What’s the most beautiful language?
And which language sounds the harshest?
You’ve maybe seen the meme about different languages, where the “normal” languages like English, Spanish and French all have similar words for one thing, but then the German word is long, weird and consonant-filled.
Or perhaps you’ve seen the scattered responses to that meme, where the meme maker compares long words in other languages to short ones in German—my favorite is comparing “unfortunately” and its Spanish translation desafortunadamente to the simple word leider in German.
But when it comes down to it, the consensus, at least as measured by internet memes and jokes, seems to be that German is a rough, “guttural” language that has long, baffling words. This could be partially because the meme makers cherry-picked the words to fit their message, but there may be a kernel of truth to it.
German does tend to have some long words, but it’s not actually that bad. And at least compared to other languages, it’s really not that difficult to pronounce once you’ve learned how to pronounce the words. And that’s what this post is for.
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How to Pronounce German Words with a Surprisingly Simple Method
First, we’ll look at some reasons why you should not be afraid of learning German because of seemingly long, difficult-to-pronounce words.
That’s just a warm-up, though, because then we’ll actually get into the real nitty-gritty: the German alphabet and sounds. They’re mostly the same as in English, of course, but we’ll go through letter by letter and see how to pronounce them.
After that, we’ll get into some letter combinations that may look hard at first glance, but are actually pretty easy.
Finally, we’ll combine that all to see how to pronounce any German word out there, no matter how long or scary-looking it may be!
Why German Pronunciation Isn’t That Bad
German words are pronounced like they’re written, with little variation
I normally teach English to Spanish speakers, but when they hear that I also occasionally teach German, most seem to say something like, “Wow, German is so hard, though, isn’t it? With all those complicated sounds?”
I don’t know if that is just the effect of the memes talking, but I’m not exactly sure where they get this idea. German grammar is quite a bit more complicated than English grammar in many senses. For example, German has three genders for their nouns, although the specific gender usually doesn’t have anything to do with whether the object is “masculine,” “feminine,” or “neutral” (I suspect they may have been chosen hundreds of years ago through some kind of drinking game played by royals.)
German pronunciation, on the other hand, is fairly easy, especially when compared to English. For the most part, German is similar to languages like Spanish, where you pronounce words like they’re written. English, on the other hand, is a huge mess.
Just consider the letter combination “ough.” Most places say that these four simple letters can be pronounced anywhere between 7-10 different ways in English, depending on the word and one’s accent! The mere fact that that number ranges from 7 to 10 should tell you something: It’s hard out there when you’re speaking English!
“Long” German words are usually just a bunch of short words crammed together
I’ll admit that German words can look long and difficult, but as we saw in the example with the word “unfortunately,” the pendulum can also swing in the other direction. And most of the longer German words are actually made up of several shorter, easy words. It all has to do with how words are formed differently in different languages.
For example, if you want to express a complex idea, like an object and its description, you have a few ways of doing it. In English, we often use compound nouns, where we use the first noun to describe the second one. One example is “the bicycle chain.” We’re talking about a chain, specifically one for a bicycle.
German connects the words to form longer words: Fahrradkette (bicycle chain). Although literally speaking, the word for bicycle, Fahrrad, actually means “driving wheel,” so Fahrradkette would be like seeing the word “drivingwheelchain” in English.)
If you saw the “word” bicyclechain or drivingwheelchain in English, you would likely recognize the two or three separate parts very quickly, and could just combine the pronunciation into one word if needed.
German speakers do the same thing with their words, but for students learning German, it’s harder to recognize where one word ends and where the next begins. So a student could probably pronounce the individual parts Fahr, Rad and Kette, but combining them into one big word is more challenging. Doing that takes practice, but it’s not that hard after a while.
So once you understand these two things about German and German words, pronunciation becomes less intimidating. You’ll realize it’s more a matter of sounding out the word bits to make a whole word. But in order to sound out those bits, you’ll need to have a solid grasp of the alphabet first.
You can learn letters and sounds
This video makes a great point: Letters don’t equal sounds. Letters actually just represent sounds. But I’d disagree with one fundamental point in the video: The speaker says to “forget the letters,” but I don’t think that’s necessarily good advice.
If you watch it and understand the phonetic pronunciation symbols that are used, you’ll be fine. But since you’re reading this post, I’ll assume that many of those symbols may be Greek to you (and indeed, some are actually Greek letters).
