Read It, Say It, Hear It
Because our aim is to speak German, not just to read it, we're going
to emphasize pronunciation from the start. Nothing will help our progress
so much as saying the new words and phrases out loud. Even hearing your own voice will help attune your ear to the sounds and make it easier to understand others.
Also, as you memorize simple phrases, you'll gradually get a sense of
word order and sentence structure. Then, as your vocabulary increases,
you have some concepts already working for you that you can use with
the new words.
As we move ahead, be sure you're confident about the knowledge from
the previous page. You'll get chances to use that knowledge later, but
the lessons themselves won't be repeated. For instance, it's assumed
now that you can count to vierzehn and
know how to pronounce the eu diphthong.
More pronunciation principles
Vowel sounds in German are pure; except
for the diphthongs, the vowels keep the same sound throughout the syllable.
It's almost easier to say what I don't mean than what I do, so let me
describe what we want to avoid: Think of the word school.
It is a one-syllable word that is really pretty complicated the way most
of us say it.
school = skoo-uhl
As in many words, we change the vowel sound as we begin to form our
mouths to say the consonant. Say it out loud and listen for that second
In German, the word really does have two legitimate syllables, but each vowel
has only one sound throughout its duration.
die Schule = dee
This one fact, well applied to your speech, will do
more than any other to help you drop your American accent. It will take
a sharp ear to catch yourself sliding your vowels around, though, because
it's so natural to us. Listen carefully as you say the word go?
How many distinct sounds does the o get?
Probably at least two, and depending on how you count them (and where
you grew up), probably one or two in addition to those two .
(I used to joke with a South Carolina friend that he used twenty-seven
syllables to say water.)
Try to say go with one pure vowel
sound—the way a German would.
Most consonants have the
same sounds as in English. But sometimes they change sounds,
depending on where they are in a word. If there
is a change, it's usually toward a softer sound at the beginning of a word
and/or a harder one at the end. Huh? What does that mean? Look at the letter S in
this short sentence.
Was lesen Sie? [Vahs lezen
What read you? = What are you reading?
Notice that the S has
two different sounds, depending on whether it comes before a vowel (zee sound)
or at the end of a word (ess sound).
I'd like to break it to you gently, but I maybe should just come out with
it: S has
another sound when it's at the beginning of a word and is followed by t or p;
then it becomes sh. Here is an example
sentence with the three different pronunciations of S.
[ich shtricke ... shahl
... ..... zechsyehriguh shvester]
Ich stricke einen Schal für
meine sechsjährige Schwester.
I'm knitting a scarf
for my six-year-old sister.
The letter g also has several different sounds. In English you can't
always know how to pronounce a g: "Give me a ginger snap,"or
worse, "I'll wager that's a lager." Once
again, German has rules to help out.
Most important, g is never pronounced like our soft g in ginger.
G is almost always like our hard g, with two exceptions.
At the end of a word, g = k.
(There's an exception to this exception:
-ig = -ich.)
G after N is
like the ng in singer, NEVER like the ng in
longer. We talked about this in lesson one.
(There's an exception here too. But later,
Again, the best way
to learn the rule is to learn a sentence.
[ich za-guh den zinger, gooten tahk.]
Ich sage den Singer,
I say to the singer, good day.
Consonants are generally pronounced
separately. Only examples can make sense of this rule, but here's
a good one.
English "thank you" = [thang-k you]
German "Danke" =
[dahn-kuh], not [dong-kuh]
Say the hard consonants emphatically. A T is never said like an extra-hard D, nor a P like a hard B.
Bitte = [BIT-teh], not [bid-uh]. Think of someone asking you, "Did you say bidder or bitter?" You would emphasize the T just as it should always be emphasized in German.
The last of the consonants: Here
are the only other exceptions to "consonants sound just the way they
do in English." Learn these, because this will not be repeated.
j = English y; (You
already know this: ja = yah;
or think of Carl Jung.)
qu = English kv (Not
too many words here, all imports. You can safely forget this.)
v = f (You
already knew this from the number 4.)
w = v
Pronunciation IS important, but . . .
. . . we could go nuts learning all the
rules. For instance: Most of the German vowels can have a short sound or a
long sound (much like English). The long U (as
in Ruhe, silence)
has the sound of our oo as in room.
But there is a short U, as in Mutter,
pronounced like our u in put.
If we make it to lesson 38, we'll have dealt with all the things that
are really important, and we can
return to this--which isn't. The fact is, the differences in
long and short vowels simply don't add that much to the comprehensibility
of your speech. My rule of thumb is: Aim for the long sound, but let yourself
fall a little short of the extreme in unaccented syllables, and you'll
usually get the sound that's called for. Even more important: listen; use
your ears and you'll pick up these nuances.