Interesting facts and features of the pronunciation of each sound of the German alphabet with transcription in English! A bit of history and handy memos, as well as a story about the role played by umlauts and the escet ligature! Read about all this in our article.

The German alphabet is a Latin-based alphabet. It consists of 26 basic letters, 3 umlauts (ä, ö, ü) and the escet ligature (ß) We have collected material that will be of interest to both beginners and advanced ones! 

In the beginning there were… runes

The first texts were created by the German tribes on the basis of runic writing, for which there was their own alphabet “Futhorc”. However, already in the era of feudalism, heterogeneous writing lost all meaning, because it was impossible to communicate in a language built on alphabets that were different from each other. In the middle of the 8th century, the German alphabet begins to acquire the familiar Latin forms.

The formation of the alphabet and its specific components

The Latin alphabet, on which German is based, originally consisted of 21 letters.
The first version lacked G, J, U, Y, W. Their role was delegated to other letters, for example, “C” was used to represent the sounds [k] and [g], and “I” included itself as the sound [i], so and [j].

FACT: With the development of languages ​​and the alphabet, it became clear that the confusion among peoples who borrowed Latin was due to the lack of certain sounds. Therefore, gradually the number of letters increased.

In addition, the Latin alphabet included the Greek letters “Z” and “Y” in order to freely write borrowed words.

A separate achievement of the group of Germanic languages ​​was the letter “W”, included in the alphabet in the 16th century. For a long time, peoples had to use a combination of two “V” (digraph) in order to more accurately convey the desired sound.

Despite all the adjustments that happened in the Latin alphabet, the Germanic, Romance, Slavic and Finno-Ugric languages, which adopted Latin for their writing, still had to make additional changes to it.

Such as:
digraphs or letter combinations to indicate specific sounds
“th” – in English,
“sch” – in German or
“cz” – in Polish, or for example,
diacritics, which are very common in French (é, è, ê, î, û, ë, ç), they regulate the pronunciation of sounds depending on the sign written together with the letter of the
umlaut and ligature ( ß)

A a[a]ader Adler – eagle
B b[bε:]bedas Butterbrot – bread and butter, sandwich
С с [tseː]cedie Creme – cream
D d [deː]deder Delphin – dolphin
E e[eː] edie Erdbeer– strawberry
F f[ɛf]ef die Fahne – flag
G g [geː]gedas Geschenk – gift
H h[haː]ha das Huhn – chicken
I i[iː]i der Illusionist – illusionist
J j[jɔt] jotder Joga – yoga
K k[kaː]kader Keiler – boar
L l[ɛl]eldie Lilie  – lily
M m[ɛm]emder Marienkäfer – ladybug
N n[ɛn]endie Nuß – nut
O o [oː]odie Olive – olive
P p[peː]pe der Pfirsich – peach
Q q[kuː]ku die Qualle – jellyfish
R r[ɛr]erdas Rad – wheel
S s [ɛs]esdie Socke – sock
T t [teː]teder Teppich – carpet
U u[uː]uder Uhu – owl
V v[faʊ]vauder Vulkan – volcano
W w[veː]veder Wagen – machine
X x [iks]iksdas Xylophon – xylophone
Y y[‘ʏpsilɔn]üpsilonder Yeti – bigfoot
Z z [t͡sɛt] zetdas Zebra – zebra
Ä ä[ɛː] a Umlautdie Änderung – change
Ö ö[øː]o Umlautdas Öl – oil
Ü ü[yː]u Umlautder Übergang – transition
ß [ɛs’t͡sɛt]es-zetder Fußball – football

Let’s look at all the letters of the German alphabet and how to pronounce them!

A(a) /aː/Long ‘a’ as ‘a’ in ‘father’ (ah).
B(be) /beː/Pronounced like ‘p’ when at the end of a word
C(ce) /tseː/See combination letter forms;without a following ‘h’: before ‘e’, ‘i’, ‘y’, ‘ä’, ‘ö’ like the German letter ‘z’ else like ‘k’
D(de) /deː/Pronounced like ‘t’ when at the end of a word; pronounced with the tongue touching the teeth (dental).
E(e) /eː/Long ‘e’: as ‘a’ in ‘late’ (ay) without(!) the (y).Short ‘e’: as ‘e’ in ‘pet’. In unstressed syllables like ‘a’ in ‘about’ or ‘e’ in ‘garden’
F(ef) /ɛf/ 
G(ge) /geː/Pronounced like ‘g’ in ‘get’; pronounced like ‘k’ when at the end of a word;pronounced like ‘ich’-sound (see below) in the suffix ‘-ig’ at the end of words
H(ha) /haː/Pronounced like ‘h’ in ‘house’ only at the beginning of words, beginning of syllables,before ‘a’, ‘i’, ‘o’, ‘u’, ‘y’, ‘ä’, ‘ö’, ‘ü’ (only if these vowels don’t belong to a suffix), otherwise silent
I(i) /iː/Long ‘i’ as ‘e’ in ‘seen’ (ee); short ‘i’ as ‘i’ in ‘pit’
J(jot) /jot/Pronounced like ‘y’ in ‘yard’
K(ka) /kaː/ 
L(el) /ɛl/Pronounced like ‘l’ but with the tongue touching the teeth (dental).
M(em) /ɛm/ 
N(en) /ɛn/Slightly more “dental”;before ‘a’, ‘i’, ‘o’, ‘u’, ‘y’, ‘ä’, ‘ö’, ‘ü’ (only if these vowels don’t belong to a suffix)
O(o) /oː/Long ‘o’: as ‘o’ in ‘open’ (oh), there is no movement in the sound as in the English equivalent.Short ‘o’: as ‘o’ in ‘pot’.
P(pe) /peː/ 
Q(ku) /kuː/Pronounced like ‘k’; only occurs in the combination ‘qu’, which is pronounced like ‘kv’, not like ‘kw’.
R(er) /ɛʁ/, /er/In Germany, pronounced gutturally in the back of the throat, like a French ‘r’.In Austria and Switzerland, trilled with the front of the tongue.
S(es) /ɛs/In Germany, pronounced like the English ‘z’;pronounced like ‘s’ in ‘sound’ when at the end of a word, after consonants (except ‘l’, ‘m’, ‘n’, ng’) and before consonants.In Austria, pronounced like ‘z’ only when it appears between two vowels, pronounced like ‘s’ otherwise.Pronounced like ‘sh’ in the beginning of a word before ‘p’ or ‘t’
T(te) /teː/Pronounced like ‘t’ but with the tongue touching the teeth (dental).
U(u) /uː/Long ‘u’ as ‘oo’ in ‘moon’ (oo); short ‘u’ as ‘u’ in ‘put’
V(vau) /faʊ/Pronounced like ‘f’ when:at the end of a wordin the prefixes ‘ver-‘ and ‘vor-‘,in a few often-used words (in most cases of Germanic origin)generally at the beginning of German geographical and family names.In all other cases like ‘v’.
W(ve) /veː/Pronounced like ‘v’
X(iks) /ɪks/Pronounced like ‘ks’
Y(üpsilon) /ʏpsɪlon/Pronounced like ‘ü’ (see below), except in words of English origin, where it ispronounced like in English
Z(zet) /tsɛt/Pronounced like ‘ts’

