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Widar: German pronunciation series, lesson #1. German Vowels.
Susanne: Welcome back to germanpod101.com.
Widar: Hallo!
Susanne: And welcome to our pronunciation series where we study modern German in a fun, educational format. In this lesson, we are going to start with the basics and slowly work our way up.
Widar: First, we will talk about what German sounds are made of.
Susanne: Yes, thanks for being here with us for this lesson. Today in our first lesson, the focus will be on the pronunciation of German vowel sounds.
Widar: [a, i, e, o, u] and so on.
Susanne: Sounds very German.
Widar: Yeah, very powerful.
Susanne: Absolutely.
Widar: Okay. Let’s have all of you guys out there master your German vowels.
Susanne: We will help you pronounce sounds properly in German.
Widar: Yes. The basic vowels are quite simple. You will learn them very quickly.
Susanne: Oh, by the way, in this lesson, we are going to refer to sounds as vowels. So whenever we say vowel, think sound, don’t think letter.
Widar: That difference is important. While the German language knows 15 vowel sounds, there are only 8 letters to write them.
Susanne: Okay, we will go back to that in a second, but first we should tell our listeners what vowels actually are.
Widar: A vowel is a sound in spoken language like the German [a] or [o] is pronounced with an open vocal tract. Consonants on the other hand show constriction or closure at some point along the vocal tract.
Susanne: Right. If I say [a] my mouth stays open at the end. In contrast, if I say “hmm” which is made of two consonants, my mouth is closed.
Widar: Alright. Back to our 15 German vowel sounds. First of all, let’s listen to the five basic German vowels. [a, e, i, o, u].
Susanne: [a, e, i, o, u] Like we said, there are five basic vowels just like in English.
Widar: Now like English, German vowels exist in two versions, long vowels and short vowels.
Susanne: The tricky thing about that is those five written vowel letters [a, e, i, o] and [u] cover ten sounds. A long version and a short version.
Widar: In German, the long and short version of a vowel is called “a vowel pair”.
Susanne: Okay then let’s have a look at those five vowel pairs.
Widar: First is the [a] pair. In German, the [a] vowel is pronounced [a] like the [a] in father. You can find the long [a] vowel in [Pate] godfather and the short one in [Paste] paste.
Susanne: [a] long and [a] short.
Widar: Then we have the [e] vowel pair. It is pronounced [e] like the e in net. The long e is found in [Erde] earth and the short [e] is found in [Erbse] pea.
Susanne: [e] long and [e] short.
Widar: Further, we have the [i] pair. It is pronounced [i] like the e in meat. We can find the long [i] in eagle [Igel] and the short [i] in [Insel] island.
Susanne: [i] long and [i] short.
Widar: Next is the O vowel pair. This vowel is pronounced [o] like the first part of the O sound in “so”. We have the long O in [Ton] tone. Sound in the short O in [Tonne] barrel.
Susanne: [o] long and O short.
Widar: And finally the [u] vowel pair. This vowel is pronounced [u] like the [u] in mood. There is the long [u] as in [unten] below and the short [u] as in [Bus] bus.
Susanne: [u] long and [u] short.
Widar: To sum it up here, [a, e, i, o, u] are the basic vowel pairs we know from the alphabet but that’s not all.
Susanne: I know it.
Widar: Yeah the German language additionally uses five extra sounds. The so called umlauts. In written German, they are represented by three, not five letters with diacritics. Letters A, O and U plus diacritics.
Susanne: Okay let’s listen to them.
Widar: [ä,ö,ü]
Susanne: [ä,ö,ü]
Widar: Like with the basic vowel pairs, two of these umlauts also have long and a short version.
Susanne: Let’s start with [ä].
Widar: We find [ä] just in the long version as in [Ärmel], sleeve, the short [ä] vowel is similar to the short a.
Susanne: Ah that’s why there are just five additional vowel sounds, not 6. What about [ö] and [ü]. They should have long and short versions.
Widar: Of course, they build pairs. First is the [ö] vowel pair, long [ö] is found in [Flöte] flute and the short [ö] is found in [öffen] to open.
Susanne: [ö] long and [ö] short.
Widar: And finally there is the [ü] vowel pair. Long [ü] is found in [Tüte] bag and the short [ü] in [Küste] coast.
Susanne: [ü] long and [ü] short. One quick remark about the [ü] letter here. There is also another letter from the alphabet which displays the same [ü] sound while it’s the y pronounced [ü]. In German, this letter only appears in loan words and it is always pronounced as [ü].
Widar: So far so good. Now we are sure our listeners want to practice producing these sounds by themselves. For that reason, we need to dive a bit deeper into the world of German vowels. Well, let’s give them more background about the vowel sounds.
Susanne: Yes that’s where we have to talk about articulation.
Widar: Those 15 vowel sounds can be divided into different articulation features which define the vowels quality.
Susanne: And those are...
Widar: Height, backness and roundedness. These three parameters are indicated in a shematic vowel diagram which can be found in our accompanying PDF guide.
Susanne: Okay first let’s talk about the height of a vowel.
