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"German" in German is “Deutsch” (pronounced [dɔʏ̯tʃ] in IPA format). It is one of the principal languages of Western and Central Europe and spoken natively by approximately 100 million persons, worldwide. Another estimated 80 million are non-native speakers of the language. After English, it is the most popular second language taught in European schools.

German is an Indo-European language, closely related to Dutch, English and most Scandinavian languages. It is the official language of Germany, Austria and Lichtenstein, and one of the official languages of Switzerland and Luxembourg. In Switzerland almost two-thirds of the population are German-speaking. German-speaking minorities with official status can be found in Belgium, Denmark, Czech Republic, Hungary and Romania. Unofficially, German is spoken as a significant minority language in Poland, France (particularly Alsace and Moselle), the Tyrol region of Italy, Latvia, Estonia, Russia and Serbia. Smaller German-speaking minorities can be found in most of the other countries and provinces of central and eastern Europe. In Africa, German is spoken in Namibia, where it has official status.

The cultures of German-speaking peoples vary considerably, from Prussia in the north to Austria and Switzerland and the Italian Tyrol in the south. During different historical periods, the German language has been the idiom of small pockets of people in narrow valleys, or the court language of small, independent Duchies (like Lichtenstein), and also the imperial language of vast territories, as during the Holy Roman Empire (from 800 until 1869). This culture has produced some of the world’s most loved and respected music (Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Mozart, Mahler and Schoenberg), literature (Goethe, Mann, Brecht, Heine, Schiller) and philosophy (Kant, Hegel, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Wittgenstein).

Written German

German uses the Latin alphabet, and traditionally adds the "Eszett" or "scharfes s" -- the character “ß” – to express double-s. This practice has officially been suspended since the spelling reform of 1996, and it was never in wide use in Switzerland. So modern German is most often written now with “ss” instead of “ß.” Earlier type styles, like Fraktur, used characters slightly different from the Latin Alphabet, but they have fallen into desuetude except for decorative or promotional purposes.

The letters are the same as in English. Umlauts (which look like diereses) are placed over the vowels “a,” “o,” and “u” to alter their pronunciation to a rounder tone. They are sometimes written as ligatures or a diphthong "æ,” “œ,” and “ue.”

The transcription and orthography of German is highly phonetic. Thus, spelling is not particularly tricky for German learners. The “sh” sound in English is almost usually written “sch” (as in “Schiff” for “ship”) and the velar fricative as in “ich” is spelled “ch.” Thus, “nicht" is rendered accurately in writing. Its related word, "nichts" -- meaning “nothing” – is often pronounced with a soft “t” in the end of the syllable, but it can still be heard in most regional accents.

Spoken German

Vowels (other than diphthongs) are either short or long. In the table below, when vowels are paired, the second is the long version. The phonetic representation is the International Phonetic Alphabet or IPA.

Generally speaking, the long vowels appear in stressed positions (including secondaries), and the short vowels in the unstressed positions, though stressed short vowels exist. Long vowels are generally closed, and the short vowels are open. The /?/ is short in stressed situations and is spelled like “e” or “ä” (as in Männer). Its short unstressed equivalent is the schwa, /?/. An unstressed /?r/ does not necessarily go to [?r], however, but rather to [?].The /??/ and the /e?/ < ä > and < ee > and the < äh > have tended to merge in most accents.

Long and short is really a matter of traditional pronunciation without too many consistent rules. Vowels are almost always short when coming before a double consonant or “vowel cluster” like "st" "scht" "nd" "ck" or "tz..” The double consonant is not pronounced. It’s function is to tell you that the preceding vowel is short. Vowels ending a syllable or preceding a single consonant are usually long, as in "Bahnhof" (railway station). Lots of exceptions exist to these rules of thumb.

