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The alphabet

The German alphabet has 26 basic letters, the three umlauted vowels Ä, Ö, Ü as well as the Eszett (ß). The basic letters are divided into vowels (A, E, I, O, U) and consonants (B, C, D, F…). In German, all nouns, personal names and country names are written with a capital letter, just like all words at the beginning of sentences and after a full stop. Verbs, pronouns and adjectives are normally written with a small letter.

The letters

  • Aa Affe monkey
  • Bb Ball ball
  • Cc Computer computer
  • Dd Dach roof
  • Ee Elefant elephant
  • Ff Fahrrad bicycle
  • Gg Gehirn brain
  • Hh Hafen haven
  • Ii Igel hedgehog
  • Jj Jacke jacket
  • Kk Kleid dress
  • Ll Leiter leader
  • Mm Maus mouse
  • Nn Nase nose
  • Oo Orgel organ
  • Pp Papier paper
  • Qq Quark quark
  • Rr Radio radio
  • Ss Sauna sauna
  • Tt Tiger tiger
  • Uu Uhr clock
  • Vv Vater father
  • Ww Wasser water
  • Xx Xylofon xylophone
  • Yy Yacht yacht
  • Zz Zahn tooth

Umlauted vowels and ß

  • Ää Äpfel apples
  • Öö Öl oil
  • Üü Überfall robbery
  • ẞß Straße street

Remark: If the characters ä, ö, ü and ß are not available on your keyboard, you can always use ae, oe, ue and ss instead.

Spelling alphabet

The spelling alphabet associates a word to each letter. It makes the communication for instance on the phone, because many letters sound similar and can sometimes be misunderstood. Thus, the name “Maier” would be pronounced in the spelling alphabet:

  • M wie Martha, A wie Anton, I wie Ida, E wie Emil, R wie Richard. (= M like Martha, A like Anton, I like Ida, E like Emil, R like Richard.)

The spelling alphabet officially lays down what words correspond to what letters. There are differences between Germany, Austria and Switzerland:

Letter Germany
(DIN 5009)
(ÖNORM A 1081)
A Anton Anton Anna
Ä Ärger Ärger Äsch (Aesch)
B Berta Berta Berta
C Cäsar Cäsar Cäsar / Charly
Ch Charlotte - -
D Dora Dora Daniel
E Emil Emil Emil
F Friedrich Friedrich Friedrich
G Gustav Gustav Gustav
H Heinrich Heinrich Heinrich
I Ida Ida Ida
J Julius Julius Jakob
K Kaufmann Konrad Kaiser
L Ludwig Ludwig Leopold
M Martha Martha Marie
N Nordpol Nordpol Niklaus
O Otto Otto Otto
Ö Ökonom Österreich Örlikon (Oerlikon)
P Paula Paula Peter
Q Quelle Quelle Quasi
R Richard Richard Rosa
S Samuel Siegfried Sophie
Sch Schule Schule -
Eszett scharfes S -
T Theodor Theodor Theodor
U Ulrich Ulrich Ulrich
Ü Übermut Übel Übermut
V Viktor Viktor Viktor
W Wilhelm Wilhelm Wilhelm
X Xanthippe Xaver Xaver
Y Ypsilon Ypsilon Yverdon
Z Zacharias Zürich Zürich

Despite the official spelling alphabet, in Germany, S is also represented by the name Siegfried and Z by Zeppelin. In Austria, Christine is also often used for Ch, Johann for J, Norbert for N and Zeppelin for Z.

Double vowels

In German, double vowels are often used. They are two vowels that follow each other, e.g. "ei”, “ie”, “ai”, “eu”, “äu” and “au”. They are treated as one sound.

  • ei: Eis (= ice) , Eisenbahn (= railway) , Eimer (= bucket)
  • ai: Mai (= May) , Hai (= shark) , Kaiser (= emperor)
  • ie: Liebe (= love) , Dieb (= thief) , Miete (= rent) (here, the e is not pronounced, but it indicates that it makes the i longer)
  • eu: Eule (= owl) , Euter (= udder) , Europa (= Europe)
  • äu: Häuser (= houses) , Läuse (= lice) , Mäuse (= mice)
  • au: Haus (= house) , Laus (= louse) , Maus (= mouse)

The double vowels äu and eu have the same pronunciation. To find out who to write them correctly, you have to look at the word’s root. The plural of “Haus” is thus “Häuser” and never “Heuser”, even though it would sound the same. More examples:

  • Maus (= mouse) Mäuse (= mice)
  • Laus (= louse) Läuse (= lice)
  • Baum (= tree) Bäume (= trees)

