The German Alphabet – a Complete Guide
The German alphabet uses the same 26 letters as English, plus the extra character “ß”, and three vowels with umlauts, “ä”, “ü”, and “ö”. This article is the most comprehensive guide you’ll find to the German alphabet anywhere on the Internet. I’ll explain everything you need to know to read, write and pronounce the German alphabet.
Unlike English, German spelling is generally consistent. Once you’ve learned the German spelling rules, it becomes easy to spell and pronounce most German words.
First, let’s look at the 26 “normal” German letters. Just like in English, each letter has a name. The name doesn’t always hint at how the letter is pronounced, in the same way that the English “w” sound doesn’t appear in that letter’s name (“double-u”).
This table gives the name of each letter, and the international phonetic alphabet (IPA) pronunciation of each name:
If you don’t know how to read IPA, check out the Fluent in 3 Months guide to reading IPA.
You know how the letter “z” is called “zee” in America and “zed” in Britain? Something similar happens with a few of the German letters. The above chart gives the letter names in Germany. Austrians do things a little differently:
- “j” is called “jeh” (/jeː/)
- “q” is called “queh” (/kveː/)
- “y” is still called “ypsilon”, but it’s pronounced /ʏˈpsiːlɔn/ (the difference being that the stress is on the second syllable instead of the first.)
Below we’ll also cover four “special” letters of German (“ß” and the umlauted vowels), but first, let’s look at how the above 26 letters are pronounced.
Before we start, a quick reminder: in German, all nouns are always written with the first letter capitalized.
How to Pronounce the German Alphabet
As I said earlier, German pronunciation is generally consistent. It’s usually clear how a word should be pronounced from its spelling. The catch is that some letters have more than one pronunciation depending on their position in the word. There are also a lot of special letter combinations you need to remember, much like how the “sh” in English sounds different to an “s” followed by an “h”.
German is a diverse language with a lot of different dialects, but the rules below apply in most places, most of the time.
How to Pronounce German Consonants
Let’s start with the easy stuff. ”f”, ”h”, ”k”, ”m”, ”n”, and ”p” are all pronounced the same as in English. “L” and “t” are basically the same too, with one small difference: in both cases, your tongue should be slightly further forward in the mouth, touching the upper teeth as well as the gums.
The following consonants are easy, too:
- “c” rarely appears outside of letter combinations like “sch”, but when it’s on its own, it’s pronounced like a German “z” (see below) before “e”, “i”, “y”, “ä”, “ö”. Before any other vowel it’s pronounced “hard”, like a “k”. (Generally, when an English word has a “hard c” , the German cognate is spelled with a “k”, e.g. “the music” vs. “die Musik”.)
- “j” is pronounced like an English “y” – like in the word ja (“yes”), pronounced “ya”.
- “q”, like in English, is always followed by a “u”. The difference is that in English, “qu” is pronounced “kw”, but in German it’s pronounced “kv”.
- “v” is pronounced like an English “f”.
- “w” is pronounced like an English “v”. (Volkswagen in German is pronounced “folks-vagon”.)
- “x” is always pronounced “ks”, even at the beginning of a word.
- “z” is pronounced “ts”.
(Side note: it’s very stereotypical of native German speakers to pronounce “w” like a “v” when speaking English, for example “vat does Vill vant?” But if you spend time with Germans whose English is intermediate, you’ll notice they very often make the opposite mistake – pronouncing an English “v” like a “w”, e.g. “the wan is wery waluable”! This is a great example of hypercorrection; these speakers are trying so hard to not pronounce “w” in the stereotypically German way that they change “v” to “w” even when they’re not supposed to.)
Some consonants change their pronunciation depending on their position in the word:
- “b” “d”, and “g” are pronounced the same as in English, except at the end of a word, where they become “p”, “t” and “k” respectively. Also note that “d” is “dentalised” in the same way as “t”; your tongue should be slightly further forward in your mouth than it is in English.
- “s” is pronounced like an English “z” at the beginning of a word or between two vowels, and like an English “s” elsewhere. (In Austria, an “s” at the beginning of a word is pronounced like an English “s”.)
The only consonant left is “r”. This has two main pronunciations depending on dialect, and both are quite tricky for a native English speaker. In “Standard German”, it’s a guttural, raspy sound from the back of your throat, like the “ch” in the Scottish “loch”. Some people pronounce it as a “uvular trill”.
