – like the second “e” in “celebration” when spoken quickly.
- ie is pronounced like a German long i, except at the end of some nouns where it can be an unstressed “-yeh” sound (e.g. Familie)
- au is pronounced like the English ow in cow
- äu and eu are pronounced like the English oy in toy
- ei, ey, and ai (as well as the ay in Bayern, the word for Bavaria) are all pronounced like an English long i (“fight”)
Now, let's come back to the question of when to use ss and when to use ß. The rules for this have changed in recent years, but the current practice is to use ss after short vowels, and ß after long vowels and diphthongs (vowel combinations). This may sound circular, since we just said that the length of a vowel is determined by the number of letters after it -- but in practice, you're usually either trying to spell a word that you've heard (in which case you should recognize whether the vowel is long or short) or you're trying to pronounce a word that you've seen (in which case you'll already know whether it's ss or ß).
A little more about umlauts
Many books define ä, ö and ü as full-fledged letters, but they aren’t quite; for example, they're not in the alphabet song that German children learn, and they don’t have their own sections in a dictionary. And they are closely related to their non-umlaut counterparts: most words with an ä are derived from “root” forms with an a.
The original purpose of a Germanic umlaut was to shift from a "back vowel" to a "front vowel" (these terms refer to the position of the tongue in the mouth) to make a derivative form of a word easier to pronounce, usually because it was adding another syllable. For example, alt (old) --> älter (older). But they now appear in many words where this process is no longer apparent – usually because the extra syllable has been dropped (as in many noun plurals) or because the root form has fallen out of use. It can also happen because they’re being used to approximate a foreign pronunciation (militär), or for more complex reasons (e.g. für comes from vor, but even native speakers don’t usually think of them as related).
You certainly don’t need to think about this every time you read or hear an umlaut vowel, but it’s useful to have it in the back of your mind when learning vocabulary. The more you can visualize the umlaut forms of a word as “shifted” rather than as a whole separate word, the easier it will be to remember them.
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