German orthography is the orthography used in writing the German language, which is largely phonemic. However, it shows many instances of spellings that are historic or analogous to other spellings rather than phonemic. The pronunciation of almost every word can be derived from its spelling once the spelling rules are known, but the opposite is not generally the case.
(Listen to a German speaker recite the alphabet in German)
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The modern German alphabet consists of the twenty-six letters of the ISO basic Latin alphabet:
|Name (IPA)||Spelling alphabet|
|J||j||/jɔt/; in Austria sometimes /jeː/||Julius|
|K||k||/kaː/||Kaufmann; in Austria Konrad|
|Q||q||/kuː/; in Austria /kveː/||Quelle|
|S||s||/ɛs/||Samuel; in Austria Siegfriednb 1|
|X||x||/ɪks/||Xanthippe; in Austria Xaver|
|Y||y||/ˈʏpsilɔn/; in Austria /ʏˈpsiːlɔn/||Ypsilon|
|Z||z||/t͡sɛt/||Zacharias; in Austria Zürich|
German uses three letter-diacritic combinations (Ä/ä, Ö/ö, Ü/ü) using the umlaut and one ligature (ß (called Eszett (sz) or scharfes S, sharp s)) which are officially considered distinct letters of the alphabet.
(Listen to a German speaker naming these letters)
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|Name (IPA)||Spelling alphabet|
|Ö||ö||/øː/||Ökonom; in Austria Österreich|
|Ü||ü||/yː/||Übermut; in Austria Übel|
scharfes S: /ˈʃaʁfəs ɛs/
|Eszett; in Austria and Southern Germany Scharfes S|
Although the diacritic letters represent distinct sounds in German phonology, they are almost universally not considered to be part of the alphabet. Almost all German speakers consider the alphabet to have the 26 cardinal letters above and will name only those when asked to say the alphabet.
The diacritic letters ä, ö and ü are used to indicate the presence of umlauts (frontalizations of back vowels). Before the introduction of the printing press, frontalization was indicated by placing an e after the back vowel to be modified, but German printers developed the space-saving typographical convention of replacing the full e with a small version placed above the vowel to be modified. In German Kurrent writing, the superscripted e was simplified to two vertical dashes, which have further been reduced to dots in both handwriting and German typesetting. Although the two dots of umlaut look like those in the diaeresis (trema), the two have different origins and functions.
When it is not possible to use the umlauts (for example, when using a restricted character set) the characters Ä, Ö, Ü, ä, ö, ü should be transcribed as Ae, Oe, Ue, ae, oe, ue respectively, following the earlier postvocalic-e convention; simply using the base vowel (e.g. u instead of ü) would be wrong and misleading. However, such transcription should be avoided if possible, especially with names. Names often exist in different variants, such as "Müller" and "Mueller", and with such transcriptions in use one could not work out the correct spelling of the name.
Automatic back-transcribing is not only wrong for names. Consider, for example, das neue Buch ("the new book"). This should never be changed to das neü Buch, as the second e is completely separate from the u and does not even belong in the same syllable; neue ([ˈnɔʏ.ə]) is neu (the root for new) followed by an e, an inflection. The word neü does not exist in German.
Furthermore, in northern and western Germany, there are family names and place names in which e lengthens the preceding vowel, as in the former Dutch orthography, such as Straelen, which is pronounced with a long a, not an ä. Similar cases are Coesfeld and Bernkastel-Kues.
In proper names and ethnonyms, there may also appear a rare ë and ï, which are not letters with an umlaut, but a diaeresis, used as in French to distinguish what could be a digraph, for example, ai in Karaïmen, eu in Alëuten, ie in Ferdinand Piëch, oe in Clemens von Loë and Bernhard Hoëcker (although Hoëcker added the diaeresis himself), and ue in Niuë. To separate the au diphthong, as well as some others, which are graphically composed of potentially umlaut-holding letters, the acute accent is sometimes used (e.g. Saúdi-Arabien).
Swiss typewriters and computer keyboards do not allow easy input of uppercase letters with umlauts (nor ß) because their positions are taken by the most frequent French diacritics. Uppercase umlauts were dropped because they are less common than lowercase ones (especially in Switzerland). Geographical names in particular are supposed to be written with A, O, U plus e except "Österreich" (Austria). The omission can cause some inconvenience since the first letter of every noun is capitalized in German.