The point is this: Words are made up of letters, not pronunciation symbols. Unless you constantly walk around with a dictionary that uses those symbols, you won’t usually see them. You’ll see words written with letters instead. And when you see those words, you’ll have to understand how to interpret those letters and make them into sounds. So by all means, learn the sounds or even the pronunciation symbols if you’d like to, but you must learn the letters and the letter combinations that make those sounds.
How to Pronounce German Letters
“If you mind your pennies, the dollars will take care of themselves.”
That’s the idea with this section: Once you get the individual letter sounds and combinations down, you can confidently move on to whole words with ease.
My original idea here was to go through the alphabet letter by letter and give you some English example words that have sounds similar to each letter. But I also know that there are many places on the web that do that, and if you have a German textbook, it probably has a page or chart like that, also.
If a picture is worth a thousand words, then surely a YouTube video of the alphabet song is worth the thousand words or so that I could write explaining how to pronounce each letter. So please use that or other video examples of a native speaker saying the alphabet as your first resource.
Nevertheless, I promised you the alphabet, so I want to deliver. Though this will just be a very basic, supplemental version. The pronunciation guide will be based on American English sounds, my native language.
For each letter, we’ll see how to pronounce the letter itself (you’ll be surprised how often you have to spell out things like your name or your address), and then how the letter usually sounds in words. Many of these are very similar to or essentially the same as the letters and sounds in English, so you already know how to pronounce most of them! We’ll focus mostly on the times when the pronunciation is different.
Letter: “Ah” (Like in “hot” or “father.”)
Sound: “Ah” (Similar to previous examples.)
Sound: “B” (Like English.)
Letter: “Tsay” (Where the “T” sound is very slight.)
Sound: See the section below about combined consonants. The letter “C” is not as common in German, since “K” is usually used instead.
Sound: “D” at the start of a word (like English), but more like a “T” at the end of a word or part of a word.
Letter: “Eh” (Similar to the English letter “A,” or like a shorter version of the “ay” in “say”…this is one of the three “dreaded” sounds detailed here.)
Sound: Go to the link above in the letter explanation.
Letter: “Eff” (Basically like in English.)
Sound: “Fff” (Like English.)
Sound: Always a soft “G,” as in “get.”
Letter: “Hah” (Like you’re doing a straight-faced, sarcastic laugh.)
Sound: “H” (Like English.)
Letter: “E” (Like a long letter “E” in English.)
Sound: Essentially like “E” in English, but often combined with other vowels (see below).
Letter: “Yoht” (It’s similar to—but not exactly the same as—the sound in the word “goat.”)
Sound: “Y” like in “yes.”
Letter: “Ka” (Like “car,” but without the “R” sound.)
Sound: “K” (Like English.)
Letter: “El” (Basically like in English, but pronounced more at the teeth and not in the back of the mouth.)
Sound: “L” (Also like English, but usually made at the front of the mouth.)
Letter: “Em” (Basically like in English.)
Sound: “M” (Like English.)
Letter: “En” (Basically like in English.)
Sound: “N” (Like English.)
Letter: “Oh” (It’s similar to English, but with mouth pressed forward like you’re going to kiss someone, with lips a bit more rounded.)
Sound: “O” (It’s mostly like a “long” English “O.”)
Letter: “Pay” (Basically like English, but with a bit more air.)
Sound: “P” (Like English.)
Letter: “Coo” (Like the sound a pigeon makes.)
Sound: “Kv” (“Q” is always followed by “U” in German, and the combo gives it a sound similar to “kv.”)
Letter: “Air” (But not really…this is another of the “dreaded” sounds; this post has a lot more about this sound, but generally it’s not like the American “R,” but more like the British one.)
Sound: Go to the link above. At the start of the word, it generally can sound more like a “French R” if you’re in the north and a “Spanish R” if you’re in the south. At the end of the word, it’s generally not pronounced, similar to the “uh” sound in the British English “computer.”
Letter: “Ess” (Basically like English.)
Sound: “Z” (It’s not a really strong vibrated “Z” sound, but it’s also not a hissing sound like an English “S.”)
Sound: “T” (Like English.)
Letter: “Oo” (Like the “ew” in “new.”)
Sound: “Oo” (Like “ew” in “new” or “oe” in “shoe.”)
Letter: “Fow” (Rhyming with “pow,” and without vibration.)
Sound: “F” (It doesn’t generally have vibration.)
