german spelling

Writing Right: 8 Simple Rules for Perfect German Spelling

Don’t let yourself be dependent on German spell check and autocorrect.

You know exactly how notorious these technological tools are for bungling up sentences.

With the right knowledge and practice methods, you’ll be able to compete in a German spelling bee any day of the week.

Letting yourself fall back on automated spelling corrections doesn’t always end well in English—but, in German, you may not even realize you’ve made a hilariously embarrassing mistake until it’s far too late and your German-speaking friends are giggling over your message.

Here’s where I’ve got some good news for you: German spelling is way easier than all that. German schoolkids pretty much never have spelling bees at all, because German spelling isn’t tough enough to need that kind of competition and rote memorization.

But for a non-native speaker like yourself, there are a few rules you should still review. We’ll talk about eight of the most important ones in this post.
 


 
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Rechtschreibung: Writing Right

First of all, the German word for “spelling” is Rechtschreibung. If you break this down into its constituent parts, you’ll see recht (right) and schreib-, the stem for “to write.” Another English word for “spelling,” orthography, breaks down into Greek roots in the same way. Rechtschreibung literally means “writing right,” and that’s exactly what we aim to do.

When we say “right,” what we mean is “standard.” Some words can have variations in spelling, but some spellings are considered more standard than others. These are the forms that you’d see in a dictionary such as the Duden, or in formal printed works such as newspapers and textbooks.

If you think about it, English does this too. If you’ve ever been shocked to find that your dictionary says “judgment” has only one <e> in it (but it says “also: judgement” in small letters elsewhere), or if you’ve pondered the differences between “color” and “colour,” you’ve encountered different standards.

One reason why English spelling can be so tricky is that we often have different letters that lead to the same spoken sounds (compare “vain,” “vein” and “vane”) or letter combinations that lead to different spoken sounds in different contexts (compare “vein,” “weird” and “atheist”).

German has a lot less of this. Letter combinations usually match directly to one standard pronunciation. In fancy linguistic terms, this is known as shallow orthography. Languages with shallow orthography, such as Spanish and German, are easy to read and spell. Deep orthography languages, such as French and English, are a bit harder.

Sounds Versus Letters

As we describe these rules, we’ll keep using a bit more fancy linguistic notation. Bear with me—I promise it will be more efficient than a zillion “almost sounds like” or “kinda rhymes with…” explanations. You’ll also be able to apply this knowledge in your own self-study going forward.

When we’re describing a written letter, we’ll put it in angle brackets. We already did this to describe the <e> in “judgment” above.

When we’re describing a spoken sound, we’ll put it in square brackets like this: [x]. Sometimes these look the same as the written letters you already know, but sometimes they don’t. That’s because we won’t use the German or English alphabets, but rather the International Phonetic Alphabet.

If you’ve ever looked up a word’s pronunciation in the dictionary and not understood the crazy symbols in its entry, it was probably written in IPA. Don’t panic: we’ll walk you through exactly what you need to know.

Writing Right: Master These 8 Simple German Spelling Rules

With that out of the way, let’s jump in.

1. <ei> as in Wein (wine), <ie> as in Bier (beer)

The <ei> and <ie> combinations are some of the trickiest for English speakers learning German. As shown above, our language can use these sounds in some pretty weird ways, sometimes even interchangeably (compare “vein” and “weird” to “weird” and “niece”). But in German, the <ei> combination has only one sound. The <ie> combination has only one other sound.

The most helpful trick a German teacher ever showed me involves Wein and Bier. The <ei> combination only ever makes the Wein sound, which happens to be the same as the English “wine” sound. The <ie> combination only ever makes the Bier sound, which is basically the same as the English “beer” sound.

So, the next time you need to spell a word and you’re not sure if it’s <ei> or <ie>, just remember to ask yourself, “Does it sound like wine or beer? (Wein oder Bier?)”

2. Umlauts are never optional

Those two dots might look like decoration, but they’re not. They can indicate verb tense or they can change the whole meaning of a word.

For instance, schon means “already” but schön means “beautiful.” Another classic pitfall when learning to describe the weather is the difference between schwül and schwul, which you’ll have to look up on your own.

