German Roots Special Interest Group

How do you say….?  Wie sagt man…?  Part 1

by Ken Weaver, German Roots Group Leader, Lee County Genealogical Society


For those of us with Germanic roots, there is much to cause problems such as decoding Gothic script, or deciphering handwriting that looks nothing like typical American Palmer method. After you’ve figured out what the words would look like in a more modern font, you’re faced with the task of being able to pronounce the words. Unfortunately, so many of the rules you learned as you began to learn to read in first grade in an American school, just don’t apply to German. The purpose of this and subsequent articles is to help you better say the names of your beloved ancestors and the places they came from in German-speaking lands. Because most of you are probably not linguists by profession, explanations will be as untechnical as possible in order for you to better understand the rules of German pronunciation.
Let’s begin with the alphabet itself.  It is very, very similar to our English one.  A German speaker reciting the alphabet would say the same twenty six letters that English speakers do, but there are some additions that are not found in English. One of the additions is the letter ‘β’ (called an ess-tsett). The other additions are the three vowels ä, ö, ü with the two dots above known as an Umlaut. (Umlaut means ‘changed sound’ in German, and that is exactly what the Umlaut does to the vowel sound:  the letter a is said very differently from the letter ä.)
We will look at decoding German words by exploring vowel sounds and consonant sounds. The vowels are the letters a, e, i, o, u, and y. Unlike English, y is always a vowel in German. The rest of the letters are consonants (b, c, d, f, g…). German has very strict rules about which consonants and which vowels may occur together and which ones may not. (Proper German spelling is controlled by the Council of German Orthography, which has members from all of the German speaking countries in Europe. No such organization exists for English, so spelling in English varies greatly around the world.)
German is for the most part a much more phonetic language than English.  With few exceptions, if a German word contains a letter, you need to pronounce that letter. One exception is the letter h after a vowel. The German name Maher would be pronounced as if the h were not there.  The h is also silent in the combination th.  While modern German has very few words with this th combination, your ancestor’s name may have this duo and it is pronounced as if it were just a hard t as in the English word tea. Another exception is the consonant combination dt that you might find at the end of a German word such as the city Darmstadt.  The dt combination is pronounced just like a hard t.
Because German is more phonetic, other consonant combinations that cause English speakers trouble are kn and pf. Both letters are pronounced in each of these. The German word  Knopf (from which our English word knob is derived) is a good word to practice on to sound out all five of the printed letters. The p is not overly emphasized, but it is pronounced. If you can isolate the pf in the English word cupful, you’ve got the proper sound!
The biggest pronunciation challenge to speakers of English is the ch combination.  There are two varieties of this: a hard and a soft. The hard ch has no equivalent in English and never occurs at the beginning of a word or syllable. Hard ch is only found after the vowels a, o, u, and au. These are the same vowels in German that can have an Umlaut, but ch even after the umlauted version of these vowels is not a hard one. The sound is produced in the back of the throat, exactly where the vowel sounds a, o, u, and au are produced and is caused by a free flow of air. It is this very sound that makes German the supposed ‘guttural’ language it is and unfortunately there is no English sound anywhere close to help you produce a proper German hard ch.
On the other hand, the soft ch does have an English equivalent. If you overemphasize the h in the English word human you can approximate the German soft ch sound. Unfortunately, many American English speakers make the h in human silent and therefore may have difficulty producing the German soft ch sound. The soft ch sound occurs in all other locations in German words, even at the beginning of a word.
The final sound we will deal with in this installment is the German z, sometimes spelled tz. These are always pronounced like the ts at the end of the English words cats.  As you well know, that ts sound does not occur at the beginning of English words and that’s what makes it difficult for English speakers to produce it when saying the many German words that begin with the letter z.