Letter: “Vay” (With a bit of vibration on the sound.)
Sound: “V” (Similar to the English “V,” but with a bit less vibration and more air.)
Letter: “Iks” (Rhyming with “picks.”)
Sound: “Ks” (Usually, but this is not a common letter in German.)
Letter: “Oopsilon” (This is actually a letter that has a spelling: “ypsilon.”)
Sound: The sound depends on the place in the word. It’s either similar to a German “Ü” or an English “E” sound.
Letter: “Tset” (With a soft “T” at the start.”)
Sound: “Ts” (Not like the English “Z,” which is more like the German “S.”)
Letter: “Aeh” (Similar to the “E” in “bet.”)
Sound: “Aeh” (Like “E” in “bed” or “set.”)
Letter: “Oueh” (Okay, this is nearly impossible to explain or write, but it’s almost as if you made your lips and face like you were going to say the letter “O,” but then say the letter “A” instead.)
Sound: “Er” (It’s a bit of a cop out, but if you say Böse (evil) like “Berzuh,” you’ll actually get fairly close.)
Letter: “Ueh” (Again, this isn’t easy to describe, but also make your lips like an “O,” but actually say “E.”)
Letter: “Ess-tset” (Yes, this is pronounced like a combination of the German letters “S” and “Z,” and it’s not used in Switzerland; there it’s just “ss.”)
Sound: “S” (But a bit longer, since it’s actually a combination of two S’s.)
How to Pronounce “Difficult” German Letter Combinations
So, that was the alphabet, and generally, if you can pronounce an individual letter, it’s going to make a pretty similar sound in most words.
But when you combine some certain letters, it can get a bit tricky—so let’s take a quick look at those now. Again, if you want to learn these, it’s always best to hear a native speaker pronounce them!
- AU — “Ow” (Like in “how.”)
- ÄU — “Oy” (Like in “boy”; so your drunk buddies are probably pronouncing Hofbräuhaus incorrectly; it should sound more like “hoafbroyhouse” and not “hofbrowhouse.”)
- EI — “Ai” (Like the letter “I” in English; for “ei” and “ie” combinations, I just tell my students who speak English to say the second letter like it’s an English letter, and they’ll be pretty close.)
- EU — “Oy” (Essentially the same as “äu.”)
- IE — “Ee” (Like “E” in English; see “ei.”)
Vowels followed by “h”
For these, basically make the same sound as the vowel, but extend it. So:
- AH — “Aah” (Almost like when you open your mouth and say “aah” at the doctor’s office.)
- OH — “Owe” (Like “O,” but longer.)
- UH — “Ooh” (Like the “ew” in “new,” or what you see when you see a pretty firework.)
- CH — “…” (This is actually very hard to describe, but this post does a great job—it’s one of the other three “dreaded” sounds. And there are actually three different ways to pronounce it, depending on where it is in a word and the speaker’s accent. More or less, it’s often like a “Scottish” “ch” in “loch” or “ach,” but I just say it’s like a slight hissing sound from the back of your throat, although it’s not really loud, scratchy or vibrated—you may be thinking of the Dutch language there.)
- CK — “K” (Like the “K” in “sick.”)
- NG — “N” or “Ñ” (Basically, it’s a nasal “N” sound, but without the “G.”)
- PF — “Pff” (Say both letters, but with only a slight “P” sound.)
- PH — “F” (Like the “ph” sound in “philosophy.”)
- SCH — “Sh” (Like in “shoot.”)
- SP — “Shp” (Varies a bit by region, but if you know the word “spiel,” it’s like the “sp” there.)
- ST — “Sht” (Similar to the “sp” sound; this is like the “sht” part if you say the words “push to” together.)
- TH — “T” (There’s no sound like the “th” in English “the” or “think,” which is also why people do a “German” accent by making these sound like “zee” or “see,” respectively.)
- DSCH — “J” (Remember that the letter “J” in German sounds like a “Y” in English. Therefore, to get a “J” or a hard “G” sound, German clusters these four letters together, as in the word Dschungel, or jungle.)
- TSCH — “Ch” (Similar to “dsch,” the “ch” as in “check” isn’t a common sound in German. Therefore, these four letters are grouped together to make the sound.) A fan favorite is Tschechische Republik, the German name for the Czech Republic.
- QU — “Kv” (Say both the “K” and the “V” sounds; note that the “V” here does have a bit of vibration, although the letter “V”—pronounced “fow”—does not.)