Widar: If we speak of the height of a vowel, we refer to the vertical position of the tone relative to either the roof of the mouth or the aperture of the jaw. There is a distinction between high vowels where the tongue is positioned high in the mouth and low vowels where the tongue is positioned low in the mouth.
Susanne: I’ve never heard of high or low vowels.
Widar: That is because nowadays, the terms closed and open vowel are preferred instead of high and low.
Susanne: Ah I see. So which ones are the closed vowels?
Widar: The long [i,u] and [ü] vowels are closed vowels.
Susanne: Okay so the long i as in [Miete], rent, the long [u] as in mood, courage and the long [ü] as in [prüfen] to check.
Widar: Yeah, exactly. Next are Near-closed vowels. Those are the short [i,u] and [ü] vowels.
Susanne: As in [Bitte] request, [Mutter] mother and [Müll] garbage.
Widar: Then there are vowels that are in the middle. We have closed-mid vowels, the long E, long O and long [ö] vowels.
Susanne: For example [sehen] to see, [Ostern] Easter and [Höhle] cave.
Widar: Next are open-mid vowels. Long [ä] short [e] short [o] and short [ö] vowels.
Susanne: As in [Ärmel] sleeve, [Bett] bed, [Tonne] barrel and [Hölle] hell.
Widar: Those are followed by open vowels long [a] and short [a]
Susanne: For example [Stadt] city, [Staat] state.
Widar: Okay. Repeat it and you will see what we are practicing here.
Susanne: The next parameters are backness and roundedness. What does backness mean?
Widar: While the concept of backness is too complex to discuss here, I will instead try a short introduction. Vowel backness describes the position of the tongue during the articulation of a vowel relative to the back of the mouth. We distinguish between three major degrees of vowel backness front, central and back.
Susanne: Okay. So let’s make this quick. Which vowels are in front?
Widar: Front vowels where the tongue is positioned forward in the mouth or the [i,ü,e] and [ö] appears as well as the long [ä].
Susanne: And which ones are in the central position?
Widar: The long and short [a] vowels are central vowels.
Susanne: And the back vowels?
Widar: Those vowels where the tongue is positioned towards the back of the mouth are the [u] and O vowel pairs.
Susanne: Okay now the last parameter is roundedness. Can you tell us more about that?
Widar: Sure. With the parameter of roundedness, we distinguish whether the lips are rounded or not when forming a vowel.
Susanne: Which vowels are rounded and which aren’t?
Widar: The vowel pairs O, [ö,u] and [ü] are rounded.
Susanne: Try this with your lips. Say [o, ö, u, ü] in front of a mirror and watch your mouth while you are doing it.
Widar: And the unrounded ones are the [a,e] and [i] vowel pairs as well as the long [ä].
Susanne: Okay got it. So height, backness and roundedness are the three major articulation features of German vowels.
Widar: Yes, but there are more than these three vowel qualities in other languages like [nasality] which you can find in foreign words from French, [nasality] refers to vowels where the [velem] is lowered and some of the air travels through the nose while speaking the vowel.
Susanne: Some examples for [nasality] are [tent, genre, Parfum ] and [Jongleur] where the [on] sound represents nasalization.
Widar: Now there are 15 vowel sounds, but just 8 vowel letters. When we read a German book, we are not able to find out whether a particular vowel is pronounced short or long. The question is, how do we know when to pronounce “a” vowel short and when long.
Susanne: That is one of the more complex questions. To answer it to everyone’s pleasure, we need to explain the concept of syllables.
Widar: Okay, German uses sounds, vowels and consonants and it arranges them in blocks of syllables to form words. A syllable is usually made up of one or some consonants in one vowel but some of them contain only one vowel.
Susanne: Can you give us an example?
Widar: Sure the word [trinken] to drink consists of two syllables. The first one [trin] is made up of three consonants and the vowel “i” while the second syllable can is made up of two consonants and the vowel “e”.
Susanne: Okay another example is [arbeiten] to work. This verb consists of three syllables [a-rb-e-i-t-en]
Widar: You got it. Whether any particular vowel letter represents the long or short vowel sound is not completely predictable but there are some regularities. If a vowel other than E is at the end of the syllable or followed by a single consonant, it is usually pronounced [Hof] yard or [Tor] gate. If the vowel is followed by a double consonant like the double F, double S or the double T are followed by CK or TZ or a consonant cluster like ST or ND, it is nearly always short.
Susanne: So for example in [hoffen] to hope, the [o] vowel is short because it’s followed by a double F. And in [schmecken] to taste, the first [e] sound is short because it’s followed by CK.
Widar: Yes, double consonants are used only to mark preceding vowels as short. The consonant itself is never pronounced, lengthened or doubled.
Susanne: Nice indicator.
Widar: The problem is that these rules have exceptions and because German is a pleura centric language there are lots of regional differences.
Susanne: So it’s best to listen to native speakers a lot to learn it.
Widar: Exactly.
Susanne: Okay this will do it for the single vowel sounds. The German language knows many more tricky sound combinations of two vowels or three consonants. We will cover that in lesson #3.
Widar: Make sure to practice these over and over until you really get the hang of them. The best way to improve pronunciation is through practice.
Susanne: So keep practicing and see you next time at germanpod101.com.
Widar: [Auf Wiedersehen]!