How do you say….?  Wie sagt man…?  Part 2


This article is part two of the series to help you better pronounce your ancestor’s German name by finishing up with the consonant sounds. The series will conclude in the next issue with a discussion of German long and short vowel sounds, including the vowels with an Umlaut, as well as word stress.
For the most part, the consonant sounds remaining have English equivalents and are not typically a problem for English speakers to produce. The one remaining consonant sound that has no direct English match is for the letter r. Most Germans produce this sound in the back of the mouth by allowing air to slightly vibrate the uvula, the small piece of flesh that hangs from the roof of the mouth. The r is not overly trilled or rolled as it is in Spanish and is almost just ‘swallowed,’ particularly in a word that ends in -er. Although not very common, the German r can be produced with a tongue roll, but this is limited to very few German speakers. Needless to say, like the hard ch, this sound is a troublesome, but not impossible, one for English speakers to articulate.
Most of remaining consonant sounds all have English equivalents and it’s just a matter of knowing which letters ‘say’ which sounds when:
 j always sounds like an English y as in the word you.
v always sounds like an f as in fear.
w always sounds like a v as in verse.
ng always sounds like the English ng in sing.
The location of certain letters in German words can dictate how they are pronounced. In both English and German there are three related consonant pairs: b and p, d and t, g and k. The b sound is produced similarly to the p sound; the only difference is whether the vocal chords are vibrating or not. (And you do that without even thinking about it!) To articulate a b sound, the vocal chords vibrate; in the production of the p sound, they do not. The same applies to d and t as well as g and k. And while these sounds are easily made by English speakers, the issue is one of where the letter is located in the word.
The letters b, d, and g will all be said as their paired counterparts p, t, and k when at the end of a syllable or before an s or t (but not -ng). In all other locations, b, d, g are said just as they are in English. Some common German words to practice on: Kalb (calf), und (and), and Tag (day).  The combination – ng is always said like it is in the English word sing and another unique pronunciation for the letter g is if it follows an i ig.  Then it is said with a German soft ch sound: ichG in all other locations is pronounced like the g in the English word good.
One of the German sounds that has a variety of spellings is the equivalent of the English sh sound. One thing, however, is certain: if the letters s and h come together in a German word, the s belongs to the first syllable and the h belongs to the second. An easily remembered example would be the German word for household: Haushalt.
Primarily, the sh sound in German is spelled sch. It is not uncommon to see German names beginning with Schl, Schm, Schn or even Schr. But the sh sound is also used in the combinations st, sp, str, spr, as long as these comibinations begin the syllable. For example, the composer Strauss would be pronounced Shtrauss. Of these four combinations, only st can occur at the end of a German word or syllable. When in this position, st is pronounced just like the end of the English word last. But, what makes this a bit more difficult is that there are regional differences in how those four combinations are articulated. In northern Germany, they are pronounced very similarly to our English pronunciations, whereas in Bavaria all would contain the sh sound. Adding to the difficulty is st you might find in the middle of the word. Unfortunately, some knowledge of German would definitely help. Two examples that come to mind are the German word for birthday – Geburtstag and a common last name – Fenstermacher. In both cases the syllables are divided between the s and the t and would not be pronounced with the sh sound.
When the letter s occurs in a German word before or between vowels it sounds like an English z as in the word zoo.  The uniquely German letter ß is always pronounced like the ss at the end of hiss.
And finally, two other German consonants that need to be discussed are l and c. When an English speaker produces an l sound, the tip of the tongue usually touches the upper teeth. A good German l, however, has the tongue flatten out on the roof of the mouth behind the teeth without touching them.
Luckily, using an English l in pronouncing German words is readily understood. The letter c in modern German rarely stands by itself; it has been replaced by a k or even an s or z. However, in older German names, you may encounter a single c and it would be pronounced by the same guidelines you would use in English.  A hard c (k-sound) is followed by vowels such as a, o, or u.  A soft c (s-sound) would occur in all other locations.


How do you say….?  Wie sagt man…?  Part 3

This article is the completion of the series to help you better pronounce your ancestors’ German names and the places they lived, by exploring vowel sounds and words stress.
German single vowel sounds are much ‘purer’ than English ones. If you listen carefully when you pronounce the long vowel i in English, you really are ‘gliding’ from one vowel sound to another: long i to long e. The same applies to English long a and similarly English long o and u are ‘glides’ from one vowel sound to another.  That is not the case in German and it is sometimes very difficult for English speakers to cut their German vowels off before ‘gliding’ to another sound.
Critical to the pronunciation of German vowels are the rules for long and short vowel sounds. Unlike English, the rules for German long and short vowels are relatively simple, and focus on the length of time the vowel is said. English long vowel sounds are the same as the letter’s name in the alphabet, but English short vowel sounds vary dramatically. In German, the vowel a is pronounced /ah/ whether it is long or short.  A German long vowel is said for more time than a short one is.
A German long vowel is followed by only ONE consonant as in the word Vater; a short vowel by more than one, as in danke. The main exception to this rule is a vowel followed by an h. An h after a vowel in German is silent and serves to make the vowel long, as in zehn.  Only three of the vowels may be doubled in German:  a, e, and o. These doubled vowels are also long, as in Aachen, See, Boot.  And finally, vowels at the end of a syllable/word are long, as in du, ja.  The important exception to that rule is -e at the end of a word. It is not silent as it might be in English, but it is an even shorter than the /e/ as in the word get. The basic rule that short vowels are followed by more than one consonant does have numerous exceptions, primarily short one syllable words (in, im, das) and word endings: -e, -el, -en, but not -er.
That all said, German vowel sounds are pronounced as noted in the chart below which provides words with a similar English sound and a German example of each.