Unlike in Hungarian, the exact shape of the umlaut diacritics – especially when handwritten – is not important, because they are the only ones in the language (not counting the tittle on i and j). They will be understood whether they look like dots (¨), acute accents (˝), vertical bars (‖), a horizontal bar (macron, ¯), a breve (˘), a tiny N or e, a tilde (˜), and such variations are often used in stylized writing (e.g. logos). In the past, however, the breve was traditionally used in some scripts to distinguish a u from an n, as was the ring (°). In rare cases the n was underlined. The breved u was common in some Kurrent-derived handwritings; it was mandatory in Sütterlin.
The eszett or scharfes S (ẞ, ß) represents the unvoiced s sound. The German spelling reform of 1996 somewhat reduced usage of this letter in Germany and Austria. It is not used in Switzerland and Liechtenstein.
As the ß derives from a ligature of lower-case letters, it is exclusively used in the middle or the end of a word. The proper transcription when it cannot be used, is ss (sz and SZ in earlier times). This transcription can give rise to ambiguities, albeit rarely; one such case is in Maßen (in moderation) vs. in Massen (en masse). For all caps usage, an uppercase ß was added to the German alphabet on 29 June 2017; however, the former version SS is still allowed as an alternative. In 2008, it was included in Unicode 5.1 as U+1E9E, and since 2010 its use is mandatory in official documentation when writing geographical names in all-caps.
Although nowadays substituted correctly only by ss, the letter actually originates from two distinct ligatures (depending on word and spelling rules): long s with round s ("ſs") and long s with (round) z ("ſz"/"ſʒ"). Some people therefore prefer to substitute "ß" by "sz", as it can avoid possible ambiguities (as in the above "Maßen" vs "Massen" example).
Incorrect use of the ß letter is a common type of spelling error even among native German writers. The spelling reform of 1996 changed the rules concerning ß and ss (no forced replacement of ss to ß at word’s end). This required a change of habits and is often disregarded: some people even incorrectly assumed that the "ß" had been abolished completely. However, if the vowel preceding the s is long, the correct spelling remains ß (as in Straße). If the vowel is short, it becomes ss, e.g. "Ich denke, dass…" (I think that…). This follows the general rule in German that a long vowel is followed by a single consonant, while a short vowel is followed by a double consonant.
This change towards the so-called Heyse spelling, however, introduced a new sort of spelling error, as the long/short pronunciation differs regionally. It was already mostly abolished in the late 19th century (and finally with the first unified German spelling rulebook of 1901) in favor of the Abel spelling that put focus on logical word ends. Besides the long/short pronunciation issue, which can be attributed to dialect speaking (for instance, in the northern parts of Germany Spaß is typically pronounced short, i.e. Spass, whereas particularly in Bavaria elongated may occur as in Geschoss which is pronounced Geschoß in certain regions), Heyse spelling also introduces reading ambiguities that do not occur with Abel spelling such as Prozessorientierung (Abel: Prozeßorientierung) vs. "Prozessorarchitektur" (Abel: Prozessorarchitektur). It is therefore recommended to insert hyphens where required for reading assistance, i.e. Prozessor-Architektur vs. Prozess-Orientierung. The use of hyphens here is, however, somewhat frowned upon as it is considered a dumbing down of the written language.
In the Fraktur typeface and similar scripts, a long s (ſ) was used except in syllable endings (cf. Greek sigma) and sometimes it was historically used in antiqua fonts as well; but it went out of general use in the early 1940s along with the Fraktur typeface. An example where this convention would avoid ambiguity is Wachstube, which was written either Wachſtube = Wach-Stube (IPA: [ˈvax.ʃtuːbə], guardhouse) or Wachstube = Wachs-Tube (IPA: [ˈvaks.tuːbə], tube of wax).
There are three ways to deal with the umlauts in alphabetic sorting.
Microsoft Windows in German versions offers the choice between the first two variants in its internationalisation settings.
A sort of combination of No.s 1 and 2 also exists, in use in a couple of lexica: The umlaut is sorted with the base character, but an ae, oe, ue in proper names is sorted with the umlaut if it is actually spoken that way (with the umlaut getting immediate precedence). A possible sequence of names then would be "Mukovic; Muller; Müller; Mueller; Multmann" in this order.
