A Pronunciation Guide & Glossary of Terms
with assistance from Bob C & Eric K
This page will be continually updated. Scroll to the bottom for story-specific translations.
Since not everyone has the privilege of understanding German or even knowing how to say some of the words you’ll find throughout this blog and the story it talks about, I have compiled this hopefully helpful guide.
DISCLAIMER: We are incredibly American; neither of us is fluent. This is an act of love and affection for the language.
German, like many languages that are not English, is delightfully consistent when it comes to pronunciation. Apart from vowel colors, which vary depending on grammatical construction, you will find very little of that English oddity where the same set of letters (“ou” for instance) can be pronounced many different ways. This makes German easier than it looks.
Now, learning pronunciation without the benefit of hearing someone speak is very difficult. That said, this written guide can at least get you started.
German Ws - This is probably the best known rule of German pronunciation, but here goes anyway. When beginning a word, German Ws are pronounced like Vs. So the “was” of was ist das is pronounced “vass.”
German Vs - Conversely, a lesser known rule is that Vs are not said so much as Vs as they are as Fs. No need to overemphasize this — it’s pretty subtle. But the German word for four, “vier,” is essentially pronounced “feer.”
German Js - Another fairly well-known rule - Js are pronounced like Ys. So ja, the word for “yes,” is “ya.” Etc.
ie vs ei - Words containing “ie” or “ei” have a very important and very easy-to-remember rule which will help you pronounce many German words. When you see this construction, always remember to pronounce the second letter - either a long E or a long I. So:
die is pronounced dee
weiss is pronounced vice
And so on.
Schwah - “Schwah” is the term for the muted vowel sound heard in unstressed syllables. It exists in various languages including English, e.g. the second syllable of “water.” Its German equivalent occurs for example in the second syllable of the word “haben” (to have), which is pronounced HAH-behn. The schwah is represented throughout this pronunciation guide as “eh.”
Umlauts - ä , ö and ü are all vowels that periodically get an umlaut in German. Ä is probably the easiest for the English-speaker to pronounce. It is pronounced in two distinct ways depending on grammatical construction. One is quite similar to the vowel heard in “aid” or “day” (e.g. käse [cheese], pronounced KAY-zeh); the other is essentially the sound heard in “send” (e.g. Männer [men], pronounced MEN-ehr).
Ö is significantly more difficult, and while it also has two distinct sounds, they are quite similar to the untrained ear, and therefore we’ll treat them as one sound to keep things simple. It is also spelled on occasion as “oe,” as in the case of “Goethe.” There are many ways to teach people how to pronounce this sound, but the method I always use is to mentally insert an UHR (not to be confused with the German word Uhr, which means “clock”) — so now you’re saying G[uhr]teh — and then take away the R. That’s basically the sound you’re trying to make. Sort of like you just bit into something really sour.
Ü also has two distinct sounds, but like Ö we’ll treat them as one for simplicity’s sake. It’s kind of like the sound in the English word “hue.” To produce this vowel, form an “oo” with your lips, and without chaging that mouth formation say “ee.” Ü is often seen in pluralization, as with Buch (book) becoming Bücher (books), or when adding a diminutive, such as Hund (dog) becoming Hündchen (little dog).
The construction ä u is pronounced oy and is often seen in pluralization of nouns. For example, tree is Baum (bah-oom, pronounced as one syllable), whereas more than one tree is Bäume (BOY-meh).
German CHs - This is an especially tricky one to explain without the benefit of spoken instruction from an actual German person, but it’s pretty much everywhere, so we’ll do our best. There are essentially two ways to say it, and the difference is pretty subtle to the untrained ear.
The first is what you’ll hear with “ich,” the word for “I,” as well as the diminutive suffix “-chen” (as in Mädchen, which means girl). It’s a really soft sound, almost closer to an SH, sort of uttered at the back of the throat. In fact it’s very similar again to the English sound “hue” — this time the H. Just put that sound at the end of ich, or the beginning of -chen. That’s approximately correct.
The other variant is a harder sound and might benefit from the use of some phlegm; it’s the one you hear in noch (still), Nacht (night), or Bach (Johann Sebastian). This is that guttural hocking sound with which you might associate German. This need not be overemphasized, I promise.
SP and ST - When an S is followed by either P or T, it is usually pronounced SHP or SHT, as in Stadt (city), Stein (stone), Spieler (player) or später (later). However! In some words, such as Inspektor or Dienstag (Tuesday), it is pronounced as a regular old SP or ST. Unfortunately, knowing when to use SHP/SHT vs. SP/ST requires greater understanding of German grammar than we have time for here.
