(German Pronunciation) Guide
Vowels (in general):
E “Eh” or “Ay” (actually sounds like something between the two)
O Say “Oh” and think “Aw” (JUST LIKE LATIN!!)
Y Exactly like a U with an umlaut (see below)
W Never a vowel in German – always the same sound as the English “V”
Vowels mit Umlauts
(those funny dots that look like drunken colons):
An umlaut is the equivalent of putting an “e” next to a vowel. In fact, when people didn’t have umlauts on their typewriters (back in the days of the covered wagons), they just typed an “e” instead , like this : ä = ae Tränen (tears) would have been typed: Traenen
Umlauts are ONLY used with a, o and u in German (I have no idea what those crazy Norwegians do with them!)
An umlaut, as you might imagine, creates a dipthong, altering the sound of the vowel. So,
Ä “AY” or “AI” as in “hair”
Ö “oo” as in “Look,” or like the French “eu” in “vieux” or the French e in “de”
Ü “euoooo” Almost exactly like the French “u” in “tu” – a deliciously dark sound
Other vowel combinations:
AO “OW” as in “cow”
AU “OW” as in “cow”
EE “AY” – so similar to Ä that it’s not worth mentioning the difference
EU “OY” as in “BOY”
Any other vowel combinations: pronounce them separately – do not blend.
Two final notes on vowels:
German has the schwa (ə} sound that most of us learned about in school. This is basically the “uh” sound and it is often at the end of words and is most often an “e,” e.g. “Sprache” (Shprach-uh) And since the Germans drop “r”s at the ends of words more than the Brits, we’ll probably sing it a lot.
The vowels give us the open mouths we need to get the sound out, so they are very important and we should be consistent in singing them properly.
Most of the German consonants are similar to English. German differs from English in the following consonant pronunciations:
C No real German words start with C – the ones that do are usually inspired from other languages. C in German is almost always a soft c – like s.
G Always a hard G (NOTE: opposite of Latin!) In fact, it’s so hard, that if it’s at the end of a word, it’s often pronounced as a “K” or it can be pronounced as an “IG” (see below), e.g. as in “selig” (“blessed”) which can be pronounced “zay-leek” or “zay-leech” (“soft” ch on the middle of the tongue – see below)
J Pronounced like the English “Y”
R Guttural “R” like the French, or rolled R (this is the preferred method for singing, since the sound isn’t strangled on it’s way out into the world). Or if in a short word, it is done as the Brits would do – and more or less ignored. (See “Schwarz” below)
S At the beginning of the word – always pronounced as an English “Z”; at the END of a word, pronounced like the English “s”
SS At the end of a word (see also Final Miscellaneous at end) always pronounced with soft “S” sound
V Pronounced like the English “F”
W Pronounced like the English “V” (are we having fun yet?)
Z Pronounced “TS” “Schwarz” (“Black”) is pronounced “Shvahts” (I told you they drop their ‘r’s!)
Other miscellany on German consonants
SH If you see these letters together in German, it is NOT to be pronounced as it is in English – most likely they are together because they are in the middle of a compound word, like “Ludwigshafen” (tr: Ludwig’s Harbor”) and is pronounced “Loodviks Haffuhn”
SCH If you want the English SH sound, this is the way you do it in German
CH Remember, C rarely, if ever starts a true German word – most likely you will see this letter combination at the end of a word. If it is at the beginning of the word (as in the German word for choir (chor)), it is pronounced in the guttural way. It can be pronounced one of two ways, depending on the vowel that precedes it or the region of the country in which it’s spoken.
If an A, an O, or a U precede it, you would say the guttural “ch” – as if one were clearing the back of one’s throat (Ach! – no English equivalent – like a messy “Ock!” Or “Buch” (“book”) (boohch) Or, if an O, like the Scottish “Loch Lomond”
If an E or an I precede a CH the CH sound is pronounced more softly – from the middle of the tongue. Try saying the word “Hue” or “Hugh” and the initial “H” sound you make will be that soft CH sound. Try saying that and stop before you say the “U” sound and you will have it. Now add a sound before it:
Ich (I) (“eech”) or Pech (bad luck) (“Peych”)
The soft CH at the end of a word most likely will be sung VERY briefly, as any S would, and because its sibilance is somewhat softer, it can be a rather pleasant end to a musical phrase.
Final Miscellaneous Information
German, like some of the European languages, has modernized its script. The old type face of the early 20th century and before has been gone since the late 40s, but a few vestiges did remain for quite some time, so you may see the following in your music:
ß – This may look like a cursive capital B, but it is the equivalent of a double S called an “Esszett” (not sure if I spelled it correctly). For example, it’s used in the German word for white “weiß” (weiss) (“Vice”).
Traditionally, nouns are always capitalized in German.
“H” in German music means B, “B” means B flat:)! (Thank you Reinhard Sunnus, for your correction!).
Dur means “major” and Moll means “minor”
LinkeMasche is a regular contributor to the ChoralKnitters Group on Ravelry. This is being reprinted with her permission:
Cool document! I have a couple of tiny comments, though.
The Umlaut section assumes knowledge of French pronunciation, so I’d include instructions on how to do ö and ü without that knowledge. Ö I’ve seen described as making the mouth for O and trying to say E. Ü I’ve seen described as the mouth for U and trying to say I, or vice versa.
Lastly, a tiny little pedant point about C – I think that’s generally pronounced ts like a Z, rather than straight s.
Hope that’s helpful and not overly pedantic 🙂
Thanks, LM:) If anyone has any comments or helpful suggestions for American choirs valiantly attempting the German pronunciations, feel free to add your thoughts!