You’ve agreed to an innocent swim one summer evening with your German buds.
Suddenly, you can’t believe your eyes.
You watch in dismay as your friends strip and run to the lake!
What? When did you ever agree to go skinny dipping?!
It’s times like these that you need to know your Nacht (night) from your nackt (nude)!
German has plenty to offer when it comes to entertaining words, but some sit together just a little too close for comfort.
The ability to recognize these and tell them apart is ultimately what separates the pros out there riding the waves from those still playing in the shallows. So go on, take the plunge: Let’s explore the wonderful world of German homophones!
Homophones vs. Homonyms
First things first, let’s get our terminology right. What exactly is a homophone?
Put simply, a homophone is a word that sounds the same as another one, but is spelled differently—and has a different meaning.
Homophones usually exist in pairs, and English is full of them! Think “aisle” and “I’ll,” or “knead” and “need.”
Closely related to homophones like the Nacht/nackt example above, and equally confusing, is another family of words: homonyms.
A homonym is a word that is spelled the same as another, but means something different. For example, “bat” in English is a nocturnal flying mammal, a club used in baseball and more.
You can blame the curious capitalization of German nouns for a few homonyms, such as:
- arm/Arm (poor/arm)
But not all. In the case of the word for “fringe” or “bangs” and the word for “pony,” it’s only the preceding article that reveals whether you’re talking about a horse or a hair style.
- das Pony/der Pony (pony/fringe)
Here are a few others worth knowing:
- die Leiter/der Leiter (ladder/leader)
- der Stift/das Stift (crayon/monastery)
- die Taube/der Taube (pigeon/deaf person)
- das Tor/der Tor (goal, gate/fool)
And sometimes there is neither a capital letter—nor an article—to help you out, as in the case of:
- der Berliner/der Berliner (jelly donut/Berlin citizen)
A source of confusion made famous in JF Kennedy’s 1963 speech in support of West Berlin, widely touted as a laughable mistake on his part, but actually grammatically correct in a figurative sense.
Fortunately, context plays a big role in verbal communication, so if you’re at the hairdresser asking for your pony to be trimmed, chances are they’ll get the message! Though to play it safe you might just want to ask for a Haarschnitt (haircut).
Tips to Live with (and Learn to Love) German Homophones
Homophones only make their presence felt in spoken German, so it’s in conversation with German speakers that you’ll bump into them. It’s here too that confusion and misunderstandings are likely to arise—but that’s okay, it’s all part of the learning process. Do your best to get conversation practice, and when you come across a new homophone, write it down if possible. This is another way to gradually build up your vocabulary.
Train Your Accent: Repeat, Repeat, Repeat!
The basic rules of German pronunciation are an essential place to start for German beginners—and important to get right so that you don’t inadvertently create your very own homophones by mispronouncing words! Fortunately, unlike English, the rules of pronunciation in German are pretty stable.
Once you learn them, you’ll find that they are applied consistently. Still, there are some sounds that are a little harder to master than others. This is often because they don’t really exist in English—such as the “ts” sound for a German “z,” and anything with an umlaut (those pesky little dots!). These ones might need a bit more work.
If you’ve managed to find yourself a tandem partner, ask that person to be diligent about correcting your pronunciation. You might need to reiterate this as time goes on—bad habits that develop early can become entrenched, and your friend might feel bad about interrupting the conversation, especially after you’ve known one another a while. But it’s the only way to get it right!
If you’re a bit of a poet at heart, you’ve come to the right place! Okay, so German might not be the language of love, but Germans do love their Buchstabenspiele (word games; literally “letter games”). Homophones are an essential ingredient in Wortspiele (puns), while homonyms have earned a place at the center of their very own game, mysteriously titled Teekesselchen (“small teapot”), which you can find out all about here.
But before you assume puns are only for kids and old timers, let’s not forget it wasn’t so long ago that German industrial metal band Rammstein climbed the charts with a modern-day Wortspiel, their song “Du Hast,” a play on the homophones meaning “have” and “hate,” whose lyrics are explained here.
