The German Alphabet

German uses the same 26 letters as English, with four extra characters: ä, ö, ü, and ß.

The first three are alternate pronunciations or “shifts” of the vowels a, o and u. The ¨ mark is called an "umlaut" (rhymes with "zoom out"). They can appear capitalized too -- Ä, Ö, Ü -- but you won't see that too often, because they don't occur at the beginning of many common words.

The ß (“sharp S”) is not a real letter, just a ligature for (or stylized way of writing) a double lowercase s. We’ll discuss a little later when to write ss and when to use ß – we have to cover the vowels first – but if you’re ever in doubt, write ss. It’s more acceptable to replace a ß with a double s than the other way around. There is no difference in how they’re pronounced. In Switzerland the ß is not used at all.

If you’re using a keyboard without these symbols, you can type ae, oe and ue instead of ä, ö and ü, and of course ss instead of ß. Or click here for our full guide to typing German characters on non-German keyboards.