Eszett is sorted as though it were ss. Occasionally it is treated as s, but this is generally considered incorrect. Words distinguished only by ß vs. ss can only appear in the (presently used) Heyse-writing and are even then rare and possibly dependent on local pronunciation, but if they would appear, the word with ß gets precedence, and Geschoß (storey; South German pronunciation) would be sorted before Geschoss (projectile).
Accents in French loanwords are always ignored in collation.
In rare contexts (e.g. in older indices) sch (phonetic value equal to English sh) and likewise st and ch are treated as single letters, but the vocalic digraphs ai, ei (historically ay, ey), au, äu, eu and the historic ui and oi never are.
Compound words, including nouns, are written together, e.g. Haustür (Haus+Tür; house door), Tischlampe (Tisch+Lampe; table lamp), Kaltwasserhahn (Kalt+Wasser+Hahn; cold water tap/faucet). This can lead to long words: the longest word in regular use, Rechtsschutzversicherungsgesellschaften ("legal protection insurance companies"), consists of 39 letters; while the longest German word ever published (Donaudampfschiffahrtselektrizitätenhauptbetriebswerkbauunterbeamtengesellschaft, "Association for subordinate officials of the head office management of the Danube steamboat electrical services") has 79 letters.
Even though German does not have phonemic consonant length, there are many instances of doubled or even tripled consonants in the spelling. A single consonant following a checked vowel is doubled if another vowel follows, for instance immer 'always', lassen 'let'. These consonants are analyzed as ambisyllabic because they constitute not only the syllable onset of the second syllable but also the syllable coda of the first syllable, which must not be empty because the syllable nucleus is a checked vowel.
By analogy, if a word has one form with a doubled consonant, all forms of that word are written with a doubled consonant, even if they do not fulfill the conditions for consonant doubling; for instance, rennen 'to run' → er rennt 'he runs'; Küsse 'kisses' → Kuss 'kiss'.
However, German does have consonant length (whether phonemic or not), if the two consonants stem from the two parts of a composite word, e. g. Schaffell ('sheepskin') has a long f (but short l).
By the same composition, consonants can possibly be tripled; while this is a sign that the consonant is actually in all cases spoken long, it does not affect the pronunciation per se: the fff in Sauerstoffflasche ('oxygen bottle') is exactly as long as the ff in Schaffell. According to the spelling before 1996, the three consonants would be shortened before vowels, but retained before consonants and in hyphenation, so the word Schifffahrt (literally somewhat like 'ship driving'; means "'navigation' in the sense of seafaring not excluding rivers) was then written Schiffahrt with equal pronunciation. With the aforementioned change in ß spelling, even a new source of triple consonants sss, which in pre-1996 spelling could not occur as it was rendered ßs, was introduced, e. g. Mussspiel ('compulsory round' in certain card games for who has a certain trump card if nobody else wants to play).
ei: This digraph represents the diphthong /aɪ̯/. The spelling goes back to the Middle High German pronunciation of that diphthong, which was [ei̯]. The spelling ai is found in only a very few native words (such as Saite 'string') but is commonly used to Romanize /aɪ̯/ in foreign loans from languages such as Chinese.
eu: This digraph represents the diphthong [ɔʏ̯], which goes back to the Middle High German monophthong [yː] represented by iu. When the sound is created by umlaut of au [aʊ̯] (from MHG [uː]), it is spelled äu.
ß: This letter alternates with ss. For more information, see above.
st, sp: At the beginning of the main syllable of a word, these digraphs are pronounced [ʃt, ʃp]. In the Middle Ages, the sibilant that was inherited from Proto-Germanic /s/ was pronounced as an alveolo-palatal consonant [ɕ] or [ʑ] unlike the voiceless alveolar sibilant /s/ that had developed in the High German consonant shift. In the Late Middle Ages, certain instances of [ɕ] merged with /s/, but others developed into [ʃ]. The change to [ʃ] was represented in certain spellings such as Schnee 'snow', Kirsche 'cherry' (Middle High German snê, kirse). The digraphs st, sp, however, remained unaltered.
v: The letter v occurs only in a few native words and then, it represents /f/. That goes back to the 12th and 13th century, when prevocalic /f/ was voiced to [v]. The voicing was lost again in the late Middle Ages, but the v still remains in certain words such as in Vogel (compare Scandinavian fugl or English fowl) 'bird' (hence, the letter v is sometimes called Vogel-fau), viel 'much'.