The double vowels ei and ai also have the same pronunciation (ai). There are however no rules to know the correct spelling and the few words with ai must be simply learnt:

Detail (= detail) , Saite (= string) , Hain (= grove) , Mais (= maize) , Laie (= layman) , Waise (= orphan) , Kai (= quay) , Laib (= loaf) , Taille (= waist) , Laich (= spawn) , Mailand (= Milan) , Mainz (= Mainz) , Main (= Main)

Remark: With ai and ei, there are many false friends that have the same pronunciation but are written differently:

  • Saite (bei der Gitarre) (= string) Seite (im Buch) (= page)
  • Waise (Kind ohne Eltern) (= orphan) weise (klug sein) (= wise)
  • Laib (ein Laib Brot, Käse) (= loaf) der Leib (Körper) (= body)
  • Laiche (Fischeier) (= spawns) Leiche (toter Körper) (= corpse)
  • Main (Fluss in Deutschland) (= Main (river)) mein (mir gehörend) (= my)

The letter “h” and the sounds “ch” and “sch”

In addition to doubled letters, there are the letter combinations “sch” and “ch” as well as the silent “h”, which is written but not pronounced.

h can be pronounced in two ways:

  • At the beginning of words as [h], like in English:

    Hund (= dog) , Haare (= hair) , Haus (= house)
  • As a silent h, mostly before the consonants l, m, n, r as well as before and after vowels. The vowel before the h must be pronounced long:

    fehlen (= to miss) , nehmen (= to take) , Zahn (= tooth) , Lehrer (= teacher) , sehen (= to see) , gehen (= to go) , Rehe (= roe deers)

Remark: Words that begin with q, sch, sp or t never have a silent t:

Qual (= agony) , Schal (= scarf) , spät (= late) , Tal (= valley)

The correct pronunciation of -ch- and -sch- is important, as the examples Kirche (= church) and Kirsche (= cherry) show. Both words look similar, but they have different meanings and can easily be confuse if -ch- or -sch- is not pronounced correctly.

ch can be pronounced in two different manners:

  • After back vowels (a, o, u, au) as a guttural [x]:

    Ach (= ah) , Buch (= book) , Loch (= hole) , Fach (= subject) , Dach (= roof) , doch (= but)
  • After all other vowels, l, n, r and in the ending -chen, as a soft [ç]:

    ich (= I) , Milch (= milk) , Kirche (= church) , manchmal (= sometimes) , Mädchen (= girl)
  • Before a, o, u, l, r, s as [k]:

    Chaos (= chaos) , Chor (= choir) , sechs (= six) , wachsen (= to grow) , Fuchs (= fox)

sch is pronounced:

  • The combination “sch” is always pronounced [ʃ] (English “sh”):

    Fisch (= fish) , Kirsche (= cherry) , Mensch (= man) , falsch (= wrong)
  • The letter combinations “st” and “sp” are also pronounced as [ʃ]:

    Strafe (= penalty) , Stimme (= voice) , steil (= steep) , spät (= late) , Spaß (= fun) , Sport (= sport)

Remark: In the word bisschen (= a little) , no “sch” is pronounced, but there is a “ch”.

Double vowels and consonants

In many words, the same vowel is written twice, which indicates that it is pronounced long:

Saal (= hall) , Meer (= sea) , leer (= empty) , Fee (= fairy)

Unlike doubled vowels, doubled consonants indicate that the previous vowel is pronounced short:

Mann (= man) , dann (= then) , komm (= come) , Bann (= spell)

The letters “s”, “ß” and “ss”

The letter s can be pronounced in different manners. In addition to a simple s, it can also appear as a double ss, and there is also the letter ß.

A voiced s (English z) is usually simply written as -s-:

singen (= to sing) , Segel (= sail) , Rasen (= lawn) , lesen (= to read)
A voiceless s can be written either -ss- or -ß-. The rules are:
  • After single short vowels, in principle, it is written -ss-:

    Fass (= barrel) , Pass (= passport) , Tasse (= cup) , fressen (= to eat) , Kuss (= kiss) , Fluss (= river)
  • The prefix miss- is also always written with ss:

    Missverständnis (= misunderstanding) , missachten (= to disregard)
  • -ß- is written after long vowels or double vowels:

    Maß (= measure) , Soße (= sauce) , außen (= on the outside) , Straße (= street) , süß (= sweet) , fließen (= to flow) , heiß (= hot)

Remark: In Switzerland, ß is not used and is always replace by ss.

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