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Lesson Transcript

Rebecca: Hey everyone, welcome back. In this lesson, Widar and I are going to explain a little bit more about the German writing system!
Widar: That's right! There are a lot of things that we're going to cover in this lesson.
Rebecca: Definitely. The German writing system is actually quite simple to learn, but there are some aspects about it that you really need to learn. So we're here to make the trip through it easy and fun. Let's start with the basics. German has one alphabet – the German alphabet.
Widar: Yeah. The German alphabet is a Latin-based alphabet, with the same letters you can find in the basic modern Latin alphabet.
Rebecca: So the Roman Empire and its written language, Latin, are the roots of the German alphabet…?
Widar: Indeed. The Latin alphabet is quite popular in Europe and many other countries around the world.
Rebecca: Can you give us a selection of countries that use a Latin-based alphabet? That way, we can make sure our listeners get an idea of the impact the Latin alphabet still has today.
Widar: Sure. The most prominent countries are England, France, Italy, Spain, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Austria, and Germany of course, the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Mexico, South American countries in general, and even more countries around the globe.
Rebecca: WOW! That's quite a victory for the Latin alphabet.
Widar: It is. And there's a good reason for that. The Latin alphabet consists of a mere twenty-six letters. There's never been a writing system that was this simple and yet this effective. You can build a gazillion of possible words with just twenty-six letters.
Rebecca: Yeah. Compared to some thousand Chinese or Japanese characters for example, the Latin alphabet is really easy to memorize.
Widar: So the German alphabet has twenty-six basic letters, like Latin. We can find them in two variants…uppercase and lowercase.
Rebecca: Widar, can you give us a quick overview of the vowels and consonants?
Widar: Sure. There are five basic vowels…"-a," -"e," "-i," "-o," and "-u," and twenty-one basic consonants. That's quite simple, isn't it?
Rebecca: Yes. And if you've learned English in school, you'll know for sure how to write uppercase and lowercase versions of the alphabet. If you want to find out how to spell them, please check out All About lesson #4, and for further information, we recommend our Pronunciation Class on GermanPod101.com!
Widar: Okay. So let's talk about the BUT…
Rebecca: Yeah, there's always a BUT in any language… (laughing)
Widar: Every language has its exceptions. To make it short here…if you know how to write the basic twenty-six letters of the German alphabet, you can almost write perfect German. Almost, because the German language uses some extra letters... three with diacritics (the so-called "Umlaute") and one ligature.
Rebecca: So what is it with these umlauts?
Widar: The three diacritic letters are "-ä," "-ö," and "-ü," Although they represent distinct sounds in the German phonology, they are usually not considered part of the alphabet.
Rebecca: So when asked to say the alphabet, Germans will just count the twenty-six cardinal Latin letters and will name the umlauts only when asked to do so.
Widar: Yeah, that's a mystery…
Rebecca: Anyway, let's talk about their heritage.
Widar: "-ä," "-ö," and "-ü" originated as "-a," "-o," and "-u" with a superscripted "-e," which in German handwriting was written as two vertical dashes. Those dashes have degenerated to dots. So now, we write "-ä," "-ö," and "-ü" as "-a," "-o," and "-u" + two superscripted dots.
Rebecca: Sometimes it is not possible to use the umlauts, because keyboards other than the German keyboard don't display the umlauts. In these cases, the umlauts "-ä," "-ö," and "-ü" should be transcribed as "-ae," "-oe," and "-ue."
Widar: The rule is simple. Base vowel plus "-e."
Rebecca: But be careful! If you see the vowel combination "-a+-e," "-o+-e," or "-u+-e," it doesn't mean that it always is a transcription of "-ä," "-ö," or "-ü."
Widar: I'll explain this with an example…"das neue Haus" ("the new house"). "Neue" is spelled "-n-e-u-e," which could be back-transcribed as "-n-e-ü." Technically, the second "-e" has no connection with the "-u" at all…"neue" means "neu" ("new"), while the "–e" at the end indicates the neutral singular form. So "neü" doesn't exist in German.
Rebecca: Yeah. Be careful with back-transcriptions of German words! But don't worry too much, because in most cases the German umlauts are used and not transcribed. You'll find them in newspapers, street signs…basically everywhere they need to be.
Widar: Now, one more word on the final extra letter, the ligature.
Rebecca: I remember the ligature is called "Eszett" ("ß").
Widar: That's true. "Eszett" looks a bit like the lowercase greek "beta" ("β"), but the curve is not closed at the bottom ("ß"). "Eszett" is also called the sharp "-s." It exists only in a lowercase version.
Rebecca: I think it's because "Eszett" can never occur at the beginning of a word or sentence.
