One wonderful thing about German spelling is that you basically spell how you hear the word. There are not many exceptions. The only trick is that you need to learn and understand the sounds of German letters, dipthongs, and disgraphs, some which are completely different from English pronounciation. (See The German Alphabet.)
Generalities About German Consonants
Usually after a short vowel sound, you will find a consonant digraph or a double consonant -> die Kiste (box), die Mutter (mother).
Be aware of similar-sounding consonants at the end of words, such as p or b, t or d, k or g. One good way to decipher which consonant is the correct one, is to extend the word if possible. For example das Rad (wheel, short form for bicycle)-> die Räder; das Bad (bath) -> die Badewanne. It will become clear then, which consonant is at the end of the word.
When there is a b or p in the middle of a word, it is more difficult to distinguish them from one another. There is no hard and fast rule here. The best solution is to take note of which words contain b and which contain p. (Die Erbse/pea, das Obst/fruit, der Papst/the Pope).
The Sound F
The following tips highlight in particular spelling traits of German consonants and digraphs, which once understood, will help you spell better in German.
The sound 'f', can be written as either f, v and ph
. Some guidelines to know whether to write f, v, or ph in a word , are as follows:
A syllable that contains an nf sound, will always be written with an f. For example: die Auskunft (information), die Herkunft (origin), der Senf (mustard)
Fer versus ver: The only words in German that begin with Fer are: fern (far), fertig (finished), Ferien (vacation), Ferkel (piglet), Ferse (heel). Any words derived from these words will also be written with Fer.
->der Fernseher (t.v)
The syllable for followed by a vowel does not exist in German, only vor. -> Vorsicht (caution).
The disgraph ph comes only in German words of foreign origin. (Das Alphabet, die Philosophie, die Strophe/ verse.)
When encountering a word that has the sound phon, phot or graph, then the choice is yours to either write it with f or with ph ->der Photograph or der Fotograf.
The S and Double-S Sound
For those of you who learned German after the spelling reforms - German spelling rules have been simplified! However, many German teachers would argue not enough. See more...
The X-sound is a very interesting one, since it can be written in many different ways. The different forms of the x-sound are:
chs: wachsen (to grow), sechs (six), die Büchse (a can), der Fuchs (fox),der Ochse (ox).
cks: der Mucks (sound), der Klecks (stain), knicksen (to curtsy).
gs: unterwegs (on the way).
ks: der Keks (cookie)
x: die Hexe (witch), das Taxi, der Axt (axe)
Once again, the best way to find out which consonant digraph the word takes, is to see which letters are in a related word.For example, let's say you are not sure what the ending is for unterwegs
. You can pronounce to yourself the word der Weg
(the way). If you are still not sure of the spelling, then pluralizing it will help you, which will change the word into die Wege
. However, if you are still unsure after that, then consult the dictionnary.
In German words, the letter z will either be written as the only sole consonant in a syllable or accompanied with a t. (besitzen/ to possess; der Zug/ train; die Katze/cat.
In German words of foreign origin, you can find a double z, such as in the ever so popular word Pizza.
The K Sound
K-sound. The k-sound is always written as either ck or k, the former the most prevalent. No double cc and double kk exist in German words, except in those of foreign origin, such as die Yucca.