The following are five peculiarities of the German alphabet and its pronunciation that every beginner German student should know about.
Additional Letters in the German Alphabet
There are more than twenty-six letters in the German alphabet! Technically speaking the German alphabet has only one additional letter that is different – the eszett. It looks like a capital letter B with a tail hanging from it -> ß. (Please don’t confuse it with the Greek lowercase beta.) However there is also something what Germans call “der Umlaut.” This is when two dots are placed above a letter. In German this happens only above the vowels a, o and u. The umlaut placed upon these vowels makes the following sound shifts: ä similar to the short e in bed; ö, similar to the u sound in further, and ü. similar to the French u sound. Unfortunately there is no English equivalent for the sound ü. To pronounce the ü sound, you need to say u while your lips are in a puckering position.
The ß on the other hand is simply like an over pronounced s. It is rightly called in German ein scharfes s (a sharp s). In fact, when people don’t have access to the German keyboard, they often will substitute a double s for the ß. However, in German there are further rules about when it is correct to write either ss or . (See article German s, ss or ß) The only way to avoid the ß, is to move to Switzerland, since Swiss Germans don’t use the ß at all.
V is W and sounds like F
O.K., so what I really mean is that the standard name of the letter V as it is in many languages is actually the letter name of W in German. This means that if you were singing the alphabet in German, the section TUVW, would sound as follows (Té/Fau/Vé). Yes, this confuses a lot of beginners! But wait, there’s more: the letter V in German sounds like F! For instance, the word der Vogel you would pronounce as Fogel (with a hard g).
As for the letter W in German? This peculiarity at least makes the most sense: the letter W in German, which is named like a V sounds like a V.
The Spitting Combo
Now for a little humor that actually helps you remember! The pronunciation spitting combo helps students remember the peculiarities of these three very common German sounds: ch – sch – sp. Say them quickly one after another and it sounds like, first - the preparation for the spit ch/ch (realplayer audio), the start of the spit – sch (like sh in English), and finally the actual ejaculation of the spit – sp (realplayer audio). Beginners tend at first to overvocalize the ch sound and forget the sh sound in sp. Better practice some pronunciation spitting then!
The K reigns
Even though the letter C is in the German alphabet, by itself it plays only a minor role, since most German words that start with the letter C followed by a vowel, stem from foreign words. For example: der Caddie, die Camouflage, das Cello. It is only in these types of words where you’ll find the soft c or hard c sound. Otherwise, the letter c is actually only popular in German consonant combinations, such as sch and ch, as stated in the preceeding paragraph.
You will find the German version of the hard “c” sound in the letter K. Consequently, you will often see words that start with a hard c sound in English spelled with a K in German: Kanada, der Kaffee, die Konstruktion, der Konjunktiv, die Kamera, das Kalzium.
Position is Everything…
At least when it comes to the letters B, D and G . When you place these letters either at the end of a word or before a consonant, then the sound transformation is usually as follows: das Grab/ the grave ( the b sounds like a soft p), die Hand/ hand ( the d sounds like a soft t) beliebig/ any (the sounds like a soft k). Of course, this is expected in Hochdeutsch (standard German) only, it might be different when speaking German dialects or with accents of different German regions. Since these letter shifts sound very subtle when speaking, it is more important to pay attention to their correctness when writing them.