The German writing system does not specify the length, and consequently the quality, of vowels in the same unique way as the writing system of some other languages, for instance Hungarian, Czech, and largely also Dutch. On the other hand, it gives the reader a lot of hints. This article is an attempt to mould these hints into rules which can be applied by the learner. It turns out that few simple rules cover a good deal of all occurrences of vowels, but surprisingly much context has to be considered to be able to make reliable statements about most of the remaining ones.
The length of the vowels (and their quality: long vowels are different sounds from their short counterparts) is not always unambiguously deducible from the spelling. Roughly, the rules are, highest precedence first:
Vowels marked as long are long: 〈aa〉, 〈ah〉, 〈äh〉,
〈ee〉, 〈eh〉, 〈ie〉, 〈ieh〉, 〈ih〉, 〈oo〉,
〈oh〉, 〈öh〉, 〈uh〉, 〈üh〉.
Examples: Saal, sehr, Bier, ihr, Moos, Ähre.
Vowels followed by a geminated consonant (or 〈ck〉 or
〈tz〉) are short.
Examples: Kanne, Tasse, schnell, Zweck, Katze.
Vowels followed by more than one consonant are mostly short but with
quite some exceptions.
Examples: Kante, halten, Hals, Kopf; but long: Erde, Trost, Obst.
Vowels followed by a single consonant or at the end of the word are
mostly long if and only if they are stressed, also with quite some
Examples (long): Hefe, gären, Maschine, Büro
Examples (short): Hefe, gären, Maschine, das, bereit
When considering the consonants after a vowel, a consonant inserted in an inflexion does not count. For instance, when the stressed vowel 〈a〉 in the verb malen is long by the preceding rule, it is also long in the derived forms er malte and du malst.
On the other hand, there are word pairs by which it can be shown that there cannot be rules covering all cases. Compare Sucht–sucht, halte–malte, Busch–wusch, Most–Trost, quatschen–Latschen, Bus–Mus: in each of the pairs, the first word has a short stressed vowel, and the second, quite similarly spelt, has a long one.
By rules that are tailored to more specific situations, one can hope to resolve some of the remaining uncertainty how vowels are pronounced. In the remaining portion of this article we try to extract from the written form of a word as much information as possible about the pronunciation of the vowels in it. To this end, one has to consider how words are constructed, which is not always possible from the written form alone. In particular, one has to study word stress which is also a topic of quite some complexity. This article which started as an attempt to refine the simple rules above ended up in becoming an elaborate exposition of the German vowel system. A refined set of rules is given in a later section of this article after the definition of the terms needed and glimpses on related issues. Finally, there is a section on the historical development of the German vowel system.
Foreign words that have retained their foreign spelling and pronunciation (e.g. Engagement [ˌãgaːʒˈmãː]) are not considered here; words of foreign origin are if they have been adopted to German phonology fully (e.g. Kartoffel [karˈtɔfəl]) or at least to some degree (e.g. international [ˌʔɪntɛrnɑtsjoˈnɑːl]).
Phonetic notation using the International Phonetic Alphabet is always included in square brackets, even though nearly always the phonemes are meant and not their phonetic realisation; this notation is also common in dictionaries. The notation of graphemes with angle brackets is used also for denoting digraphs, diphthongs, and other letter combinations that are below the morpheme level. Morphemes and words are denoted in red italics.
German pronunciation varies quite a lot across Germany even for speakers that take much effort in speaking clearly and distinctly. There is no region in Germany whose dialect has been declared standard. What comes closest to a German pronunciation standard is the work of Theodor Siebs (1862–1941) who published his “Deutsche Bühnenaussprache” (German stage pronunciation) in 1898, a work which has been continued until today. Initially designed for the stage, it has become a standard for the German language in general. Since the 1922 edition, the term “Hochsprache” (standard language) has been added to the title. In the book, it is emphasised that the requirements of the stage must not be taken as the basis of distinct and correct pronunciation elsewhere, lest it sound stilted and artificial. Unfortunately, they have not always followed their own advice and have included a number of features that sound very unnatural outside the stage, most notably the preference of the apical [r] over the uvular [ʀ] and the reluctance to allow a vocalised [ɐ] for an 〈r〉 at the end of a syllable. Particularly with this feature, following the standard (or, equivalently, the phonetic examples in this article) may yield an exaggerated and unnatural pronunciation.