For technical terms, the foreign spelling is often retained such as ph /f/ or y /yː/ in the word Physik (physics) of Greek origin. For some common affixes however, like -graphie or Photo-, it is allowed to use -grafie or Foto- instead. Both Photographie and Fotografie are correct, but the mixed variants Fotographie or Photografie are not.
For other foreign words, both the foreign spelling and a revised German spelling are correct such as Delphin / Delfin or Portemonnaie / Portmonee, though in the latter case the revised one does not usually occur.
For some words for which the Germanized form was common even before the reform of 1996, the foreign version is no longer allowed. A notable example is the word Foto, with the meaning “photograph”, which may no longer be spelled as Photo. Other examples are Telephon (telephone) which was already Germanized as Telefon some decades ago or Bureau (office) which got replaced by the Germanized version Büro even earlier.
Except for the common sequences sch (/ʃ/), ch ([x] or [ç]) and ck (/k/) the letter c appears only in loanwords or in proper nouns. In many loanwords, including most words of Latin origin, the letter c pronounced (/k/) has been replaced by k. Alternatively, German words which come from Latin words with c before e, i, y, ae, oe are usually pronounced with (/ts/) and spelled with z. However, certain older spellings occasionally remain, mostly for decorative reasons, such as Circus instead of Zirkus.
The letter x (Ix, /ɪks/) occurs almost exclusively in loanwords such als Xylofon (xylophone) and names, e.g. Alexander and Xanthippe. Native German words now pronounced with a /ks/ sound are usually written using chs or cks, as with Fuchs (fox). Some exceptions occur such as Hexe (witch), Nixe (mermaid), Axt (axe) and Xanten.
The letter y (Ypsilon, /ˈʏpsilɔn/) occurs almost exclusively in loanwords, especially words of Greek origin, but some such words (such as Typ) have become so common that they are no longer perceived as foreign. It used to be more common in earlier centuries, and traces of this earlier usage persist in proper names. It is used either as an alternative letter for i, for instance in Mayer / Meyer (a common family name that occurs also in the spellings Maier / Meier), or especially in the Southwest, as a representation of [iː] that goes back to an old IJ (digraph), for instance in Schwyz or Schnyder (an Alemannic variant of the name Schneider). Another notable exception is Bayern ("Bavaria") and derived words like bayrisch ("Bavarian"); this actually used to be spelt with an i until the King of Bavaria introduced the y as a sign of his philhellenism (his son would become King of Greece later).
In loan words from the French language, spelling and accents are usually preserved. For instance, café in the sense of "coffeehouse" is always written Café in German; accentless Cafe would be considered erroneous, and the word cannot be written Kaffee, which means "coffee". Thus, German typewriters and computer keyboards offer two dead keys: one for the acute and grave accents and one for circumflex. Other letters occur less often such as ç in loan words from French or Portuguese, and ñ in loan words from Spanish.
In one curious instance, the word Ski (meaning as in English) is pronounced as if it were Schi all over the German-speaking areas (reflecting its pronunciation in its source language Norwegian), but only written that way in Austria.
This section lists German letters and letter combinations, and how to pronounce them transliterated into the International Phonetic Alphabet. This is the pronunciation of Standard German. Note that the pronunciation of standard German varies slightly from region to region. In fact, it is possible to tell where most German speakers come from by their accent in standard German (not to be confused with the different German dialects).
Foreign words are usually pronounced approximately as they are in the original language.
Double consonants are pronounced as single consonants, except in compound words.
|close||[i]||[iː] i, ie, ih, or ieh||[y] y||[yː] ü, üh or y||[u]||[uː] u or uh|
|near-close||[ɪ] i||[ʏ] ü or y||[ʊ] u|
|close-mid||[e] e||[eː] ä, äh, e, eh, or ee||[ø] ö||[øː] ö, öh||[o] o||[oː] o, oh, or oo|
|open-mid||[ɛ] ä or e||[ɛː] ä or äh||[œ] ö||[ɔ] o|
|open||[a] a||[aː] a, ah, or aa|
Consonants are sometimes doubled in writing to indicate the preceding vowel is to be pronounced as a short vowel. Most one-syllable words that end in a single consonant are pronounced with long vowels, but there are some exceptions such as an, das, es, in, mit, and von. The e in the ending -en is often silent, as in bitten "to ask, request". The ending -er is often pronounced [ɐ], but in some regions, people say [ʀ̩] or [r̩]. The e in the ending -el ([əl ~ l̩], e.g. Tunnel, Mörtel "mortar") is pronounced short despite having just a single consonant on the end.
