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Widar: German pronunciation series, lesson #5. German Stress, Rhythm and Intonation.
Susanne: Hi everybody.
Widar: Hallo.
Susanne: Welcome to the last chapter of the pronunciation series. In this lesson, we are going to teach you another important aspect of German pronunciation.
Widar: This one is a big one. So make sure you listen carefully.
Susanne: So what topic are we covering in this lesson [Walter]?
Widar: In this lesson, we will be going over stress, intonation and rhythm of the German language.
Susanne: Right. A huge part of speaking German involves adding intonation, stress and rhythm to speech to give it some life. Listening to someone speaking in the same rhythm without any intonation rising or falling feels boring and lifeless.
Widar: Yeah. That’s because rhythm and intonation are used to express emotions and intentions.
Susanne: Both the English and German language possess rhythm and stress, but each language applies them differently. So where will we start today [Walter]?
Widar: First, we will introduce you to stress in German which is fundamental to German pronunciation.
Susanne: I guess you are not telling me now how Germans compensate for stressful day at the office right?
Widar: Nah, not really. It’s a different stress we are talking about and we will make it simple.
Susanne: First, we should explain to our listeners what stress is.
Widar: Stress is a linguistic term and it refers to the emphasis that maybe given to certain syllables in a word. The English language uses stress a lot. Rebecca,
Susanne: Yes, English has a lot of stress in it. Try saying the word important aloud. Important, notice how the “port” part of the word stands out. That’s because this syllable is stressed. Now, try saying the word “interesting”. Interesting. Can you hear where the stress is?
Widar: It’s on the first syllable “int”.
Susanne: Now if you are a native English speaker, you probably aren’t even aware of this. It just comes naturally.
Widar: Maybe this is obvious but remember that vowels can be stressed, consonants cannot.
Susanne: Another kind of stress is word accent. Word accent is widely used in English and is realized on focused or accented words in a sentence.
Widar: Can you give us an example, please?
Susanne: Sure. Think about the following phone conversation. Will you take the early train tomorrow? No, I will take the evening train tomorrow. In this conversation, the acoustic differences between the syllables of tomorrow are small compared to the differences between the syllables of “evening”.
Widar: That is because “evening” is the emphasized word. In those words, stress syllables are louder and stronger than in regular words.
Susanne: Okay, so I understand that there are two kinds of stress in English. What do we know about stress in German [Walter]?
Widar: Like English, German also has stress and knows both kinds of stress, but while in English, you usually have to learn which syllable or syllables of the word are stressed. Stress in English is unpredictable, stress in German usually falls on the first syllable of the root word.
Susanne: Could you give us some examples please.
Widar: [Arbeiter]. In syllables [arbeiter].
Susanne: The first syllable [Ar] is stressed.
Widar: Another example is [trinken] to drink [trinken]. You see, stress applies for all kinds of words, nouns, verbs, adjectives and all other parts of speech.
Susanne: Stress on the first syllable of a root word is called “root word accent” or “root word stress”. The first syllable of the root word is held for a longer length of time than the others and it’s given more stress. Root word stress occurs in most words of German origin.
Widar: This rule becomes even more obvious if we take a look at the root word [lehr] teach in [lehren] to teach, [Lehrer/in] teacher, [belehren] instruct.
Susanne: So stress is usually put on the first syllable of the root word.
Widar: Which does not necessarily mean the first syllable of any German word is always stressed because you can add prefixes and suffixes to the root which have an impact on the stress too.
Susanne: But are there some exceptions.
Widar: Indeed. Many foreign words and loan words especially proper names keep their origin in the stress. A French guy named [Gustav] will still be called [Gustav] not [Gusstav].
Susanne: Keep this in mind. The pronunciation of foreign words and loan words follows the rules of the language they are borrowed from.
Widar: But that’s not the only exception of the regular root word stress rule.
Susanne: Well, I thought so.