The “reine Hochlautung” (pure standard pronunciation) as defined in Siebs’s book is rather narrow in that hardly any speaker will adhere to that standard unless specifically trained. The “gemäßigte Hochlautung” (moderate standard pronunciation) allows for a little more leeway but still does not comprise the full range of pronunciations which would generally be perceived as correct, distinct, and free from local accent. Nonetheless, despite its orientation at the stage and its bias toward North German regional pronunciation, Siebs’s work is the best basis for defining a standard German pronunciation. In this article, whenever the “standard” is mentioned, Siebs’s Deutsche Aussprache, 19th edition, ISBN 3-928127-66-7, is meant. The examples written phonetically in this article follow this standard with an exception explained in the next section. Apart from the treatment of the 〈r〉, this is one of several possible natural pronunciations.
German vowels are to be differentiated according to following criteria:
7 base qualities written 〈a〉 / 〈ä〉 or 〈e〉 / 〈i〉 / 〈o〉 / 〈ö〉 / 〈u〉 / 〈ü〉 or 〈y〉, pronounced [a] or [ɑ] / [ɛ] or [e] / [ɪ] or [i] / [ɔ] or [o] / [œ] or [ø] / [ʊ] or [u] / [ʏ] or [y].
2 subqualities: open ([a], [ɛ], [ɪ], [ɔ], [œ], [ʊ], [ʏ]) and close ([ɑ], [e], [i], [o], [ø], [u], [y]). As usual, the notions “open” and “close” are understood as relative to the graphically matching sound: an open [ɪ] is opener (lower, more central) than a close [i] but not necessarily than each close vowel. For the base quality written 〈a〉, the difference is minor and indeed neglected in the current standard but not in older versions of it nor in other dictionaries. We use here both [a] and [ɑ] while the standard uses [ɑ] everywhere.
2 lengths: short and long.
several stress intensities: primary stress, various degrees of secondary stress, no stress. For the purpose of this article, we distinguish only “stressed” (in our phonetic notation denoted by an apostrophe before the syllable with the primary stress, or by a comma before a syllable with a secondary stress) from “unstressed” (denoted with no stress mark before the syllable), but it takes a whole section on stress to define these terms in a way that they fit the purpose.
Stressed short vowels are open. Stressed long vowels are close with the exception of the base quality written 〈ä〉 or 〈e〉 which occurs both open ([ɛː] written 〈ä〉) and close ([eː] written 〈e〉). Short 〈ä〉 and 〈e〉, however, are both open [ɛ] with no difference between them. We thus get 15 different vowels with length sometimes denoted by gemination or by an 〈h〉 after the vowel in the same syllable:
All differences are phonemic: minimal pairs for length and open/close differences are alle–Ahle, Stelle–stähle–stehle, still–Stiel, offen–Ofen, Hölle–Höhle, Busse–Buße, wüsste–Wüste; minimal pairs for unrounded/rounded differences are kennen–können, lesen–lösen, Kiste–Küste, Kiel–kühl.
Unstressed vowels are short. They are open (or close) if they would be open (or close) also when stressed. As an exception, the unstressed 〈e〉 in some prefixes and suffixes is realised as a Schwa, e.g. gegebene [gəˈgeːbənə] (more details see below). For syllables ending with a vowel, this exception accounts for much more cases than the rule, so that the combination “unstressed, close, and short” occurs infrequently and mostly in words of foreign origin, e.g. Tomate [toˈmɑːtə], Regal [reˈgɑːl], the only frequent Germanic such word being lebendig [leˈbɛndɪç] with its somewhat nonstandard stress pattern. The difference between open and close unstressed vowels is not phonemic, and is often neglected even by many native speakers who pronounce all unstressed vowels short and open.