And now the umlauts:

Ä(ä), /ɛː/ or(a Umlaut), /aː ‘ʊmlaʊt/Long ä /ɛː/: pronounced as ‘e’ in ‘pet’, but longer.Short ä /ɛ/: pronounced as ‘e’ in ‘pet’.
Ö(ö), /øː/ or(o Umlaut), /oː ‘ʊmlaʊt/No English equivalent sound (see below).Long ö /øː/: somewhat similar to vowel in ‘jerk’, ‘turn’, or ‘third’, but it is critical to note that there is no ‘r’ sound that is pronounced in conjunction with the ö.Short ö /œ/: somewhat like ‘ur’ as in ‘hurt’, without the ‘r’ sound.
Ü(ü), /yː/ or(u Umlaut), /uː ‘ʊmlaʊt/No English equivalent sound (see below).Long ü /yː/: similar to ‘ew’ as in ‘stew’ or ‘new’, but with lips rounded.Short ü /ʏ/: similar to ‘u’ as in ‘cute’.

The es-zet

ß(es-zet or scharfes es) /ɛsˈtsɛt/Pronounced like ‘s’ in ‘set’ or ‘c’ in ‘nice’; see below for uses.
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The role of umlauts in German

As we already wrote, today there are only 26 latin letters in the German alphabet , but if you have ever come across a text in German, you could not help but notice signs and letters that are not included in the main composition. The fate of the “left overboard” befell the umlauts and the “ß” ligature.  

The umlauts ” ä”, ” ö” and ” ü” are of great importance in the morphology of the German language: they are involved in the change of words

  • When changing the number from the singular to the plural for the nouns “das Wort” – “die Wörter”,
  • When changing the degree of comparison of the adjectives “kalt” – “kälter”,
  • When forming the second and third person forms of the strong verbs “fahren” – ” fährst / fährt”),
  • They also help to distinguish words in writing that sound similar, but are spelled differently: “Eltern” – “Älter”.

But despite all this, umlauts are still not included in the main composition of the alphabet, but are designated as additional specific letters.

A similar fate befell the German ligature ” ß”, formed from the Gothic combination of the letters “S” and “Z”.

It is worth noting that “ß” has gone through many reforms: Switzerland abandoned it in the 20th century, and the Germans themselves often replaced the spelling “ß” with a double “s”. However, the most significant event in the history of the ligature occurred in 2017, when Germany passed a law according to which “ß” received its capital version.

Not a single word in German begins with the ligature “ß”, which is why for many centuries it was written only in lower case. But the problem with the “ß” ligature arose when, for example, it was necessary to write the whole word in capital letters, in the name of an institution or a street designation, then it turned out that all the letters were large, and “ß” remained small “ STRAßE ”.

Another mess reigned in the recording of surnames, which are written in capital letters in German passports and “ss” is used instead of “ß”, and in some other documents variants with the “ß” ligature may be recorded.

Therefore, in 2017, Germany recognized the spelling of the capital “ß”, although there are still enough opponents of this innovation. For example, the well-known German newspaper “Sueddeutsche Zeitung” compared the capital “ß” with an unattended street lamp.  

How to remember the alphabet

Frankly speaking, there is no direct practical need for memorizing the alphabet. Another thing is that by memorizing the letters in an entertaining way, you will quickly learn to read, because the harmony of how the letter looks and how it is pronounced will be deposited in your head. It is for this purpose that we offer you one of the many options for a memory rhyme.

ABCDE and F , when I meet teddy bears,
GHIJK and L, I quickly cuddle with them.
MNOPQ and R , I love teddy bears very much,
STUVW and X , teddy bear falls asleep very quickly,
YZ with me in my bed.

You can compose a similar verse for yourself, for example, write words for each letter in a row and learn it already in text, or, perhaps, use the song for children above: for many students, the alphabet is easier given to a familiar melody. But you can learn the various subtleties of the sound of diphthongs and consonant combinations only in the process of reading.

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