Widar: Verbs that end on the suffix [ieren] receives stress on their penultimate syllable. Examples are [studieren] to study, a verb made of three syllables. [studieren] And stressed on the middle syllable [die]. Another example is [balancieren] to balance, a verb with four syllables [ba la nc ie ren] stressed on the third syllable [cie] which is the penultimate one.
Susanne: Other exceptions include compound adverbs with one of the following prefixes [Herr, hin, da ] and [wo]. They are stressed on their second syllable.
Widar: Examples are [herauf] up here, [dahin] there, to that place [wohin] where to/virtue.
Susanne: German also distinguishes stress between separable prefixes with stress on the prefix and inseparable prefixes with stress on the root word and verbs and other words derived from such verbs.
Widar: There is a list of prefixes you need to memorize to stress them right. Words beginning with up [auf, em, vor] and for are separable prefixes and are stressed on their first syllable. Words beginning with [be, ge, er, ver, zer, ent, emp] are inseparable prefixes and we should stress on their second syllable.
Susanne: For charts and examples, please check out our accompanying PDF guide.
Widar: Okay, just one more thing here. To homographs words that are written the same but with a different meaning with such prefixes are formed. Consider the word [umfahren, es umfahren] separable prefix. It means to drive over, to collide with an object on the street and receives stress on the first syllable. On the other hand [umfahren] inseparable prefix is stressed on the second syllable [umfahren]. And this word means to drive around an obstacle on the street.
Susanne: That’s quite something to memorize.
Widar: Yes, to get good at this, practice copying native speakers.
Susanne: Stressing syllables the way we do in English when speaking German will sound unnatural. So be careful.
Widar: And keep in mind that listening and repeating is really the key to improving your pronunciation. Listen to it and copy native speakers as much as you can.
Susanne: So far so good. Now next on our to do list for today are rhythm and timing.
Widar: When we speak, we don’t say everything in the same rhythm and timing. It would sound unnatural.
Susanne: Yes, take the following sentence for example. You wouldn’t say “today I will buy a new shirt”. I sound like a robot.
Widar: Yeah exactly. That sounds like a robot like the terminator.
Susanne: Exactly. So you would say instead: “today I will buy a new shirt” probably putting emphasis on new or new shirt because that’s the most important fact you want to communicate.
Widar: Now, the general idea of rhythm and timing is that a language divides time rhythmically into equal portions.
Susanne: We call this “isochrony”.
Widar: Yes there are three types of isochrony, stress timed, syllable timed and mora timed.
Susanne: Which type works for German?
Widar: The German language like many other languages including English, Dutch and Russian is a stress timed language. This means that syllables may last different amounts of time but the temporal duration between consecutive stress syllables is equal or close to equal.
Susanne: To make this clear, stress syllables appear at a constant rate but nonstress syllables are shortened to accommodate this.
Widar: Okay. A stress timed rhythm like in German is sometimes called Morse code rhythm. This comparison works because the Morse code is made of long and short signals. In a metaphorical sense, this refers to a stressed long and non-stressed short syllables.
Susanne: Especially in German, stress syllables are not only spoken louder and more powerfully than non-stressed syllables but also longer.
Widar: The other way around, this means that if a non-stress syllable follows a stress syllable, the non-stressed one will be pronounced shorter and with a lower voice. And for that reason, stress timing usually correlates with vowel reduction processes.
Susanne: And we will talk about that in a second and give you some examples. Just out of curiosity, in what ways do stress timed languages differ from syllable or mora timed languages.
Widar: Well in languages like Spanish which is syllable-timed with Japanese, mora-timed, syllables or mora are spoken at a constant rate regardless of stress.
Susanne: Okay, now we need to talk about another aspect of stress.
Widar: The vowel reduction.
Susanne: In many languages such as English, German and Russian, vowel reduction may occur when a vowel changes from a stressed to an unstressed position.
Widar: Yes, especially in German, many unstressed vowels were used to [schwa] like vowel sounds but this highly depends on the dialect spoken.
Susanne: So this means that in unstressed position for example the last syllable of a word, the vowel is not emphasized and changes it sound right?
