The German alphabet and its unique sounds

The German alphabet and its unique sounds

by Sandra Köktaş

Updated November 7, 2022

The German alphabet is surprisingly easy to learn. While topics such as adjective declension and irregular verbs can make the language difficult to learn, pronunciation and spelling are a breeze. Mostly. 

Thanks to the phonetic alphabet, you say the words as you write them. German uses an extended Latin alphabet, meaning there are 26 letters, three additional Umlaute and the infamous ß (read eszett). That’s 30 letters, most of which are close to the English alphabet. The Umlaute and some letter combinations do not exist in English. But with the right tips and a bit of practice, they, too, are easy enough to pronounce. We are here to walk you through the German alphabet letter by letter and tell you all you need to know.

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Letters of the German alphabet

First, let’s look at the 26 regular letters of the German alphabet and their pronunciation.

LetterPhonetic spelling

Just listen to some words and try to find the correct spelling. You won’t need to guess. Try to practice in a way that allows you to see the written words and hear the pronunciation. Apps for learning German can help with that.

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German alphabet pronunciation: Unique sounds

So far so good. As you can see, the regular 26 letters of the German alphabet are easy enough. At least they all have an English equivalent or an approximate sound to match them. C and R need a closer look, though. And for some letters and combinations, we need a step-by-step guide to get there. The right pronunciation can make all the difference. 

How to pronounce “s”

There is not much to say about the letter s, but you should know that the pronunciation differs depending on the place of the letter in a word. At the beginning of the word, it is pronounced like the English z, in the middle or at the end, it is the same as the English s.

How to pronounce “c”

The c is mostly found in foreign words. If it is followed by a dark vowel like a, o, u or a consonant, it is pronounced k like in the English word cream. In combination with a bright vowel e, i or an Umlaut ä, ö, ü it is pronounced like ts, close to the English pronunciation of circa. The combination ch is a very special case and one of the notoriously difficult ones to pronounce. We will look at this a bit later.

How to pronounce “r”

In case of the letter r, your luck depends on where in the word it is used. At the end of the word or a syllable, it doesn’t make much trouble as it is nearly silent: Mutter, Vater, der, hier. Just keep the position of your mouth and slightly bring the back of your tongue up. Don’t skip it altogether, that would sound strange. It’s nearly silent, not gone!

In the beginning or in the middle of the word, a hint is not enough. There is no way around the raspy sound from the back of your throat to get it right. Think of the Scottish loch to get closer. Unless you are in Southern Germany, Bavaria, Austria or Switzerland. Then you need to roll the r as the Spanish do. Either way, the r is a nightmare.

The infamous ß

There is not much to say or worry about the ß, also called eszett. It is a ligature from old times and has been partially removed in a spelling reform in 1996. A long vowel or diphthong that comes before the s-sound still asks for the ß for example in Straße. In every other case, the former ß turns into ss. Liechtenstein and Switzerland make it easy for you with ss being the only correct spelling for the “scharfe s“.

How to pronounce “ig”

The combination of i and g becomes a problem for many German learners at the end of the word, where it is pronounced like the dreaded ch for example in richtig.

Umlaute: Ä, Ö, Ü

Despite many similarities between English and German, there is no English equivalent or approximate sound for ä, ö and ü. 

Ä is comparatively easy. There is a short ä pronounced like eh, you should be somewhere between the sound in bet and apple. For the long ä, think of the English words say and mad. 

For ö, say eh and purse your lips as if you wanted to say o. The sound will change to ö. Again, there is a short and a long version of the letter. Just draw it out a bit longer.

For ü, similarly, say eh and form your lips as if you wanted to say oo. Again, draw it out for the long version. 

Diphthongs: ei/ai, eu/äu, au

These can give you a headache. Even worse than the pronunciation is the writing. Because ei and ai as well as eu and äu sound the same. There is no way of knowing how to spell a word with these sounds, so memorize or check the correct spelling

For ei/ai, start with an a and glide into the English i-sound. Think of the sound in the English word light. 

For eu/äu, start with an o and glide into the English e-sound. Think of the sound in the English word toy.

For au, start with an a and add an oo. It comes close to the o in the English word vowel. 

How to pronounce “ch”

The dreaded ch gets a heading on its own. Not only does it have no equivalent in the English language. It also comes in three forms:

  • guttural ch
  • heavy ch
  • ch as k

The guttural ch comes in combination with a, o, u and au, the dark sounds. Say h, draw it out and then bring the back of your tongue up to the roof of your mouth until there is only a little gap left and friction occurs. You should be close to the sound in the Scottish word loch (but without the additional trill in the similar German r).

The heavy ch comes in combination with the bright vowels, Umlaute and diphthongs or all consonants. Think of the English words human or hue, but make the h-sound longer. 

Ch is pronounced as k at the beginning of German names like Christel. More often you will find a ch at the beginning of a word from a foreign language. The pronunciation in most cases will take into account the language of origin. We say Chor and Christus with k, but Chef and Check with sch. There are however regional variations. While most of Germany pronounces the country China with the heavy ch, you can hear it with a k in Bavaria. 

Beware: If the ch is followed by an s, it is pronounced ks. See the German word Achsel (speak aksel)

Consonant clusters: sch, tsch, sp, ng, pf, ck

After mastering the ch in German, these combinations pose no threat:

clustersound in English
schSh (shine)
tschch (check)
ngng (surfing)
pfpf (cupful; try to say p and f at the same time)

German alphabet spelling

As we already said, the German alphabet is a phonetic alphabet that makes the language easy to spell — except for over the phone. To make things clear or to spell out unusual names, Germans use the spelling alphabet. Each letter is represented by a standard word to avoid misunderstandings. And with standard, we mean official standards. In this case, it is DIN 5009 Norm:

A – Anton

B – Berta

C – Cäsar

D – Dora

E – Emil

F – Friedrich

G – Gustav

H – Heinrich

I – Ida

J – Julius

K – Kaufmann

L – Ludwig

M – Martha

N – Nordpol

O – Otto

P – Paula

Q – Quelle

R – Richard

S – Siegfried

T – Theodor

U – Ulrich

V – Viktor

W – Wilhelm

X – Xanthippe

Y – Ypsilon

Z – Zeppelin

Now I know my ABCs

The German alphabet consists of 26 letters, the three Umlaute ä, ö, ü, the diphthongs ei/ai, eu/äu and au and some letter combinations that have no English equivalent. Notoriously difficult to pronounce are the German r and the dreaded ch. The Umlaute can easily be produced by making one sound while forming another with your lips. All the rest of the letters are close to the English alphabet. With one exception: They are pronounced as they are written!

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Sandra lives in Istanbul, together with her kids, cat and dog. As a historian she thrives exploring this ancient city with her two- and four-legged loved ones. Together, they also love to go on adventures through all of Turkey and its neighboring countries. The perfect opportunity to put all the language learning into practice. If she’s not on the road, Sandra is busy putting her experiences into writing as a freelance copywriter for the travel industry and everything related to language, culture and family. Her particular interest lies in providing information on animal welfare with her website

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