They also always affect pronunciation. To get these right, learn how each letter with an umlaut (a, o and u) sounds different from the un-umlauted version. You’ll never forget again!

3. Double-check <e> and <ä> when in doubt

One sound that can be written two different ways is the [e] vowel, which is close to (but not the same as) the vowel a in English “face.” Often, this is written with German <e>.

But in many dialects—enough to be considered acceptable in the standard—<ä> can also be pronounced this way. This is why Beeren (“berries”) and Bären (“bears”) can sound the same sometimes. If you’re not sure which way to spell a word with this sound, look it up!

4. <Sch> is always three letters

What we write as <sh> in English, the Germans write as <sch>. You can’t forget the <c>. This is why “English” is not a German word, but “Englisch” is. The IPA symbol for this sound, by the way, is [ʃ].

5. …except for when it’s invisible

The English <sh> and German <sch> spellings both lead to the pronunciation of [ʃ], but many German words have this sound represented with only <s>. What gives?

Well, it depends on whether or not <s> appears in a consonant cluster at the beginning of a syllable. This is why Sahne (cream) and Obst (fruit) have the [s] sound, but Stiefel (boots) and Sprache (language) have the [ʃ] sound. So if you’re trying to spell a word that starts with [ʃ], remember that there may be no <sch> in there at all!

6. <Y> is not your friend

<Y> is not a common letter in German, and where it does appear, it doesn’t sound like English “young” or “yes.” That sound is written as [j] in the International Phonetic Alphabet…and it’s written as <j> in German too. This explains the connection between jung and “young” and between ja and “yes.” Don’t write these with <y> and you’ll never go wrong.

7. …and neither is <c>

Similarly, <c> is part of the German alphabet, and we’ve already seen it in words like Englisch and Sprache. But at the beginning of words with the hard [k] sound, that’s usually time for <k>. An exception is words that are borrowed from other languages. For example, compare kommen (to come) or Katze (cat) with the English-borrowed Computer or cool.

8. <W> is [v], <v> is [f] and <f> is [f] too

Our last rule might be the most complicated, but then we’ll let you go.

Any German word with the [v] sound, as in wo (where), wer (who) or wie (how), is spelled with <w>. Don’t let your English interfere with your German spelling, or you’ll end up spelling all of these with <v>.

That would be a problem, since German <v> actually sounds like [f]. German <f>, logically, sounds like [f] too. Compare von (from) and vier (four) with für (for) and Freund (friend). This sound has some unfortunate spelling ambiguity, but with practice and memorization you’ll quickly develop a feel for which is which.

These are just eight of the many German spelling rules you’ll encounter as you go along. There are plenty more, so I’ve only highlighted ones that are tricky for English speakers in particular. However, all of these spelling rules will become second nature to you with time, and they’re all a lot easier to master than the English rules you already know.

Rechtschreibung is all about writing right. Remember these rules and keep practicing, and you’ll get them all.

Checking Your German Spelling

Sounds versus letters, <v> versus <w>, <ei> versus <ie>… it’s okay not to get it immediately. You don’t have to have absorbed all the rules just by reading this post. There are other resources to help you.

One of my favorites is the online dictionary and mobile app from dict.cc. Put in any English or German word, and you’ll get a ranked list of its possible translations, along with common phrases in which the word appears. Click on the speaker icon next to any word and you’ll be able to hear native speakers pronounce the word for you as well.

Writing a paper? Virtually every version of Microsoft Word allows you to install multiple languages’ versions of spell check. For typing on mobile devices, most forms of autocorrect offer the same option. Because every program is different, we can’t walk you through the process here, but a quick Google search can point you in the right direction.

And if you really want to commit this to memory, use the old standby methods.

With a study method like that, stuff like the <w>/<v>/<f> distinction will become a piece of cake!


Amanda “Andy” Plante-Kropp teaches at the HTW University of Applied Sciences in Berlin. She strives to bridge the gap between second language acquisition research and practical pedagogy. You can learn more about her at English with Andy.
 


 

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