Widar: You got it. A good example for this is the [e] vowel sound in the last syllable of words. Look at the word [butter] butter spelled butter [Butter] which in English means:
Susanne: Butter.
Widar: I’ve just pronounced it correctly as [Butter]. It’s a noun made up of two syllables [But] and [ter]. Now I will use the last syllable [Butter]. Did you hear the difference?
Susanne: Yes, correctly spoken [Butter] but commonly spoken as [Butter].
Widar: This [e] vowel sound at the end of the word instead of [er] is called the [schwa] vowel sound.
Susanne: Okay for more examples, please check out this lesson’s accompanying PDF guide.
Widar: Another thing that commonly occurs in German is vowels that are left out in unstressed syllables. Let’s say if we need to go to an appointment together, I would say [Wir wollen gehen] instead of [Wir wollen gehen].
Susanne: We want to leave.
Widar: [Wir wollen gehen]. Did you recognize the vowels that are left out?
Susanne: Yes, instead of [wollen] you said [wolln] and instead of [gehen] you said [gehn].
Widar: Right. I left out the [e] vowel sound of both verbs in the last unstressed syllable. Correctly spoken, the sentence [Wir wollen gehen] is [Wir wollen gehen] but it’s common to say [Wir wollen gehen].
Susanne: All right. Let’s switch over to our last topic, intonation.
Widar: The German language knows three different tones of voice.
Susanne: Those are falling, rising and floating intonation.
Widar: Falling intonation marks the conclusion of declarative and imperative sentences like [Ich gehe arbeiten].
Susanne: I go to work.
Widar: [Ich gehe arbeiten] Over the last two syllables of [arbeiten] the tone of voice is falling. Another example is the imperative sentence [Mach das Fenster zu] shut the window.
Susanne: But falling intonation is also used at the end of interrogative sentences with open questions like [Wie spät ist es], what time is it or [Wie geht es dir] how are you?
Widar: Rising intonation is typical for yes/no questions. For example, [Hast du Hunger] are you hungry or [Magst du Fußball] do you like soccer?
Susanne: In yes/no questions, you can hear a raised pitch near the end of the sentence.
Widar: Finally, the floating intonation. This one is used to mark breaks between main clauses and dependent clauses. For example, [Marie, mach das Fenster zu, denn ihr ist kalt]
Susanne: [Marie] closes the window because she feels cold.
Widar: The main clause [Marie, mach das Fenster zu.] ends on floating intonation to indicate that it’s continuing with the dependent clause. In comparison, the regular main clause without a dependent clause sounds like [Marie, mach das Fenster zu].
Susanne: With the falling intonation at the end of this declarative sentence.
Widar: But if it’s followed by a dependent clause, it’s pronounced [Marie, mach das Fenster zu, denn ihr ist kalt].
Susanne: To sum it up now, the tone of the voice falling or rising at the end of a sentence depends on the kind of sentence, declarative, imperative or interrogative and takes place beginning with the last stress syllable of the sentence.
Widar: Right. If the intonation is falling, the last stress syllable is pronounced a little bit higher so that the following unstressed syllables of the sentence can be pronounced with a falling tone of voice.
Susanne: And if intonation is rising, the last stress syllable is pronounced a little lower so that the following unstressed syllables of the sentence can be pronounced with a rising tone of voice.
Widar: Again our first example, [Ich gehe arbeiten] I go to work. The last stress syllable in this sentence is [ar] in [arbeiten] to work and it’s pronounced a bit higher so that the falling two syllables can be pronounced with the falling tone of voice [arbeiten].
Susanne: And in the yes/no question, [Hast du Hunger] are you hungry? The last stress syllable is [Hun] in the word [Hunger]. It’s pronounced a bit lower so that the following syllable can be pronounced with a rising tone of voice to build the question. [Hast du Hunger]? that does it for today. Well, we hope this lesson helped you understand why German language sounds the way it sounds.
Widar: And we assure, it will improve your speaking skills.
Susanne: Thank you all for listening.
Widar: [Auf Wiedersehen].
Susanne: Goodbye.