How to Pronounce Any German Word
Yowzers, that was maybe a lot of information to process if you’ve not really worked much with the alphabet. But once you’ve gone through it, we can combine them to start pronouncing some longer words.
If you remember the guidelines above, the letter “G” is always soft, the “S” is more like an English “Z,” the “D” at the end of the “Gesund” part is more like a “T,” and the “ei” combo is like an “I” in English.
So, Gesundheit! If you saw another German word of similar length before, it may have looked intimidating, but if you can say “Gesundheit,” then it’s a good indicator that you can say many more words.
The German numbers are actually an interesting illustration of many of these ideas. They’re obviously one of the first things a person learns in any language, but some people think even these basic numbers look “scary,” despite the fact that they’re fairly close to English numbers.
How to Pronounce German Numbers
First, watch and listen to this video so you can hear the pronunciation, then follow along as we look at one through twelve:
1 (eins) — Note the “ei” combo; also, the “S” following a vibrated consonant is not vibrated like it would be in English.
2 (zwei) — Note the pronunciation of “Z” (like “ts”) followed by the “W” (like “V”), and the “ei” combo again.
3 (drei) — Note the “R” in the middle or start of a word, and how it compares to the “R” at the end of a word; we also have the “ei” again.
5 (fünf) — Note the pronunciation of the “ü.”
7 (sieben) — Pay attention to the “S” and the “ie” again.
8 (acht) — Both the “A” and the “ch” are good here.
9 (neun) — “Eu” is pronounced like “oy,” remember?
10 (zehn) — “Z” is like a “ts”; the “hn” is also not as strange as it might seem.
11 (elf) — Notice the difference between the frontal “L” here and the throaty English “L” sound in some words.
12 (zwölf) — Note the pronunciation of the “zw” and the “ö” sounds.
If you watch the rest of that video, you’ll see that it goes to 20, but except for the number 20 itself (which has an interesting “ig” sound at the end that varies in pronunciation by region), most are pretty straightforward and arranged similarly to English.
How to Pronounce Long German Words
Let’s finally get to some of those horrible-looking compound German words. The ones below are from a random German page I had open in my browser (it’s from the Deutsche Welle website), but the fact is that these words are everywhere, even on a “normal” web page. Here are a few from that page:
Wow, that looks terrible, right? However, it just means “accommodations” or “sleeping accommodations” (Literally, “over-night-possibilities”). But if you divide it into parts, it’s basically got two words: nacht (night) and möglich (possible). The rest is just prefixes, suffixes, noun endings and a bit of flair. So it’s:
That’s not actually divided by syllables, but by word “parts.” But if you break it into syllables, you can probably say all of them one at a time and combine it into a whole:
Whereas English teachers often give the advice to just “sound it out,” it’s actually much easier and more possible to do it with German words.
Let’s just check out a few more words from that same page:
It just means “trip destinations,” and it’s actually longer if you write it out in English. When pronouncing it, just say the parts, using what we learned above: rei-se-zie-le.
This means “carpooling possibilities” (Literally, “with-drive-opportunities”). Sound it out, then click on the word to hear it pronounced by a native.
Meaning “natives” or “locals,” this word has some good vowel sounds. Say it, then click on it to hear it pronounced.
This means “broadcasting times.” I can’t find an example of the pronunciation of that particular word, but after you sound it out, you can click here to hear the similar word Ausstrahlungseffekt.
So you see, sounding it out may seem a bit elementary—literally—but proper German pronunciation really boils down to that: Just sound out the syllables and the parts of the word. The more you practice, the better you’ll get.
You Can Do It!
Look at this word:
Supposedly, that ridiculous thing is the longest German word (the one about beef labeling regulations was taken out of the lexicon, apparently). Although this word is actually a bit of cheat, like…
…in English: They’re both technically words, but no one ever uses them.
Nevertheless, look at that German word again. I bet that you can use the same technique as before: Divide it into the little bits that you already know how to pronounce. Just try it now—I can wait.
There, you did it! Easy, right?
So once you get the hang of it, pronouncing any German word can become a piece of cake!
Ryan Sitzman teaches English and sometimes German in Costa Rica. He is passionate about learning, coffee, traveling, languages, writing, photography, books and movies, but not necessarily in that order. You can learn more or connect with him through his website Sitzman ABC.
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