A vowel usually represents a long sound if the vowel in question occurs:
Long vowels are generally pronounced with greater tenseness than short vowels.
The long vowels map as follows:
The oldest known German texts date back to the 8th century. They were written mainly in monasteries in different local dialects of Old High German. In these texts, the letter z along with combinations such as tz, cz, zz, sz or zs was chosen to transcribe the sounds /ts/ and /s(ː)/, which is ultimately the origin of the modern German letters z, tz and ß (an old sz-ligature). After the Carolingian Renaissance, however, during the reigns of the Ottonian and Salian dynasties in the 10th century and 11th century, German was rarely written, the literary language being almost exclusively Latin.
Notker the German is a notable exception in his period; his German compositions not only are of high stylistic value, but also, his orthography is the first to follow a strictly coherent system.
Only during the reign of the Hohenstaufen dynasty (in the High Middle Ages) was there again significant production of German texts. Around the year 1200, there was a tendency towards a standardized Middle High German language and spelling for the first time, based on the Franconian-Swabian language of the Hohenstaufen court. However, that language was used only in the epic poetry and minnesang lyric of the knight culture. These early tendencies of standardization ceased in the interregnum after the death of the last Hohenstaufen king in 1254. Certain features of today's German orthography still date back to Middle High German: the use of the trigraph sch for /ʃ/ and the occasional use of v for /f/ because around the 12th and 13th century, the prevocalic /f/ was voiced.
In the following centuries, the only variety that showed a marked tendency to be used across regions was the Middle Low German of the Hanseatic League, based on the variety of Lübeck and used in many areas of northern Germany and indeed northern Europe in general.
Mid-16th century Counter-Reformation reintroduced Catholicism to Austria and Bavaria, prompting a rejection of the Lutheran language. Instead, a specific southern interregional language was used, based on the language of the Habsburg chancellery.
In northern Germany, the Lutheran East Central German replaced the Low German written language until the mid-17th century. In the early 18th century, the Lutheran standard was also introduced in the southern states and countries, Austria, Bavaria and Switzerland, due to the influence of northern German writers, grammarians such as Johann Christoph Gottsched or language cultivation societies such as the Fruitbearing Society.
Though, by the mid-18th century, one norm was generally established, there was no institutionalized standardization. Only with the introduction of compulsory education in late 18th and early 19th century was the spelling further standardized, though at first independently in each state because of the political fragmentation of Germany. Only the foundation of the German Empire in 1871 allowed for further standardization.
In 1876, the Prussian government instituted the First Orthographic Conference to achieve a standardization for the entire German Empire. However, its results were rejected, notably by Prime Minister of Prussia Otto von Bismarck.
In 1880, Gymnasium director Konrad Duden published the Vollständiges Orthographisches Wörterbuch der deutschen Sprache ("Complete Orthographic Dictionary of the German Language"), known simply as "the Duden". In the same year, the Duden was declared to be authoritative in Prussia. Since Prussia was, by far, the largest state in the German Empire, its regulations also influenced spelling elsewhere, for instance, in 1894, when Switzerland recognized the Duden.
In 1901, the interior minister of the German Empire instituted the Second Orthographic Conference. It declared the Duden to be authoritative, with a few innovations. In 1902, its results were approved by the governments of the German Empire, Austria and Switzerland.
After 1902, German spelling was essentially decided de facto by the editors of the Duden dictionaries. After World War II, this tradition was followed with two different centers: Mannheim in West Germany and Leipzig in East Germany. By the early 1950s, a few other publishing houses had begun to attack the Duden monopoly in the West by putting out their own dictionaries, which did not always hold to the "official" spellings prescribed by Duden. In response, the Ministers of Culture of the federal states in West Germany officially declared the Duden spellings to be binding as of November 1955.
The Duden editors used their power cautiously because they considered their primary task to be the documentation of usage, not the creation of rules. At the same time, however, they found themselves forced to make finer and finer distinctions in the production of German spelling rules, and each new print run introduced a few reformed spellings.
The new orthography is mandatory only in schools. A 1998 decision of the Federal Constitutional Court of Germany confirmed that there is no law on the spelling people use in daily life, so they can use the old or the new spelling. While the reform is not very popular in opinion polls, it has been adopted by all major dictionaries and the majority of publishing houses.
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