Vowel Long Similar English Long German Example Short Similar English Short German Example
a father Vater mop danke
e late (no glide!) See net Bett
i beet ihm inn ich
o note (no glide!) Oder got Bonn
u noon (no glide!) du put Bund


Any discussion of German vowels must include the Umlaut, the two little dots that can be found in only four locations: ä, ö, ü, äu. Umlaut means ‘changed sound’ and that is exactly what occurs from the sounds indicated in the chart above. The same rules for long and short vowel sounds apply. Ä is the easiest to deal with, for it is similar, although not exactly the same, to the vowel sound in late (German long e). Ö and ü have no English equivalents and do pose problems for English speakers. Ö is produced by opening the lips slightly rounded and forcing out an English long a. Pronouncing ü is similar, except an English long o is forced out. (Readers familiar with an old Wayne Newton song should now understand why he pronounced danke schön as he did. And those who speak some French have a similar sound to ü as in the word peu.)
And finally, the letter y. It is always a vowel in German and when it isn’t attached to another vowel and is in the middle of a word, it will be pronounced the same as ü. At the end of a word, it is just like English:  a long e sound as in city.
In German only certain vowels may be combined: ei (also ey, ay) ie, au, eu and äu. The combinations ei, ey, and ay are always said like the English long i in mine. The combination ie is just the opposite. It is pronounced like an English long e in beet. The combination au is always pronounced like the vowel sound in howl and eu and äu are the same as in the word boy. (While it is possible to find other vowel combinations in German words, these would all be multiple syllable words and they would be divided into syllables between the vowels:  Be-amte, Auto-unfall, ego-istisch.)
And finally, what about ÿ? Since the y with an Umlaut does not exist in modern German, it is really anybody’s guess as to how it might have been pronounced centuries ago. As a single vowel, it might be said as ü. In combination with a, it might be pronounced the same as ai, au, or even äu. And the combination eÿ might be pronounced similarly to ei or eu. There is probably a German linguist who has a better handle than this writer on the pronunciation of ÿ, but no research was readily available.
A discussion of German pronunciation would not be complete without some mention of word stress. Stress in German multi-syllable words typically occurs on the first syllable. The exceptions to that rule are words that begin with the prefixes be-, ge-, emp-, ent-, er-, ver-, zer-. These are normally verbs, but can include nouns that are created from the original verb form. An easy word to help English speakers remember these prefix exceptions would be verboten (forbidden). And finally, words of foreign origin will usually have the accent on the end:  Kultur, Präsident.
It was the intent of these three articles to help you as a genealogist better pronounce the German names and words that you encounter in your research. While the goal was never to make you fluent speakers of German, it is hoped that these articles have been helpful to you in your work.

This group usually meets from 1 pm to 3 pm on the second Friday of each month October through May in the LCGS Resource Room at the Harvey Engelhardt Funeral Home, 1600 Colonial Blvd., Fort Myers. The Resource Room entrance is located on the east side of the building, just south of the carport. There is a sign at the door. Check the Calendar of Events webpage for more information.

Check out our recommended websites for your German research.

You can download the Mailing List for German Genealogy (Was: German-American Genealogical Partnership).

Those of us who are doing research on our German ancestors are always asking the question, “Why did they come?” “What was going on in Germany that might motivate them to venture to an unknown land and leave their families behind?”  Articles shown below will help you understand the dynamics of German speaking countries.

Recommended books about German Americans that will give you even more information look in the Youth Department of your Library. They have the subject broken down in a more manageable form. Two books from the Lee County Library that I found especially helpful were German Americans: American Voices by Bernhard and Rosemary Cook and The German Americans by Anne Galicich. Both of these books are in the Youth Department. 


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Your Family Research