Diagraphs are written vowel pairs and diphthongs are spoken vowel pairs. In German, “ie” is pronounced “ee” /i?/and “ei” is pronounced “eye.” The diagraphs , , & are pronounced as /a??/ (a bil light the vowel sound of “high” in English). The diagraph is pronounced /a??/ (a bit like “ow” in English), and the diagraphs < äu> and are pronounced /???/ (a bit like “oy” in English).

The “r” sound is frequently turned into a vowel, So that instead of /r/ one hears a /??/ For words beginning with vowels, (like "Angst") the vowel sound is frequently preceded by a glottal stop [?], as sometimes occurs in English.

German Consonants

The table below summarizes how German consonants are pronounced. The following specifics should be noted:

“C” does not occur alone. In foreign words a solitary "c" is usually pronounced "ts." The combination "ch" is pronounced either as [x] or as [ç], depending on the letter that preceded it. “Ch” as an initial sound only occurs in foreign words, like “cherie.” “Ck” occurs often. It is just the /k/ phoneme, and the spelling indicates that the preceding vowel is short.

“dsch” occurs rarely, only in foreign loan words, and is pronounced [?] like “jungle.”

The “H” is aspirated at the beginning of syllables, but is silent when following a vowel, as in the word “Weh” (hurt), where its function is to make the vowel long.

The “J” in German is a [j] – an initial “y” sound – as in "ja" (yes).

There is no “dark L” in German. The “L” is fully pronounced.

“Q” only occurs in Latin or foreign words, followed by “u” and is pronounced “kv” as in [kvo vadis] (Quo vadis?).(“Where are you going?”)

The “R” is either a uvular trill, like an exaggerated Gallic or Portuguese “r” ([?]), or in some accents, a quick alveolar tap of the tongue. In unaccented syllables there is a tendency to reduce the uvular trill to a velar aspiration or even to a low vowel ([?]).

The “S” is like the “Z” sound in English, as in "zoo” in Germany, and when it is at the beginning of the syllable. Otherwise, it is an [s]. In Austria, it is always an [s]. The “st” and “sp” combinations are pronounced [?t] and [?p] (with an “sh” sound), and “sch” is the pure "sh” sound -- [?] as in “shoe.”

The “V” is an /f/ in German. The [v] sound is only used with foreign-origin words beginning with “v.” The “W” is pronounced [v]. Thus “Volkswagen” properly begins with an “f” sound and has a “v” sound in the middle.

“Y” is only seen in loan words, and is pronounced as "upsion," a rounded "u" sound.

“Z” is always [?]. Thus, a “tz” spelling is redundant. It merely indicates that the vowel coming before it is short.

The palatal fricative /ç/ occurs much in German, as does the velar fricative /x/. The first sound is called ”ich-Laut” and the second, “ach-Laut.” The first occurs when the consonant is preceded by a front, high vowel (like “i") and is somewhat softer than the more throaty /x/, which comes after low back vowels (like “a”). In some accents, the “ich-Laut” resolves to a simple /k/ sound, as in [ik] or just an aspirated "k" as in [kh]. The diminutive “-chen” is always “ich-Laut” and pronounced [-ç?n]. The “-ig” ending is pronouced in the front, that is, in “ich-Laut” style, as the vowel is front and high: [?ç].

Stress in the German Language

Usually the first syllable takes the stress, as in "Monat" (month). The verbs ending in “-ieren" (like "studieren") take stress on the penult. Adverbs with "her-,” "hin-,” "da-,” and "wo-“ are stressed on the second syllable. Other rules involve verbs with prefixes. Verbs are accented on their first syllable, and that applies to separable prefix verbs (stress on the prefix) and to non-separable prefix verbs, if they begin with "ab-,” "auf-,” "ein-,” or "vor-.” Otherwise, the second syllable gets the stress. Some prefixes can be either separable or not, and the stress shifts according to the usage. Speakers of English and Romance language frequently move the stress away from the first syllable to the penult out of habit, saying "moNATen" for the plural of "MOnat" instead of "MOnaten.”

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