Homophones are a reality of learning to speak and understand German—but they don’t have to become stumbling blocks. With a bit of practice, you can get used to having them around—and maybe, just maybe, learn to love them.
5 Common Mix-ups with German Homophones That You Don’t Wanna Make
Armed with the strategies above, you’ll start to find it easier to deal with homophone pairs. But what to look out for exactly? Below are a few commonly mixed up sound pairs and examples.
One “s” or two? Whether at the end of a word, or before a consonant, the sound is the same. Here are some German word pairs that only differ by one “s.” You’ll recognize the first pair from the Rammstein song above:
- hast/hasst (have/hate)
- bis/der Biss (until/bite)
- ist/isst (is/eats)
- misst/Mist! (measures/damn!)
- das/dass (that/that)
Note: In German, there is a difference between the use of “that” as a demonstrative pronoun, replacing a thing and “that” as a conjunction, connecting two phrases. For example:
Das ist nicht wahr (That’s not true)
Ich glaube, dass du recht hast (I believe that you’re right).
- frisst/Frist (eats/deadline)
Note: frisst derives from the verb fressen, which is typically reserved for animals. Here’s an example:
Fido frisst meine Hausaufgabe. (Fido eats my homework.)
2. s/sz and s/z
There is in fact a slight difference in pronunciation between “s” and “z” at the start of a word. An s is pronounced more like an English “z,” as in “zero,” while z should be pronounced “ts.” However, because the “ts” sound doesn’t exist in English, it is common for native English speakers to find it difficult to distinguish a “z” from an “s” in German, both in hearing and speaking, making the following effectively homophones:
- Zähne/Szene (teeth/scene)
This one actually incorporates two fiendish traps! (More on ä vs e below.)
- sauber/zauber (clean/magic)
- Ziele/Seele (goals/soul)
That last pair is imprinted on my brain after once announcing that I had “no (particular) goals” to a group of colleagues, only to be met with a confused silence and a moment or two later to realize that everyone had in fact understood keine Seele (no soul). Oh, how we chuckled! Who ever said homophones can’t be fun?
3. d/t and dt/tt
All four of these word endings have essentially the same sound, which is one of the reasons native German speakers have no end of trouble distinguishing between English words like “weed” and “wheat.” Note the following examples:
- der Bund/bunt (association, federal government/colorful)
- das Rad/der Rat (bike, wheel/advice, councillor)
- die Stadt/statt (city/instead)
- seid/seit (are/since)
This one is a little trickier to pick as the “ä” (or “ae”) doesn’t exist in English. You pronounce it basically like the soft “e” in the English word “sell.” Once you’ve got the hang of that rule, the good thing is it’s applied pretty consistently. Spare a thought for English learners, who have to be constantly on the lookout for the impact of the letters that come after an “e” (e.g. in the cases of “search” and “seal”).
- fällt/Feld (falls/field)
- hält/Held (holds/hero)
There’s that d/t again!
- Gäste/Geste (guests/gestures)
- Wende/Wände (turnaround, transition/walls)
A single “i” has a longer sound in German than in English, which is very similar to the “ie” sound, so that the following words sound the same:
- wider/wieder (against/again)
- das Lid/das Lied (eyelid/song)
And to end on a real corker! The following quadruplet unites both homonyms and homophone in one single group:
- Sie/sie/sie/sieh (you [formal]/she/they/see)
Why the Germans chose to have just three little letters stand in for three entirely different personal pronouns is something of a puzzler, considering the liberal array of definite articles available, in comparison to the relatively paltry “the” offered up by English.
Speaking of which, it may be some comfort to remember that learners of English as a foreign language have an astonishing wealth of homophones to contend with, a selection of which are listed here. Sieh es positiv! (Cheer up!) and count yourselves lucky, German learners!
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