German Vowels

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German Vowels
June 1, 2013
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Do you realize that whenever you say “a,“ “o,“ “u,” and “i,“ you actually make two sounds, not just one? Say “a” out loud; you just said “aa-eeh.” Try the same with “o” (“aw-ooh”) or “u” (“y-ooh”). English vowels are diphthongs.

In German, however, vowels do not consist of diphthongs; they are “pure.” Whenever you try to pronounce German words, then, be careful to pronounce all vowels “the German way.”

The German alphabet, just like the English, has five main vowels: a, e, i, o, u. In addition, there are so called “umlaute”: ä, ö, and ü. Also, these vowels can be paired to form different sounds—just like in English: “boat” makes a different sound than “boot.”

Now before you start looking at the pronunciation of the various vowels and possibly go nuts trying to memorize it all, relax. You will learn how to pronounce German the right way by closely listening to the audio clips in the lessons, not by worrying about every individual sound described here. The purpose of this article is to help you figure out how to form the sounds with your tongue, mouth, and lips when you don’t have a clue why you just can’t say it the way it sounds in the recording. Ok? Let’s go, then!

Let’s first take a look at the main vowels:

“a” – almost sounds like the “u” in “but,” just a little brighter. It’s an open sound, which means you must drop your jaw to make it. The tongue touches the back of the lower teeth. It might help to think of the Southern way of saying “I.” Remember, though, it’s not a diphthong!!

An example of a German word with “a” is “hallo” [hello].

“o” – Think of the word “organized” (say it the British way!) and close your mouth even more. It is important to keep your mouth closed; your lips need to poke out—as if you were waiting for someone to kiss you. This is the closed “o.” You guessed it…there’s an open “o,” too.

An example of a German word with a closed “o” is “oder” [or].

The open “o” sounds like the first sound in “awesome.”

An example of a German word with an open “o” is “offen” [open].

“u” – is like the English “u,” but without the glide sound at the beginning: “ooh,” like in “boots.” However, remember not to make a diphthong; keep it a pure sound!!

The lips gradually close more and more from “a” to “o” to “u”.

An example of a German word with a closed “u” is “uhr” [clock].

Of course, there’s an open “u” too, and it is more common than the closed “u.” It is simply a mixture between an open “o” (like in awesome) and a “u.” Try saying “aw-oo”—and stop before you fully close the “oo.” There you go.

An example of a German word with an open “u” is “unten” [downstairs].

“e” – is very closed, with little space between your upper and your lower teeth and with the tongue resting behind the lower teeth.  It is between an open “e,” like in the English word “bed,” and a short “i” sound, as in “English.” Try saying the “e” as in “English,” and draw it out. Be sure not to make it sound like “eeh” as in “beetle,” though.

An example of a German word with a closed “e” is “er”[he].

The German “e” can also be pronounced open, just like the “e” in “bed.” Most of the time, the “e” will be pronounced this way if followed by a double consonant; otherwise it is usually a closed “e.” Don’t worry about the rules, though. You’ll learn as you listen.

An example of a German word with the open “e” is “besser” [better].

“i” – is easy to pronounce; it’s just like saying “ee.” Remember Eeyore from Winnie the Pooh? His name would rhyme with the German name “Igor.” This is the closed “i;” it usually occurs when followed by an “h” or “e.”

An example of a German word with a closed “i” is “sie” [you (formal)].

Again, the “i” can be pronounced open in some words. The difference to a closed “i” is that the tongue is lowered a little bit; the sound is very short. It comes close to the “i” in “instant.”

An example for a German word with an open “i” is “ich” [I].

To summarize, it can be said that the open vowels are more common. The closed vowels usually occur when the vowel is followed by an “h” or just one consonant (e.g., “ofen” [stove] is pronounced with a closed “o,” whereas “offen” [open] is pronounced with an open “o”).

Umlaute (“ä”, “ö”, and “ü”) aren’t all that difficult, either.

“ä” - is just another way of spelling the open “e.” It is a little brighter than the open “e,” so open your mouth just a little more. Most Germans don’t make a difference between the two, though. The difference is very subtle. Remember, the open “e” is pronounced just like the “e” in “bed.”

An example of a German word with “ä” is “mädchen” [girl].

 

“ö” - is between a closed “e” (like in “air”) and a closed “o” (like in “organized”). Say these two vowels fast and try to find a combination. The lips are formed as when saying the closed “o,” whereas the tongue rests behind the lower teeth as when pronouncing the closed “e.” Say “furthermore” with a British accent, forming the “u” in the front of your mouth, not the back. That comes close to a closed “ö.”

An example of a German word with a closed “ö” is “schön” [beautiful].

The open version of “ö” sounds like someone thinking hard, “Umm…”. To form it, open your mouth just a little more than when saying the closed “ö.”

An example of a German word with an open “ö” is “möchten” [to want].

 

“ü” - is a mixture between a closed “u” (“ooh”) and a closed “i” (“eeh”). Say these two vowels fast and find the middle. The lips are formed as when saying the closed “u,” whereas the tongue forms a closed “i.”

An example of a German word with “ü” is “über” [over].

 

Combined Vowels

As mentioned earlier, two vowels combined can form a new sound. These sounds, with the exception of “ie,” are diphthongs. The tongue moves when pronouncing them. They are two sounds in one.

“ie” – is nothing but a long, closed German “i” (as in “beetle”). The “e” following the “i” indicates that the “i” has to be prolonged.

An example of a German word with “ie” is “wieder” [again].

“ei” – is a diphthong pronounced “a-e” (the German “a” sound as in “but,” then “e” as in “bed”). Glide from the first to the second vowel quickly to pronounce this diphthong. It sounds like the “y” in “my.”

An example of a German word with “ei” is “mein” [my].

“eu” – is a diphthong pronounced “o-e” (“o” as in “awesome,” then “e” as in “bed”). Glide from the first to the second vowel quickly to pronounce this diphthong.

An example of a German word with “eu” is “heute” [today].

“äu” – is just another way of spelling “eu.” It is pronounced just the same.

An example of a German word with “äu” is “bäume” [trees].

“au” – is a diphthong pronounced “a-o” (the German “a” sound as in “but,” then “o” as in “awesome”). Glide from the first to the second vowel quickly to pronounce this diphthong.

An example of a German word with “au” is “aus” [out].

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6 Comments to “German Vowels”

  1. sean molley

    hi. im sean molley and im 10 years old and this website helped me so much. THANK YOU.. DANKE.

     
  2. Brent Van Arsdell

    Sean you are welcome. Keep studying.

    Brent

     
  3. Johnny Cameron

    Hallo,
    My name is Johnny and I have just started learning German. I think this website is one of the best I have seen so far. It helped me so much. DANKE

    Bis später!

     
  4. thomas

    Johnny -

    Glad to hear it’s working so well for you!

    Thomas

     
  5. stfuakm

    This “draw it out with crayons” explanation of German vowels ROCKS. It’s never been explained better than this to me! :-) THANK YOU and keep being so well spoken.

     
  6. thomas

    Thanks for the recognition. Language101.com works hard so that everyone can understand the language they are learning as quickly and easily as possible!

    Thomas

     
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