In Switzerland, Australia and Bavaria, “r” is pronounced as an “alveolar trill” – the famous “rolled R” sound that’s found in many other languages, like Spanish. Check out the Fi3M guide to pronouncing the rolled R for more details on this.
How to Pronounce German Consonant Combinations
In English, certain letter combinations like “ch”, “th” and “sh” have special pronunciations that must be learned separately. German has its own set of combinations, but they aren’t really harder than the English ones.
The trickiest one for English speakers is “ch”, which has two pronunciations. After an “i”, “e”, “ä', “ü” or “ö” it’s a sound called the voiceless palatal fricative (/ç/ in IPA), which is a sort of thin, hissy sound using a tongue position close to “sh”. We actually use it in English in, for example, the “h” in “hue”. Another way to hear it: say “cute” slowly, and notice what your tongue does between the “c” and the “u”. This sound appears in lots of common German words like ich, mich and nicht (“I”, “my”, “not”) so you’ll get lots of practice with it as your German progresses.
(In some German dialects this sound is pronounced like an English “sh”, which is how JFK pronounced it in his famous line “ich bin ein Berliner”.)
After any other vowel, “ch” is pronounced like a slightly harder “h”. Say “h”, but tighten the back of your throat a little more so that the sound is darker and noisier (but not as raspy or guttural as a full-blown German “r”.) You’ll hear this in words like auch or machen.
This rule is not about the written letter but the position of your tongue. “I”, “e”, “eu” and the umlauted vowels all put your tongue up near the teeth, so the hissy “ch” is a closer, more natural place for the tongue to go afterwards. “A”, “u” and “au” all come from the back of the mouth so the throatier “ch” is the natural sound to follow with there.
Here are the other consonant clusters:
- “tsch” is pronounced like an English “ch”, as in tschüss (“bye”).
- “sch” is pronounced like an English “sh”.
- In “sp” and “st”, the “s” is pronounced like an English “sh”. So Spaniel and Student, which both have the meaning you’d expect, are pronounced “shpaniel” and “shtudent” respectively.
- The “-ng” suffix is pronounced the same as in English.
- “-ig” at the end of the word is pronounced like the German “ich”.
- “pf” is a weird sound we don’t have in English. As the spelling suggests, it’s like a cross between “p” and “f”. Try pronouncing both consonants at once by saying the word “cupful” quickly. Make sure you pronounce the “p” and “f” simultaneously, not like “puh-fuh”.
How to Pronounce German Vowels
Most German vowel sounds exist in English, but there are a few tricky ones that take practice. Vowel sounds tend to vary more across different dialects than consonant sounds do, but the following guidelines will be fine in most places.
If you really want to master the pronunciation of vowels, I strongly recommend studying the International Phonetic Alphabet and learning the basics of vowel phonetics so you know what terms like “vowel height” and “vowel roundness” mean. You don’t need a degree in linguistics, but understanding these concepts makes it much easier to know where to put your tongue to pronounce a difficult vowel.
I’ll avoid technical phonetic stuff as much as possible in my descriptions, but I’ll include the IPA symbol for each vowel sound, written in square brackets, e.g. [a].
- a is [a], like an English “a” as in “hat”. This sound is also written ah (Zahl, “number”) or aa (Staat, “state”).
- e. Before a double consonant as in Bett (“bed”), this is [ɛ], like the “e” in the English “get” or “bed”. Otherwise it’s usually [e], which is like the first half of the English “ay” sound in “way”. Notice that when you say the English “ay”, your tongue starts low in your mouth and moves up towards the teeth. The [e] sound is the vowel you get when you put your tongue in the position where “way” starts, then don’t move your tongue. The [e] sound can also be written eh (mehr, “more”) or ee (Armee, “army”).
At the end of a word, for example in bitte (“please”), e is a schwa, a neutral “uh” sound, like the final syllable in the English pronunciation of “Canada”.
- i is usually [ɪ], the English “i” as in “sit” (or “set” if you’re from New Zealand). It can also be an [i], the English “ee” sound as in “see”. [i] can also be written ie (nie, “never”), ih (ihn, “him”), or ieh (sieht, “sees”).
- o is [ɔ], the vowel found in the American “thought” or British “not”.