German Rs - German Rs have a sound entirely distinct from American Rs; this is a mistake often made by Americans attempting to speak German. The R in German is a delicate, lovely sound, known as a uvular R and formed in the back of the throat. It is a difficult sound for an American to produce, but under no circumstances should an American R be used in its place. This is a pet peeve of mine, after having heard fellow students say things like “durr,” “leedurr,” or even just overpronouncing the R, “lehrerr.” These words are der (the), Lieder (song), Lehrer (teacher). This is a very delicate sound. ERs are little like the way we say “air,” which is appropriate, because it is a very gentle, airy sound. This is probably a pet peeve because German gets a lot of flack for being sharp or coarse sounding, but people don’t realize there is actually a lot of delicacy in pronunciation here and there. Lieder is a beautiful word… so is jedentag (everyday). The D is sort of swallowed, like the second D in Madden. Yeh-dn-tahg. It’s a lovely word. Okay anyway. Sorry I got distracted.
All German nouns are capitalized.
der/die/das - These are definite articles, all meaning “the.” German nouns can be masculine (der), feminine (die), or neuter (das). Das can also mean “that,” e.g. “Was ist das?”
Guten Morgen/Tag/Abend/Nacht - Good morning/day/evening/night.
und (oont) - and
mit - with
aber - but
oder - or
da - there, like “over there”
Was is das? - what is that?
danke or danke schön (DAHN-keh sh[uhr]n) - thank you or thank you kindly
bitte or bitte schön (BIHT-teh) - both please and you’re welcome, or you’re very welcome
Wie gehts/Wie geht es dir/Wie geht es Ihnen - This is basically “what’s up” in order of least to most formal. Literally, “wie gehts” means “how goes” — Wie geht es dir/Ihnen is “How goes it with you,” with dir being the familiar you and Ihnen being the formal. Here’s how to say them!
vee geht es deer/EE-nen
Things You Might See In This Blog/Story:
Herr Inspektor (basically like it looks) - “Herr” is an honorific essentially meaning Mister, and Inspektor is just Inspector.
Hauptmann (HOWPT-mahn) - Captain (literally head-man)
die Kriminalpolizei or KriPo (kree-mee-NAHL-poh-lih-TSAI) - Translates literally as Criminal Police, officially as Criminal Investigation Department (CID), this is Germany’s honest-to-god department of plainclothes detectives, who handle criminal investigations dealing with things like murder. They have some unfortunate history which might make them look bad to the passing glancer, but the fact is that in 1929 (and now, for that matter), they were/are a totally boss unit of law enforcement. “KriPo” is the actual abbreviation which we did not make up.
die Schutzpolizei or SchuPo (SHOOTS-poh-lih-TSAI) - Just your regular state police. Kind of the German brand of Keystone cops, or at least in our probably somewhat unfair version of events. They handle more basic things, like street crime, riots, and riding around in big police cars. Okay honestly we know very little about them, except that their uniforms are hilarious, but this isn’t their story, so deal.
Polizeipräsidium (POH-lih-tsai-pre-zi-dee-um) - Say that ten times fast. The official KriPo headquarters, located in Alexanderplatz.
Fachinspektionen A (FAKH-in-spek-tee-OH-nen AH) - Again with the ten times fast thing. This is the KriPo unit that specifically handles murder cases.
Kriminalkommissar (kree-mee-NAHL-koh-miss-ar) - Basically Head Detective. I wish I could say we knew more about how the hierarchy works, but it turns out that researching the particulars of crime procedure in 1929 Germany is extremely difficult.
Göttingen (G[UHR]T-ing-en) - The town in which Herr Inspektor grew up; also the name Doctorow insists on calling him, much to his chagrin.
natürlich (nat-UR-leekh) - Naturally. One of my favorite words. [see above explanation of ü for further assistance saying this word]
Gott im Himmel (like it looks) - “God in Heaven!”
kein Problem (kine proh-BLEYM) - (it’s) no problem
vielen dank (FEEL-en DAHNK) - many thanks
jemand (YEH-mahnd) - someone
Rabe (RAH-beh) - raven
komm mit mir - come with me (informal)
kleiner Freund (KLINE-er FROYND) - little friend
verdammt nochmal (fehr-DAHMT NOKH-mahl), Gott verdammt - damn it, god damn it
To Be Continued