The German Alphabet: Pronunciation and Writing

Just as the English language, German belongs to the West Germanic Language Family, so these two languages were once dialects originating from a common language. These dialects were once mutually intelligible until the 8th century CE.

Since then, significant linguistic developments have occurred, leading to a noticeable divergence between English and German. 

If you want to learn German, let’s first take a look at what modern German sounds like by explaining how the letters of the alphabet work and how they might resemble or differ from their English pronunciation.

How Many Letters Does the German Language Have?

The German alphabet is more or less like the English one. We have just got four additional letters. One problem you might encounter though is the different pronunciation of German letters.

Some letters or two letter combinations in German even have several sounds. The German vowels a, e, i, o, u and Umlaute ä, ö, ü also have a long and a short version. Take a look at the following alphabet table.

Should you have a more appropriate English word that represents a certain German sound better than the one I have picked, just let me know and I’ll improve my table.

The Letters and German Words for Each

So, here is Das Deutsche Alphabet (The German Alphabet):

(present content below as table)

Letter Pronunciation like in… Example A along:  fathershort: armAal (eel) // jagen (to hunt)Arm (the arm) // arm (poor)Ä älong:  thereshort: betÄhnlichkeit (similarity) // spät (late)Ärger (trouble) // hätte (had)Au ausowAuge (eye) // auf (on top)Äu äutoyÄußerung (uttering) // Häuser (houses)B bsoft: bearhard: lip (when at end)Bär (bear) // bitte (please)ClubC c (rare on its own)soft:  ratshard: catCaesar Cola (only found in non-German words)Ch chç: a whispered “yyyy(es)”x: loch (ness) (scratchy ch)k: characterChina // ich (I); after: ä, ö, ü, i, e & conson.after: a, o, u // Dach (roof)Charakter, Chor (choir)cklockDackel (dachshund)D dsoft: dreamhard: team (when at end)DramaHandE elong:      heyshort:     betweak I : commaweak II: ~butterEkel (disgust) // gehen (to go)Echo // echt (true)only at end: kommeonly at end: VaterEi eilieEimer (bucket) // Reise (journey)Eu euboyEuter (udder) // heute (today)F ffishFisch (fish) // doof (stupid)Pf pfhelpfulPfeife (pipe) // Gipfel (summit)G gsoft:      pleasurehard:     gartenharder:  ticGigolo // Rage (rage) Garten (garden) // Magen (stomach)Tag (day)H hhearable: hotelsilent: –Hotelnever at beginning: sehenI ilong:  feelshort: pityIgel (hedgehog) // wider (against)fitieeelLiebe (love)J jyogajournalistJahr (year) // ja  (yes)JournalistK kcoldKälte (cold) // Takelage (rigging)L llongLand // viel (a lot)M mmanMann (man) // Same (seed)-benrhythmgeben (give)N nneedleNadel (needle) // Fund (the find)nglungLunge (lung)O olong:   rawshort:  lotOstern (Easter), Bote (messenger)Osten   (east), kommen (to come)Ö ölong:   ~herdshort:  ~hurtÖl (oil) // Lösung (solution)Öffnung (opening) // geöffnet (open[ed])P ppersonPerson // Appetit (appetite)Ph phfearPhysik (physics) // HieroglyphenQu ququeerQuark (curd) // gequatscht (gossipped)R rexcept at end: Moulin rougeat end:             ~earReiter (rider) // bereit (ready)Uhr (watch/clock)S ssoft (beginning):            doze harsh (anywhere else): must Sahne (cream) Bus (bus)Sch schshySchule (school) // Busch (bush)St stbeginning of syllable:        fishedanywhere else: lustStadt (city) //

Unlike English, the German language adheres to consistent phonetic rules, enabling you to phonetically sound out words based on the alphabet and achieve accurate pronunciation in most scenarios.

Most German consonants are pronounced similarly to English ones. Also, in German words are typically stressed on the first syllable.

German Alphabet 101: Master the Letters of the ABC | OptiLingo

The Only German letter Not Part of the Latin Alphabet

Unlike the English alphabet, the German alphabet includes a unique character: the letter ‘ß’. This letter, known as “Eszett” or “sharp S,” is the only German letter that is not part of the Latin alphabet.

The character ß, commonly referred to as a ligature and also known as “scharfes s” (sharp “s)”, is less complex than it may seem — it essentially represents the combination “ss.”

It is actually pronounced just as the “s” sound in English and’ is used in cases where ‘ss’ or ‘s’ can’t be used, such as after long vowels and diphthongs. When typing, it is entirely acceptable to substitute the ß with “ss,” transforming “Straße” into “Strasse.”

The Umlaut

Now, there are four umlaut letters, which might be new to some English speakers: Ä, ö, ü, ß. Let’s talk more about what these new letters are and how to use them.

The diacritical mark, known as an umlaut, has its origins in the presence of an “e” that once followed certain vowels to signify a slightly altered pronunciation. With the advent of the printing press, printers devised a space-efficient method to indicate this pronunciation distinction by positioning the “e” above the vowel. This practice eventually transformed into the compact two dots we recognize as the modern umlaut.

Learners shouldn’t ignore the umlaut sounds and letters from the German alphabet because it carries meaning that sometimes marks the difference between words. For example, the word “schon” means ”already” and “schön” with an umlaut means “beautiful.”

A Greek Letter in the German Alphabet?

Did you know there was a letter of Greek origin in the German alphabet? Well, that’s the Ypsilon ( Y ). It originated from Greek but is rarely used in German.