- u before a double consonant, as in Mutter (“mother”), is [ʊ], the vowel in the English “put” or “wood”. Elsewhere it’s usually [u], the “oo” sound in the English “shoot” or “food”. [u] can also be written uh (Ruhe, “quiet”).
- y is considered a vowel. It’s normally only used in words of Greek origin like Psychologie, where it’s pronounced the same as a German umlauted “ü”. I’ll explain umlauted vowels below. You’ll also see “y” in some English loanwords like Hobby or Baby, where the pronunciation is unchanged from English.
There are three “diphthongs” (double vowels) in German:
- eu, as in Deutsch, is pronounced like an English “oy” as in “boy” or “toy”… kind of. That’s the advice most German pronunciation guides will give you, and if you pronounce “eu” this way you’ll be understood, but the real German sound is subtly different. In the English “oy”, your lips start off small and rounded for the “o” but spread into a smile as you get to the “y”. To pronounce the German “eu” sound like a native, keep your lips rounded throughout the vowel. Your tongue should move, but your lips shouldn’t.
- ei is pronounced like the English “eye”. Just think of Einstein. This sound is also written ai, ey, or ay.
- au, as in auch (“also”), is similar to the English “ow” as in “wow”. The difference is that the English “ow” ends in a [u] sound (“oo” as in “shoot”), with the tongue at the very top and front of the mouth. In the German “au” your tongue doesn’t move quite so far, and stops in the [ʊ] position (“u” as in “put”).
How Do You Pronounce Umlauted Letters (Ä, Ü, Ö) in German?
Three vowels in German – “A”, “U”, and “O” – can be written with an umlaut: “Ä”, “Ü” and “Ö”. (You’ll never see an umlaut on an “E” or “I” in German, except very rarely in some place names or personal names.)
Umlauted vowels represent the “fronted” versions of the non-umlauted letters, meaning that, for example, “ä” is like “a” but with the tongue further forward in the mouth. Just remember that:
- ä is pronounced [ɛ] or [e] – see the description for “e” above.
- ö is [ø], one of the hardest German vowels for English speakers to master. Say the German eh sound, [e], feel where your tongue is, and notice that your lips are spread widely in a smile. (Remember that your tongue must stay still as you say this vowel, unlike in the English “ay!”.) To pronounce ö, put your tongue in the position for eh, but say it with your lips puckered roundly, not spread.
- ü is [y], another sound we don’t have in English. (It exists in French, where it’s written as u.) Just like ö is a “German e with rounded lips”, ü is the round-lips version of the English “ee” sound as in “see”. Say “ee”, but with your lips puckered up for a kiss instead of spread wide like a smile, and you’ll produce a perfect German ü.
Umlauts often indicate a grammatical change:
- An umlaut often distinguishes the singular and plural forms of a noun: Apfel means “apple” and Äpfel means “apples”. (You can see echoes of this in English irregular plurals like “foot/feet”.)
- Some German verbs have an umlauted vowel in their second- and third-person forms. For example: ich fange an (“I start”), du fängst an (“you start”).
- When adding the diminutive suffixes -chen or -lein to a noun, if the final syllable of the original word is stressed then the vowel becomes umlauted, e.g. das Brot (“the bread”), das Brötchen (“the little bread”).
The umlauted diphthong äu (e.g. Fräulein) is pronounced identically to the German eu.
Sometimes “ä”, “ü” and “ö” are written as “ae”, “ue” and “oe”. For example, können (“to be able”) can be written koennen. This is the standard way to write umlauted vowels if, say, the computer you’re typing on doesn’t have a way to type umlauts.
How to Pronounce “ß” in German
The short answer: like an English “s”.
The full story: “ß”, called Eszett or scharfes S (“sharp S”), is a strange character that’s not found in any language except German. It originated as a combination of the “s” and “z” characters (actually of the archaic “long s” “ſ” and “tailed z” “ʒ”), and it looks kind of like a “B”. (Don’t confuse it with β, the Greek letter beta.) The name Eszett is a simple combination of the names of “s” and “z” – look those two letters up on the alphabet chart above and you’ll see what I mean.
“ß” isn’t used at all in Switzerland or Liechtenstein. In those countries, it’s always replaced by “ss”.
In Germany and Austria, “ß” is one of three ways to write the /s/ sound; the other two are “s” and “ss”.
