Ever wondered why “bead” and “head” don’t rhyme?
Or why the “e” sounds completely different in “bent” and “here”?
It’s all down to the vowel sounds in each word.
There’s a whole world of long vowels, short vowels and diphthongs out there, and they dictate exactly how we have to pronounce every single word we say.
It’s the same with German, but even slightly more tricky because German vowels include a feature that doesn’t appear in English—umlauts!
Without understanding how German vowels work, you could end up mispronouncing a word and coming away from a conversation very red-faced.
But knowing your vowels won’t only help improve your speaking—having all this vowel knowledge is really great for writing skills, too! If you ever have to take dictation or just write down something someone is saying, you’ll have a better idea of how a word is spelled just from hearing it out loud.
Much in the same way, you’ll better know how a word should be pronounced just from reading it.
So you definitely want to learn your German vowels, right? Let’s get to it!
Long and Short German Vowels: How Do They Work?
First off, you need to be able to tell whether the vowel—or vowels—in a word is long or short. If you can spot which is which, then you’ll have a better idea of how a word is spoken. Later in this post, we’ll go more into detail about what each long and short vowel actually sounds like, but first we’ll briefly look at when they might appear.
Sometimes, there’s no indication as to whether you’re faced with a long or short vowel—this is the stuff you gradually pick up as you work at your German conversation.
In addition to learning by listening and looking, there are some rules that will help you out with your vowels. Below are the most common.
If a word begins with a vowel followed by an h, then you’re looking at a long vowel sound.
Some examples include:
ahnen — to guess / suspect
die Ohren — ears
ehren — to dignify / honor
die Uhren — clocks
der Ahorn — maple
In the above list, the long vowel is the one that appears in the first syllable.
Should a vowel precede multiple consonants, it will be short.
Here are a few examples:
Schmidt — German family name
findet — finds (both vowels in this word are short)
der Hund — dog
bunt — colorful
der Koch — chef
Double vowels always pair up to create the effect of a long vowel.
You can see how this works in the below examples…
der Saal — hall
der Aal — eel
die Beere — berry
das Boot — boat
doof — stupid
German’s Vowels and Vowel Sounds
Often, the easiest way to explain how you pronounce a vowel is by giving an English equivalent.
You can, of course, use the International Phonetic Alphabet, but not everyone is familiar with this. So in all the examples below, I’ve just given equivalent (or approximately equivalent) English sounds.
The short a is spoken like the “u” in “cut.” Examples of this short vowel sound in use are:
kalt — cold
die Katze — cat
alt — old
das Salz — salt
kratzen — to scratch
A long German a is spoken like the “a” in “harm.” Here are a few examples:
haben — to have
Hamburg — Hamburg
der Vater — father
die Achse — center / axis
der Wal — whale
A short German e is pronounced much in the same way as the “e” in “set” is. Below are examples…
das Geld — money
das Mett — ground pork
die Ente — duck
der Termin — appointment
der Essig — vinegar
However, the long German e is drawn out much more, as is the case with the “a” in “say.” Keep the corners of your mouth far apart for this one…
regen — to rain
die Beeren — berries
die Erbin — heiress
das Meer — sea / ocean
der Februar — February
A short i in German is slightly more clipped than the vowel sound in “bit.” The five words below are examples of how it occurs…
mit — with
die Mitte — middle
die Limo — lemonade
bitte — please
der Chinese — Chinese
As for long i vowels, they’re pronounced like the double “e” sound in “feet.” If you lift your tongue slightly higher than you would when pronouncing the English sound, you’ll be spot on.
der Igel — hedgehog
der Termin — appointment
das Tipi — tipi
irisch — Irish
der Ire — Irish man
A short o in German is spoken like the English short “o” in “hot.” Here are five quick examples…
der Gott — God
London — London
die Rotte — crew / squad
blond — blond
die Molke — whey
When you need to pronounce a long o in German, it’s not far from the sound of “uar” in “quarter” or the “aw” sound in “call.”
oder — or
rot — red
tot — dead
der Monat — month
verlobt — engaged
If you’re saying your short u just like the “u” in “bush,” then you’re on the right track! One great tip is to shape your lips as if you were blowing out a candle. Here are a handful of examples to practice with…
rund — round
August — August
der Dunst — mist / haze
die Lust — desire / delight
der Funk — radio
Now it’s time to look at a long u sound, which sounds like the double “o” in the word “moon.”
anrufen — to call / to phone
die Blume — flowers
das Blut — blood
nutzen — to use / to be of use
der Uhrenturm — clock tower
If this were a post dedicated to English vowel sounds, we’d stop here. However, you’ll have no doubt come across those curious-looking vowels with the two cute dots hanging above them. They’re called umlauts and appear quite often throughout the German language.
Most of the time, an ä sounds as if you’ve just stuck an “e” after an “a.” The short ä sounds slightly more clipped, and the equivalent sound in English is the “e” in “get.”
fährt — drives / goes
The long vowel sound created by ä is a lot like the “a” in the word “day.” Or you can think of it like this: Try saying “aaah” as you would at the doctor’s, and imagine your tongue is being pressed down with the doctor’s tongue depressor.
der Käse — cheese
There’s no equivalent to the long ö sound in English; the nearest sound we have to it is the “u” sound in “burn.” It helps if you keep your lips round and tense for this sound; they should open to create a hole about the size of an olive.
böse — evil
Once you’ve aced the long ö vowel, you’ll have no problem with the short—it’s the exact same sound, except your lips don’t have to be quite so tense, and it’s not voiced for as long.
die Öffnung — opening
Again, ü can be a tricky sound for non-native German speakers to pick up. It’s quite a bit like the “ew” sound we voice when saying “pew.” And just like with the ö above, the shorter version is voiced exactly the same as the long vowel, but not for as long.
Tip: For both sounds, pretend you’re playing the flute and retract your lower lip—your lips can be slightly more relaxed when voicing the short vowel.
die Tür — door
das Stück — piece
Now that we know everything about solo vowels, we need to move on to see what happens when we put them together. Usually, vowels pair together to make certain sounds—when this occurs, the pair of vowels is known as a “diphthong.”
Ai / Ei
The same sound is produced from pairing ai and ei. They’re spoken together to sound like the English word “eye.” Here are a couple of examples:
das Ei — egg
Mai — May
Eu / Äu
Again, these two pairs of vowels produce the same sound. They’re both voiced like the “o” in “toy.”
die Häuser — houses
neu — new
Whenever you see an i followed by an e, they’re pronounced like we say the “e” in “we.”
die — the
Be careful not to confuse this one with äu, previously mentioned. That umlaut above the a makes all the difference, and this pair of vowels makes an “ow” sound.
blau — blue
Now that you know the difference between your vowels, diphthongs and umlauts, you’ll know the difference in pronunciation between über (over) and unter (under)—without having to ask anyone!
It’s small things like this that will help your confidence in your German grow—before long you’ll notice it really blossoming!
After studying German and Philosophy at The University of Nottingham, Laura Harker relocated to Berlin in 2012. She now works as a freelance writer and is also assistant editor at Slow Travel Berlin.