It usually appears in foreign words and is pronounced like the “ou” sound in “you,” whether it’s at the beginning of a word or the end of a word (for example: Yoga, Yacht, Yeti, Yuppie, Yucca, Hobby, Party, Handy)

Silent (or Lengthening) “H”

As a general rule, all letters are pronounced in German. Due to this, you’ll find that the same letter combinations of two sounds, for example, are often pronounced differently in German than in English.

German and English both use “h” at the beginning of words the same way, with a puff of air.

However, what about the cases where “h” appears in the middle of the word?

  • Stahl (“shtaal”) – steel
  • stehlen (“shteyl’n”) – to steal
  • Mühle (“müü-luh”) – a mill
  • Bohne (“bo-nuh”) – bean
  • ihn (“een”) – him

In these cases, German uses an “h” to signify that the accompanying vowel is pronounced distinctly and is intentionally long. This phenomenon is known as the Dehungs-h or ‘lengthening-h’.

Consider the vowel length in these pairs:

  • Stahl vs. Stall – “shtaaal” vs. “shtall” – ‘steel’ vs. stable stall
  • fühlen vs. füllen – “füüü-luhn” vs. “füll-uhn” – ‘to feel’ vs. ‘to fill’

Furthermore, German employs the silent “h” to differentiate between words that share similar pronunciations:

  • mehr Meer (“mair”) – ‘more sea’
  • die Wahl vom Wal (“vaal”) – ‘the choice of the whale’
  • eine wahre Ware (“vaa-ruh vaa-ruh”) – ‘a true ware’
  • leerer Lehrer (“leyrer”) – ’empty teacher’

So, this “h” serves to indicate longer vowels.

Where can I hear these letters spoken out loud?

If you are not sure how to pronounce a combination of letters, most online dictionaries allow you to listen to the pronunciation of any new vocabulary item you look up and they have come a long way.

Try DeepL and Google translate or be blown away by, using Amazon’s voices which are among the best on the market. Just look up the word and click on the little speaker symbol.

But the best way to get accustomed to difficult pronunciation is to approach whole words as well as whole sentences as the word and sentence melody contain a lot of subtle information about a speaker’s mood or irony.

You’ll notice that foreign words are usually pronounced similar to how they are in the original language. A double consonant is pronounced as a single consonant, except in compound words.

How to Write the German Extra Letters on a Non-German Keyboard

On any Apple device it usually suffices to press down the a, o, u or s letters a bit longer and this menu will appear:

In Google docs though that doesn’t work. Also on a Windows or Linux driven machine you’d have to enter some weird codes like ALT+265 (for lowercase letters with an Umlaut: ä : Alt + 0228 ö : Alt + 0246 ü : Alt + 0252 and uppercase letters with an Umlaut: Ä : Alt + 0196 Ö : Alt + 0214 Ü : Alt + 0220) which I find quite impractical. One of my students suggested the following solution which I use until today. Simply replace the Umlaut forms the following way:

ä = a: a:rgern
ö = o: o:ffentlich
ü = u: u:bel
ß = B StraBe

Alternatively, as practiced in German crosswords, you can write the Umlauts this way (not the ß though):

ä = ae aergern
ö = oe oeffentlich
ü = ue uebel

This is even faster than the push-down approach from above.

German Orthography Reform

The 1996 German orthography reform (Reform der deutschen Rechtschreibung), sought to simplify German spelling and punctuation without significantly altering the familiar language rules. It was a collaborative effort among the German-speaking countries—Germany, Austria, Liechtenstein, and Switzerland.

Attitudes to the reform

The reformed orthography became mandatory in schools and public administration, sparking a public debate and a campaign against the changes in the old orthography. In response, the Federal Constitutional Court of Germany ruled that, as there was no legislation governing orthography, individuals could choose to spell as they preferred outside educational institutions, including using traditional spelling.

In March 2006, the Council for German Orthography unanimously agreed to retract the most contentious changes from the reform.

What the reform covered

The reformed rules covered various aspects of the German language, including the correspondence between sounds and written letters, capitalization, joined and separate words, hyphenated spellings, punctuation, and hyphenation at the end of a line. Notably, place names and family names were exempt from the reform.

Lovely Songs to Learn the German Letters

For over a year now SmarterGerman has been cooperating with Harry Bum Tschak in order to create music videos that help you with learning the German grammar and certain basics like the alphabet.

Hör mal rein:

Last but not least, I’d like to present to you Benjamin, a gifted musician from the German south who wrote a song for German kids to learn the German alphabet.

Enjoy the German Alphabet Rap by Rapartschule and make sure to check out his other songs though their texts might be a bit too hard to understand if you are a beginner.

Go to Youtube and search for “Sesamstraße – Lulatsch hat ein Geheimnis” (you can copy the title from here if you don’t have a German ß yet) for a wonderful sketch that helps with learning the German alphabet that I can’t embed here due to (c) reasons.

FAQs about the German alphabet letters

Here are some of the questions people learning German frequently ask about German pronunciation and spelling.

Does German have any special letters?

Yes, German has a unique letter known as “ß,” called “Eszett” or “sharp s.” It represents a specific “ss” sound and is used in certain words to convey a distinct pronunciation.

How many letters does the German alphabet have?

The German alphabet has 26 standard letters, just as its English equivalent. However, the German alphabet contains one additional character and umlauted forms of three vowels.

How do you replace ß in English?

If you don’t have a German keyboard, ß can be replaced with “ss.” This substitution is often applied by English speakers, since the symbol does not appear in English and many other European languages.

Summing Up: The German Alphabet: Pronunciation and Writing

We have covered the basics of the German alphabet, spelling and pronunciation rules and some online tools that offer a helping hand to those learning German.

If you want to learn German at a higher level and keep making great progress, check out the SmartGerman blog and courses for more insights and help.

Just as with any new language, understanding German speakers starts with pronunciation and also extends to culture, so we’ve got it all covered.