The following is a list of German vowel 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.
In the previous post I explained the most important factors that shape consonant sounds, namely the manner and place of articulation and whether or not the vocal chords are in action. When we articulate vowels, there is no obstruction that the air stream has to overcome and the vocal chords always vibrate. So how are vowels shaped?
The first factor is where the highest point of the tongue is.
We distinguish between ‘front’, ‘central’ and ‘back’ vowels. When we say the word: “feel” the tip of the tongue is its highest point in the mouth; when we say: “fool” the highest point is in the back.
Front and back vowels are each divided further according to the degree to which the tongue is raised.
There are a number of approaches to classify vowels; I have decided to adopt the four level scheme. Here we find the /a/ sound at the ‘open’ level. The next level is the ‘open-mid’ level with /æ/ like Brit. English “that” for front vowels and /ɔ/ like in English “off” for back vowels.
The ‘close-mid’ level accommodates the front vowel /e:/ like in German “geht” and, for example, Irish- and Scottish English “gate”, as well as the back vowel /o:/ like in German “schon” or Irish English “go, home”.
At the ‘close’ level we find the aforementioned /i:/ as in English “feel” and the back vowel /u:/ in English “fool”.
The short variants of vowels are generally articulated more open than the long ones. You can check this out yourself by saying: “feel, fill, fool, full”.
The third factor that shapes a vowel sound is the lip rounding
This will be relevant in a minute when we talk about German Umlaut sounds. From an English-speaking perspective one can assume that front vowels are always pronounced with spread lips and back vowels are always pronounced with rounded lips. You can see that when you say: “sheep” and “shoe” in front of a mirror.
Whilst this rule applies to the majority of English accents, there are indeed exceptions. Northern Irish English and Scottish English know mixed forms, i.e. rounded front vowels. This means that the vowel is articulated like a front vowel with regard to the tongue position but with rounded lips instead of spread lips. You can hear a sample of it in this wonderful comedy piece here. Listen to the way he says: “Voice recognition don’t do Scottish accents.”
These rounded front vowels are a prominent feature of German and French, too, in case you have learned that language. If you took French in school or if you can speak with a Scottish or a Northern Irish accent, you are pretty much sorted in terms of German ‘Umlaut’ vowels.
German Vowel Sounds from an English-speaking Perspective
a – In German this letter is pronounced as the open, neutral vowel /a/. In Irish English the vowel in “that, hand, bad” is pronounced more open than in other accents of English and matches the German pronunciation; depending on the Irish English speaker, the English “hand” and the German “Hand” might actually sound pretty much identical.
ä – The sound /ɛ/ which corresponds with this German letter can be heard in Irish English “bed”; it is also very close to the way “that” and “hand” are pronounced in British English.
au – In German, this letter sequence is generally pronounced /aʊ/ which corresponds with the English pronunciation of “loud”. It is not pronounced like English: “laugh” or “daughter”.
ei & ie – These letter combinations can be confusing to both English-speaking learners of German and German-speaking learners of English alike. In German “ei” is pronounced /aɪ/, for example “Deich” which corresponds with English “dyke” (even historically). In English this letter sequence is pronounced /i:/, for example in “to receive” and “weird”. This can be confusing to Germans, too. I have heard people say that they bought a “ Satelliten-Receiver” (pronounced /aɪ/). This opposition can be equally confusing to English native speakers with regard to “ie”. In German this letter combination is always pronounced with a long /i:/ sound; therefore, the German “viel” (= much) and Irish English “feel” sound identical (because of the ‘clear /l/‘). When English native speakers see this letter sequence, they often think of words such as “lie” and “die” and pronounce German words accordingly. Nonetheless, examples such as “grief” and “fierce”demonstrate a similarity between German and English. Keep that in mind and don’t give your teachers so much grief! 😉
ö (long) – the German long o-Umlaut sound is a ‘close-mid, rounded front vowel’. This means that the tongue pronounces an /e:/ like in German “geht” and “face” in Irish English and Scottish English. The lips, however, are rounded as if we were articulating an /o:/ sound.
This is one way to go about practising this sound. The other way is to start with /o:/ and, while holding that “tone” pushing the tongue forward. In both cases the resulting sound should ideally be /ø:/. This is the sound in “Voice Recognition don’t dø Scottish accents.” in the video above. Examples are: “schön” (= beautiful) and “Öl” (= oil).
ö (short) – In principle, the method to articulate this sound /œ/ is the same as for the long variant but starting with the ‘open-mid’ /ɛ/, the German ä-sound which we have already encountered above.
We know to pronounce the short ö-sound if the letter “ö” is followed by at least two consonants in_the_SAME_syllable. This applies to all ‘close-mid’ and ‘close’ vowels; this is why I am going to give you some more instances at the end.
ü (long) – The sound which corresponds with the letter “ü” before single consonants (in the same syllable) is a ‘close, front rounded’ /y/ and is the /i:/ sound but with pursed lips.
This sound can be found in Scottish and Northern Irish English in words such as: “school” and “you”.
ü (short) – the sound /ʏ/ is articulated whenever the letter “ü” is followed by two or more consonants in the same syllable. It equals Scottish and Northern Irish English “book”. Its position in terms of tongue raising is between the long ö- and ü-sounds.
Long vs. Short Vowels
As indicated above, I would like to list some examples that demonstrate when to use a long vowel and when to use a short one. Generally speaking, when you read a German word in which a vowel is followed by two or more consonants in the same syllable, a short vowel is pronounced.
Brot (one consonant, therefore long /o:/;
Brötchen (‘Bröt_chen; one consonant in the same syllable, therefore long /ø:/;
Böttner, my surname (Bött_ner; double consonant, therefore short /œ/, for example: “öffnen, Löffel”;
füllen (double consonant, therefore short /ʏ/;
fühlen (silent h, doesn’t count, therefore one consonant and long /y/; the same applies to: “hüten – füttern, Ofen – offen, Mühle – Milch”.
There are, for sure, exceptions which I cannot think of at the moment.
Some books and articles on the topic
Bliss, A.: English in the south of Ireland In: Trudgill, P. (ed.): Language in the British Isles. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1984, 135-151
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.: Accents of English. Vol. 2 British Isles. New York: Cambridge University Press. 1996