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Pronounce: Vowels

These are eight standard German vowels - the five as in English plus the three umlaut ä, ö and ü vowels - and each have a "long" and a "short" variant. These terms refer primarily to how long the sound is held or pulled out, but sometimes there are also differences in the sound itself between the long and short variants of a vowel. Short vowels in German are very short and cut compared to English, and long vowels are kept a little longer.
In general, a vowel is long if followed by a single consonant and short if followed by a combination of consonants. There are some exceptions to this rule, but they mainly concern unsolicited syllables and short grammatical words (e.g. in, das, von). The following table gives some examples of these sounds and how to pronounce them.

Vowel Long sound Short sound
a Similar to the "a" of "father" in English Same sound as the long version, a bit shorter.
ä Like the sound of the English pronunciation of "hair", imagine saying "aaah" by the doctor. Same sound but shorter, perhaps at the limit of a short "e" (below) but still a distinct sound.
e Like the long A in English ("day") but "flatter". The short "e" is identical to the one in English (though perhaps a little shorter), so the German "nett" is just like the English "net", "denn" like "den", etc..
i A bit like the sound "ee" in English ("team", "meet"), but the tip of the language is positioned a little higher in German. Very close to the short "i" in English, so German and English "in" and "Mist" sound the same, except that the German vowel is slightly shorter.
o Like the O in "no" in English. Like the sound in "clots" in British English, or "bought" in American English if spoken quickly.
ö Similar to the sound of the English vowel in "worst" or "worry", but even closer to the sound in French words like "bleu" or "coeur". The short "ö" is similar to the short "e".
u A bit like the English sound "oo", like in "tube" and "moon". This is just like a cut version of the short English "u" in words like "put" and "should" (no like "but"!).
ü For those who speak French, this is pronounced just like French "u" (as in "tu"). The short "ü" as in "Mütter" is like the English word "wit".

In some cases, vowels are marked for the time needed to be doubled, as in "Staat" (state), or adding an "h" after a vowel, as in "Stahl" (steel).

The other basic vowel sounds are as follows:

- "y" appears as a vowel in some words of Greek origin, and is pronounced as a long "ü". A common example is "typisch" (typical).
- "ie" is pronounced as the German "i" long, except at the end of some names where it can be a sound "-yeh" not stressed.
- "au" is pronounced as English "ow" in "cow".
- "äu" and "eu" are pronounced as English "oy" in "toy".
- "ei", "ey" and "ai" are all pronounced as a long "i" English ("fight").

Now, back to the question of when to use "ss" and when to use "ß". The rules for this have changed in recent years, but the current practice is to use "ss" after short vowels, and "ß" after long vowels and diphthongs (combinations of vowels).

A little more about umlauts

Many books define "ä", "ö" and "ü" as real letters, but they are not entirely so; for example, they are not in the alphabet song that German children learn, and they do not have their sections in a dictionary. They are also closely related to their non-umlaut counterparts: most words with an "ä" derive from words with an "a".

External resources

How to pronounce vowels in German (Youtube Channel: Learn German with Anja)
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