FThe following is a list of German consonant sounds. They will be listed together with their written correspondents; this way you will be better able to relate the sounds to words that you know. Moreover, the instructions of their articulation will be based on English as a native language. When we learn a new language, there will always be a certain amount of influence by our mother tongue. Perhaps you have listened to a German person speaking English viss a tsherman accent. 😉
One more thing: When you read the examples, it will be really helpful to you if you say them out loud and pay attention to what is happening in your mouth, i.e. how your lips and tongue move.
Consonants occur at the beginning and/or the end of syllables; they are formed by creating some sort of obstruction for the air stream that escapes from our lungs on its way through our mouth. There are various ways (manners of articulation) to do this.
Manner of Articulation
One way is to close our mouth completely, let the air pressure build up and then release it rapidly; these so called ‘plosives’ are, for example, /p/ and /t/ in “pot”. Nevertheless, closing our mouth completely does not necessarily have to result in a plosive sound. When we pronounce /m/ and /n/ we also close off the passage in our mouth, lower the soft palate, so the air escapes through our nose.
Another way is to not completely block the air stream but leave a narrow passage for the air to escape with a sort of hissing sound, friction. Examples for these ‘fricatives’ are /f/ and /s/ in “fuss” and [s] and [z] in “Susan”.
If the passage is wide enough, there will be no friction, for example when we pronounce /L/, the /w/ sound in “win” or the /j/ sound in “yeah”.
When we pronounce the latter sounds,we notice some vibration in our throat; our vocal chords are at work. The vocal chords work like an amplifier. When they vibrate, we do not have to press the air out as hard; when they do not vibrate, we do. We can feel the difference in the /f/ and /v/ sounds in “reverb” (voiced, with vibration) and “refurb” (voiceless, without vibration).
Place of Articulation
All these different manners of articulation, voiced or voiceless, can occur pretty much everywhere in our mouth (place of articulation). Here is a little task for you, please read the following examples out loud and, with every single consonant, pay attention to your lips, your tongue and the vibration of your vocal chords. Ready? Let’s go!
“fool – voodoo – to – do – Sue – zoo – shoe – jewel – you – coo – goo – rule – who”
Now that you know a bit about sounds, we can start with the German ones.
German Consonant Sounds from an English-speaking Perspective
ach – The German sound /χ/ corresponds with Scottish “loch” and a number of words in the Welsh language which show a “ll” in the written form. It is often referred to as the sound we make when clearing our throat from phlegm.
ich – The German sound /ç/ sounds like overdoing the /h/ in English “huge”; it is the voiceless counterpart of /j/, as in “young”. Another starting point to pronounce this sound is the long /i:/ as in “feel”. Vowel sounds will be dealt with in the next post after this one. However, let me give you a bit of a taste: the long /i:/ is the most ‘close’ vowel, i.e. the highest we can lift our tongue without causing friction. By implication, if we do in fact press the back of the tongue up against the palate, the resulting sound will actually be the German ich-sound.
pf, ps – These consonant combinations as in German “Pferd” and “Psychologie” do not occur in English at the beginning of words but only across syllables, such as in “top five” and at the end, such as in “He sleeps.”
qu – In German “qu” is pronounced /kv/. An English example for this consonant combination is: “…spoke very…” if you focus on the /k/ in “spoke” and the /v/ sound in “very” right one after the other.
l – British English knows two variants of /l/ depending on the position. In the beginning of a syllable /l/ is articulated by raising the tip of the tongue to the hard gum behind the upper teeth, whilst /l/ after vowels, i.e. at the end of a syllable is velarised; this means that the back of the tongue is raised simultaneously. American and Scottish English show the latter ‘dark /l/‘ also at the beginning of syllables. Irish English appears to be the only dialect of English that shares with German the alveolar, ‘clear /l/‘ in all positions.
s – In German “s” in the beginning of a word (or syllable) is always pronounced /z/, such as in “sie”, which sounds like “New Zealand”. In English, by contrast, it is always pronounced /s/, like in “so”.
sp, st – This sequence is pronounced like it says in the Irish saying [shticks and shtones]. The same applies to “Spiel” being pronounced [shpeel].
