Remember “My Fair Lady”? If you never saw it, go and rent it, buy it, stream it. Why are you still here? Go do it!
In short, a linguistics professor teaches a young girl with a low-class accent to speak like a lady. And though strapping someone to a chair and having them repeat their vowels is not a good way to teach the German language (or indeed any language), many of the exercises the good Professor has Eliza Doolittle suffer through address real aspects of speech and accents.
One of them is having her repeat the phrase “how very KIND of you to come” while tapping out the rythm on a xylophone. Try listening to people with different accents – Irish, North Estuary, Australian, Georgian Southern – but with the sound turned just low enough that you can’t recognise the individual words. Notice how they have a different music?
Oddly enough, you can get away with mispronouncing a lot in any language without alienating the natives too much. You can get any of the following points wrong and still be understood, but if you mangle the rhythm of the language too much, they won’t understand you.
German stresses similarly to English – on most words of two or three syllables, the first is stressed (TOchter, DIEN-stag, RE-gen, SI-cher-heit, MERK-wür-dig) with some exceptions (ho-TEL, for example). Longer words are less easy to codify, with some being stressed on the second syllable (Pro-FE-ssor). Offhand, I can’t think of any three-syllable German words stressed on the last syllable. Compound words are stressed according to the words that make them up.
In verbs with prefixes, the prefixes auf, an, aus, bei, mit and un are always stressed (AUF-steh-en, AN-schau-en, BEI-tre-ten).
The prefixes be, ent, and zer are never stressed (be-KOM-men, ent-ZIF-fern, zer-REIS-sen).
Prefixes that show place such as über, unter, um etc. can be stressed or unstressed depending on the meaning.
For example, there are actually two meanings for “übersezten”, and these are two different words.
Stressed as Über-SETZ-en, it means “to translate”; as ÜBER-setz-en, “to ferry across.”
“Übersetzen” can mean either “to translate” or “to ferry” in German depending on how it is stressed. Photo via Visual Hunt
Not just syllables within a word, but certain words in a sentence are stressed more than others. German will not usually stress the first word in a sentence or small words such as articles, “und”, “oder” etc., and often alternates stressed-unstressed words. However, the small “filler” words such as “je” and “doch” are often stressed.
Listen. When you encounter a new word, listen to it online or in an audio vocabulary trainer and enter the stress on your cue cards somehow. Repeat phrases you hear in films or series or even the German news and pay special attention to stress.
If it helps, get yourself a xylophone.
Since neither of the two sounds written with a “ch” in German exist in English, students learning German often have trouble with them. Generally, the go-to sounds are “k” or “sh”.
The “ch” after an “a”, an “o” or a “u” is pronounced deep in the throat. Try saying a “k” or a “g” and rolling it.
The “ch” after an “I”, “e”, or a consonant is pronounced like “sh”, but while “sh” is created with the tip of the tongue, “ch” uses the middle. Let air out of your mouth along sides of your tongue while the middle is pressed against your palate.
The double vowel combination “oo” is an easy kissing cognate trap.
“Boot”, for example. It is not pronounced “boot” and has nothing to do with shoes. The “oo” is not an “ou” sound as in “you”, but an elongated “o” sound – in fact, you’re not far off if you actually try and say the vowel “o” twice.
When you speak of a “Boot” in German, this is not what you mean… Photo via VisualHunt
…this is. Photo via VisualHunt
You will also find it in Moos (moss, not moose), doof (which we find in doofus, but pronounced doh-ohf), Moor (a moor, and – thank the inconsistency of English pronunciation – pronounced about the same as most English speakers do.)
The German “u” is closer in sound to the English “oo” – German ghosts say “Buh!”, pronounced almost just like “boo!”
In kooperation and kooperieren – like the English co-operation, it is made up of “operation/operate” and the prefix “co-” but this doesn’t change anything in how it is pronounced.
Learn how to master Grammar grammar in our complete grammar guide here.
English, cruelly, also has words ending in -er – water, paper, rower. The temptation is, of course, to pronouce it “ur”. However, you need the slightest suggestion of an “ah” in there.
The “r” is not vocalised, but is just the slightest hint of a closing of the throat.
As this post, one of the biggest problems an English speaker has with proper German lessons in pronunciation is the vowels. English – no matter the accent – is a language with many diphthongues, that is, more than one vowel sound.
“A”, for example, is often pronounced as though it had a “y” at the end – prompting the song made famous by Billie Holiday, about you saying to-MAY-to and me saying to-MAH-to. The first has a diphtongue, the second does not.
When you say “to-may-to”, you are not using the right vowel sound for the German language. Say “to-mah-to” instead. Photo credit: edenpictures via VisualHunt / CC BY
German, however, always writes out its diphtongues: Mai, leider, Meute, Bäume. Any single vowel will be pronounced cleanly – try thinking of them as having an “h” at the end:
Don’t draw them out too long, though, unless there actually IS an “h” after them, or they are followed by a consonant + vowel cluster, or an “ß”.
For reasons best known to them, Germans pronounce “y” like a “ü”.
Remember that the German Umlaut is not just there for show. Photo via Visualhunt.com
Remember, too, that those little dots on top of the vowels aren’t just pretty. They modify the sound of the vowel.
Try not to – or at least not too much. Confusing? Most English speakers learning German either let it fall “Rehg” instead of “rege” or overpronounce it “reh-GUH”. The sound is more of an “uh” than anything else, but light, as though you were letting your breath out a little loudly at the end of the word.
This video shows you the different sorts of “e” in German and lets you practice them.
“C” and “z” are pronounced much the same in German, and not like either the English “c” or the English “z”. Both are pronounced “ts”.
“Zeppelin” in pronounced in German: “Tseh-peh-leen.” Photo via Visualhunt.com
An “s” at the beginning of a word is pronounced like the English “Z”, unless it is followed by a “p” or “t”, in which case it is pronounced “sh”.
An “s” at the end, is is spoken like the English “s” in words like “stress”, “see” or “sweet”.
Both a “ss” and an “ß” are pronounced like in “stress” or “sweet”.
When faced with one of those amazing German constructs such as “Flughafenbetreibergesellschaft” – a company that runs aeroports – most English speakers strike their colours and run away weeping. However, they are not pronounced any different than their individual words.
Once you know their how to dissect individual components of long words, pronounce them just as you would if they weren’t written together – just don’t pause between the words:
More or less.
PONS and some online translation dictionaries such as LEO and Linguee give you the pronunciation of words if you are unsure.