Widar: Again, if the keyboard can't display this extra letter, it can be converted to "-ss" (double "-s"). For example, "Fuß" ("-F" "-u" "-ß"), meaning "foot," can be converted to "Fuss" ("-F" "-u" "-s" "-s").
Rebecca: But if there's any chance you have a keyboard where you can use "Eszett," you better USE it, because there are a lot of German words with "-ss" (double "s"), and confusion might occur if you convert "Eszett" into "-ss."
Widar: That's true. Luckily, regulations introduced as part of the German spelling reform of 1996 led to reduced usage of "Eszett" in Germany and Austria.
Rebecca: So let me ask you again…how many vowels and consonants does the German alphabet really have?
Widar: We have eight vowels, namely "-a," "-e," "-i," "-o," and "-u," and the special three "Umlaute," "-ä," "-ö," and "-ü." Then there are twenty-one basic consonants plus the ligature "ß," "Eszett."
Rebecca: Some of the letters of the German alphabet are considered to be rare letters.
Widar: "-q," for example, is a rare letter. It only appears in the sequence "-qu," as in "Quark." There are also a lot of letters like "-x," "-y," and "-c" that occur almost exclusively in loanwords and not in native German words.
Rebecca: You hardly ever see a native German word with "-x." Maybe just "Hexe" ("witch") and "Axt" ("axe").
Widar: You're absolutely right. It's different with loan words though. You'll find a bunch of "-x's" and "-y's" in loanwords, especially of Greek heritage.
Rebecca: I have one question about sorting. Imagine the situation that you have to look up names in the phone book or some vocabulary in the dictionary. Where do I have to search if I want to find names with Umlauts or "Eszett?"
Widar: There are different ways to deal with the umlauts in alphabetic sorting, but it's common to treat them like their base characters as if the dots weren't present ("Füße" ("feet") appears close to its origin word, "Fuß" ("foot") in the dictionary). But you can also decompose them to vowel plus "-e," which is a common method for personal and geographical names. For example, the "Müller" family ("-M-ü-l-l-e-r") is written "Mueller" ("-M" "-u" "-e" "-l" "-l" "-e" "-r").
Rebecca: And what's going to happen to "Eszett?"
Widar: It's sorted as though it were "-ss."
Rebecca: Okay. Maybe one quick note before we wrap this lesson. If you ever consider visiting a library in Germany, please know that you may stumble upon books you might not be able to read because those letters printed in some older books don't look like they've been taken from the Latin alphabet.
Widar: Oh, I know…
Rebecca: To make a long story short, in the eighteenth and nineteenth century, Germany not only used the Antiqua typeface – the one you know from English books, but also the Fraktur typeface. Some letters look very much the same like the ones you know from the Latin alphabet, but most look totally unfamiliar. They have an ornate shape and are very curvy. The Fraktur typeface vanished completely under the Nazi regime in the Third Reich. All books printed after 1938 are set in Antigua.
Widar: Right. So if you find such a book, ask the staff whether they have a newer version printed in Antiqua typeface.
Rebecca: So let's recap what we learned in this lesson. The German alphabet is based on the standard Latin alphabet, plus four extra letters, the umlauts and the ligature.
Widar: Yes. Those German umlauts include "-ä," "-ö," and "-ü," and the ligature is "ß."
Rebecca: We have uppercase and lowercase versions of all vowels and consonants, except for "Eszett." This letter just occurs in lowercase, because it can never occur at the beginning of a word.
Widar: Right. Just one more thing. Please know that the first letter of ANY German noun is ALWAYS capitalized, even in the middle of the sentence.
Rebecca: There you have it. The German writing system doesn't sound too complicated. Most people already know the standard twenty-six Latin letters from their own alphabet or have learned them in their English class. And those four extra letters are very simple to memorize.
Widar: Knowing the basics of the German alphabet will allow you to survive in Germany because there are many words that are taken from English. This will allow you to survive with limited knowledge of the language.
Rebecca: So learn the German writing system with us here at GermanPod101.com.
Widar: Before we go, we want to tell you about a way to drastically improve your pronunciation.
Rebecca: The voice recording tool...
Widar: Yes, the voice recording tool in the premium learning center.
Rebecca: Record your voice with a click of a button,
Widar: and then play it back just as easily.
Rebecca: So you record your voice, and then listen to it.
Widar: Compare it to the native speakers...
Rebecca: And adjust your pronunciation!
Widar: This will help you improve your pronunciation fast! Tune in next time for another refreshing German session! Thank you for listening.
Rebecca: See you next time.
Widar: Tschüss.
Rebecca: Bye!