ß – This unfamiliar letter is pronounced /s/ as in “großen Spaß” and should not be mistaken for a capital “B”.
v – German knows two ways to articulate the letter “v”: as /v/, such as in “Verb”, and /f/, like in [viel]. (The former applies to words of Latin origin and the latter to those of Germanic origin.)
If a written German word with the letter “v” in it looks considerably like an English word, chances are good that it is pronounced the English way; for example, “Verb, Version, Observatorium, investieren, Vase”.
If there is no English word that looks similar to the German word, the correct sound is /f/; for example: “Volkswagen, viel, vor, voll, Vater, verlaufen, verstecken” and all the other ver-prefixes.
w – In German “w” is pronounced /v/, hence the Plural “die Verben” and the infinitive “werben” (to advertise) sound the same.
z The sound sequence /ts/ (We call these clusters of a plosive and a fricative sound ‘affricates’, by the way.) in the beginning of words or syllables exists in English only in “tsunami, tse-tse fly” and “T’s me!” In German, the sound sequence [ts] can occur in all positions. Furthermore, it is nearly always represented by the letter “z” (also “tz”). In English the letter “z” is pronounced [z], which results in confusion for English-speaking learners of German.
However, the German sound and the letter exist together in English in one word: “pizza”; and literally everybody pronounces it correctly as [pitsa]. We can make use of this example to practice German words with the letter “z”, for example: “die Zahl”. In phonetic terms the beginning of a syllable and the beginning of a word are treated the same. From a phonetic point of view, “pizza” and “die Zahl” both have two syllables, and in both cases [ts] can be found in the same phonetic environment, i.e. [i, ts, a]. Once learners have been made aware of this similarity and remember the “zz” in “pizza” as a clue, this feature of the German language should cause less difficulties.
r – The German r-sound is one of the most difficult features from an English native speaker’s perspective. Nonetheless, even this sound can be mastered with some phonetic understanding. In phonetic terms the sound /ʁ/ is a voiced uvular fricative. It is one of these sounds that are articulated by creating friction (manner of articulation); it is articulated all the way back behind our soft palate, pretty much in the same spot where the Scottish pronounce the ch-sound in “Loch”. In a nutshell: in the same way as /v/ is the voiced counterpart of /f/ or /z/ is the voiced counterpart of /s/, the German r-sound /ʁ/ is the voiced counterpart of the aforementioned /χ/ sound. To teachers who aim to teach this sound, I recommend to start with the ach-sound /χ/ first. It might also be helpful to practise voiceless-voiced pairs together to give students a feeling for the difference between vibrating and silent vocal chords. Say: /f, v, s, z, ç, j, χ, ʁ/. the English native tongue will very likely want to roll back or flex to articulate an English r-sound. We can try to prevent the tongue from doing this by pressing the tip of the tongue against our lower teeth. Now we can try to pronounce: “Fach” (voiceless, no vibration) and “Fahrer” or “Fahrrad” (voiced, with vibration).
When the letter “r” occurs after vowels in German, it is not pronounced as a consonant at all but as a vowel, just like in Oxford English (Received Pronunciation, RP). Here, too, pressing the tip of the tongue against the lower teeth can lead to success.
th – In German, “th” is pronounced just as /t/ and not like it is in most dialects of English. Irish English, too, especially along the east coast of Ireland, knows the feature of “th” as a /t/ sound.
Some sources about the topic
Hickey, R.: Irish English: History and Present-Day Forms. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007
Moulton, W. G.> The Sounds of English and German. London: 1962
Russ, c. V.: The Sounds of German. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010
Wells, J. C.> English Accents. Vol. 2 The British Isles. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996