The important point is that “ß” is pronounced like an “s”. Just remember which spelling is used for which word as you learn vocabulary; the pattern is more intuitive than the technical description makes it sound.
Traditionally, “ß” was not considered to have a capital form; if you wanted to capitalise it you’d write “SS”, so for example Straße (“street”) might be rendered as STRASSE. Some printers, however, would use “ẞ”, and there was a longstanding debate as to whether this was a “real” letter. But in 2017, the Rat für deutsche Rechtschreibung (Council for German Orthography, the international body that regulates the German language) ruled that “ẞ” is acceptable, officially settling this pedantic issue.
The above spelling rules have only been in place since 1996. In that year, the Council signed an agreement to update and modernise German spelling, and one of the major changes was the rules around “ß”.
For example, the spelling of the word daß (“that”) was changed to dass. So you might still see the outdated spellings in older German texts.
What’s the Difference between -e and -er in German?
When a word ends in “-er”, the “r” is silent in most (but not all) dialects. In dialects where the “r” is silent, it takes a bit of practice to tell it apart from an “-e”.
Remember that “-e” at the end of a word is pronounced as a schwa. The difference between this and the “-er” sound is subtle, and it’s the difference between e.g. meine and meiner, different grammatical forms of the word for “my”.
In IPA, “-e” is [ə] and “-er” is [ɐ]. Listen to how they’re both pronounced in this video:
Watch Out For Non-Silent Letters!
In English a lot of words have “silent letters”, like the “k” in “knee”. Don’t let this trip you up when speaking German, because silent letters in German are extremely rare.
In particular, remember to:
- Say the “k” out loud in words that start with “kn-”, like Knie (“knee”).
- Say the “p” out loud in words that start with “ps-”, like Psychologie (“psychology”).
- Don’t drop the final “-e”; e.g. Mitte (“middle”) is pronounced “MITT-uh”, not “mitt”.
Loanwords are Often Exceptions to the Rule
German, like any major world language, has a lot of loanwords – words borrowed from other languages. Often, but not always, the spelling and pronunciation don’t change when these words are borrowed, making them exceptions to the normal rules of German.
For example, the German word Office is pronounced as in English, while Ski is pronounced “shee”, like in Norwegian where it was borrowed from.
Not all loanwords are left unchanged. For example Software is pronounced “zoft-ver”. But be aware that loanwords aren’t necessarily pronounced according to the normal German rules. In our Software example, the “s” is pronounced like “z” and the “w” like “v”, as in regular German words – but the final “-e” is not pronounced as a schwa.
Compound Words in German
German is famous for its long words, like Geschwindigkeitsbegrenzung, “speed limit”. These words look intimidating, but we actually do something similar in English.
In English you can combine two or more nouns to get a new noun or noun phrase. Sometimes we write the words separately (“music festival”, “flight attendant”), and sometimes we write it as a single word (“warlord”, “stockbroker”).
German does this too, but does it way more often. So for example, where we write “music festival”, Germans write “Musikfestival.” And where an English speaker would write “the Danube Steamship Navigation Company Captain”, a German would write “der Donaudampfschifffahrtsgesellschaftskapitän”. Yikes!
Sometimes compound words are written with a connecting element. So for example, the combination of Maus (“mouse”) and Falle (“trap”) is Mausefalle, with an extra “e” in the middle. See here for a list of the possible connecting elements.
A weird thing about German compounding is that it can create words that have “triple letters”, the same letter three times in a row. For example: Schifffahrt (“shipping”, literally “ship-trip”) or Brennnessel (“stinging nettle”, literally “burn-nettle”).
Quotation Marks in German
When writing quoted speech in German, the opening quotation mark should be written at the bottom of the line, not at the top like in English:
Arnold said: „Ich komme wieder”
Arnold said, “I’ll be back”.
A Final Note on Pronunciation
To help you learn the German letter names, I recommend listening to the German Alphabet song:
The word “jucchee!” in that song means “yippee!” or “hooray!”. The line zum Lernen ist es nie zu früh means “it’s never too early to learn”.
Now You Know the German Alphabet!
The information above should cover everything you need to know in order to read and write the German alphabet and pronounce its letters accurately. It’s a lot to take in, so don’t feel like you need to learn it all at once. Just use it as a reference that you can come back to anytime you need a reminder of any of the rules.