German for Beginners: Pronunciation and Alphabet

It's important to learn how to pronounce German letters

German stamped invitation cards
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German is a much more phonetically consistent language than English. This means that German words almost always sound the way they are spelled—with consistent sounds for any given spelling. (e.g., the German ei — as in nein — spelling is always sounded EYE, whereas German ie — as in Sie — always has the ee sound.)

In German, the rare exceptions are usually foreign words from English, French, or other languages.

Any student of German should learn the sounds associated with certain spellings as soon as possible. Knowing them, you should be able to correctly pronounce even German words you have never seen before.

Now that you know how to pronounce the letters of the alphabet in German, let's talk about some terminology. It is helpful to know, for instance, what diphthongs and paired consonants are.

German Diphthongs

A diphthong (Greek di, two + phthongos, sound, voice) is a combination of two vowels that blend and are sounded together. Instead of being pronounced separately, the two letters have one sound or pronunciation.

An example would be the au combination. The diphthong au in German always has the sound OW, as in English “ouch." The au is also part of the German word autsch, which is pronounced almost the same as “ouch” in English.

Grouped or Paired Consonants in German

While diphthongs are always vowel pairs, German also has many common grouped or paired consonants that have a consistent pronunciation as well.

An example of this would be st, a very common combination of the consonants s and t, found in many German words.

In standard German, the st combination at the beginning of a word is always pronounced like scht and not like the st found in English “stay” or “stone.” So a German word such as Stein (stone, rock) is pronounced schtine, with an initial sch-sound, as in “show.”

Here are more examples of paired consonants:

Beispiele / Examples
ai / eieyebei (at, near), das Ei (egg), der Mai (May)
auowauch (also), das Auge (eye), aus (out of)
eu / äuoyHäuser (houses), Europa (Europe), neu (new)
ieeehbieten (offer), nie (never), Sie (you)


Grouped Consonants
Beispiele / Examples
ckkdick (fat, thick), der Schock (shock)
ch>>After a, o, u and au, pronounced like the guttural ch in Scottish "loch" - das Buch(book), auch (also). Otherwise it is a palatal sound as in: mich (me), welche (which),wirklich (really). TIP: If no air is passing over your tongue when you say a ch-sound, you aren't saying it correctly. No true equivalent in English. - Although ch doesn't usually have a hard k sound, there are exceptions: Chor,ChristophChaosOrchesterWachs (wax)
pfpfBoth letters are (quickly) pronounced as a combined puff-sound: das Pferd (horse), derPfennig. If this is difficult for you, an f sound will work, but try to do it!
phfdas Alphabetphonetisch - Some words formerly spelled with ph are now spelled with f:das Telefondas Foto
qukvdie Qual (anguish, torture), die Quittung(receipt)
schshschön (pretty), die Schule (school) - The German sch combination is never split, whereas  sh usually is (Grashalme, Gras/Halme; but die Show, a foreign word).
sp / stshp / shtAt the start of a word, the s in sp/st has a sch sound as in English "show, she." sprechen(speak), stehen (stand)
thtdas Theater (tay-AHTER), das Thema (TAY-muh), topic - Always sounds like a t (TAY). NEVER has the English th sound!

German Pronunciation Pitfalls

Once you've mastered diphthongs and grouped consonants, the next item to concentrate on is how to pronounce other letters and letter combinations found within German words. For instance, a "d" at the end of a German word usually has a hard "t" sound in German, not the soft "d" sound of English. 

In addition, the fact that English and German words are often identical or very similar in spelling can lead to pronunciation errors. 

Letters in Words
Beispiele / Examples
final bpLob (LOHP)
final dtFreund (FROYNT), Wald (VALT)
final gkgenug (guh-NOOK)
silent h-gehen (GAY-en), sehen (ZAY-en)
When h follows a vowel, it is silent. When it precedes a vowel (Hund), the h is pronounced.
German thtTheorie (TAY-oh-ree)
German vfVater (FAHT-er)
In some foreign, non-Germanic words with v, the v is pronounced as in English: Vase (VAH-suh),  Villa (VILL-ah)
German wvWunder (VOON-der)
German ztsZeit (TSITE), like ts in "cats"; never like an English soft z (as in "zoo")
Similar Words
Pronunciation Pitfalls
BOM-buhThe mb, and e are all heard
zhuh-NEEThe g is soft, like the s sound in "leisure"
NAHT-see-ohnThe German -tion suffix is pronounced TSEE-ohn
pah-PEERStress on the last syllable
PITS-uhThe i is a short vowel because of the double z


Pronunciation Guide to German Letters

Here are some common German words that will give examples of how the letters of the German alphabet are pronounced: 

A - der Apparat, der Vater, ab, aktiv, alles

Ä - der Bär, der Jäger, die Fähre, die Ärzte, mächtig

B - bei, das Buch, die Bibel, ob, halb

C - der Computer, die City, das Café, C-Dur, die CD

D - durch, dunkel, das Ende, der Freund, das Land

E - elf, er, wer, eben, Englisch

F - faul, Freunde, der Feind, das Fenster, der Fluss

G - gleich, das Gehirn, gegeben, gern, das Image

H - haben, die Hand, gehen (silent h), (G - das Glas, das Gewicht)

I - der Igel, immer, der Fisch, innerhalb, gibt

J - das Jahr, jung, jemand, der Joker, das Juwel

K - kennen, der Koffer, der Spuk, die Lok, das Kilo

L - langsam, die Leute, Griechenland, malen, locker

M - mein, der Mann, die Lampe, Minuten, mal

N - nein, die Nacht, die Nase, die Nuss, niemals

O - das Ohr, die Oper, oft, das Obst, das Formular

Ö - Österreich, öfters, schön, die Höhe, höchstens

P - das Papier, positiv, der PC, der Papst, pur

R - das Rathaus, rechts, unter, rund, die Reederei

S - die Sache, so, das Salz, seit, der September

ß/ss - groß, die Straße, muss, das, Wasser, dass

T - der Tag, täglich, das Tier, die Tat, die Rente

U - die U-Bahn, unser, der Rubel, um, der Jupiter

Ü - über, die Tür, schwül, Düsseldorf, drücken

V - der Vetter, vier, die Vase, aktiv, Nerven

W - wenn, die Woche, Treptow (silent w), das Wetter, wer

X - x-mal, das Xylofon, Xanthen

Y - der Yen, der Typ, typisch, das System, die Hypothek

Z - zahlen, die Pizza, die Zeit, zwei, der Kranz