German Alphabet

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Learning a new language is always an exciting journey. One of the first steps in mastering German is understanding its alphabet. With 26 basic letters, four special characters, and a unique pronunciation system, the German alphabet opens up a world of fascinating words and sounds. In this guide, you'll explore the ins and outs of the German alphabet: the number of letters, pronunciation, unique letters, digraphs, diacritical marks, and the relationships between characters and sounds.

Number of Letters

Like English, the German alphabet consists of 26 basic letters. However, it also includes four additional characters which are uniquely German: ä, ö, ü, and ß. This brings the total number of letters in the German alphabet to 30. Here is a table with German alphabet pronunciation and letters’ names.

German alphabet
LetterPhonetic TranscriptionName of the letter
Ä/ɛ/a umlaut
Ö/ø/be umlaut
Ü/y/oo umlaut


Relationships Between Characters and Sounds

There is a strong correlation between German alphabet letters and their sounds. This makes the German language fairly phonetic.

  • Vowels and Consonants: vowels can be short or long. Short vowels often follow a consonant (e.g., "Mann"), while long vowels are typically followed by a single consonant or appear at the end of a word (e.g., "Hut").
  • ß and 'ss': the ß character represents a double 's' sound, while 'ss' is used after short vowels.
  • Umlauts: umlauts (ä, ö, ü) represent modified vowel sounds, broadening the range of phonetics in the German language.

Also, there is one general rule for combinations "st" and "sp." If they are in the middle or at the beginning of the word, the letter "s" is pronounced as /sh/. For example, "storm"/shtorm/ (means "storm"), "spazieren"/shpatseeren/ (means "to walk").

Pronunciation Guide

When you're learning German, mastering the pronunciation of the alphabet is crucial. German is a phonetic language, which means words are pronounced as they're spelled. Here's a quick guide to help you pronounce each letter correctly.

Unique German Letters and Umlauts

There are four unique German letters not found in the English alphabet: ä, ö, ü, and ß.


Umlauts are diacritical marks in the alphabet in German. They modify the sound of the German characters a, o, and u. An umlaut changes the pronunciation of the vowel and can significantly alter the meaning of a word.

  • "Ä" umlaut sounds similar to the "e" in English words like "bet" or "men." The pronunciation can vary slightly depending on the region and the word's context.
  • "Ö" umlaut does not have a direct equivalent in English, but it is somewhat similar to the "i" in "girl."
  • "Ü" umlaut also does not have a direct equivalent in English. The pronunciation is very similar to the English word "sew."

Here are a few examples of words with umlauts:

  • "Ä": "Äpfel" /epfel`/ - apples; "hätte" /hete/ - would have; "kämpfen" /kempfen/ - to fight.
  • "Ö": "Öl" /oel/ - oil; "lösen" /loesen/ - to solve; "schön" /sh`oen/ - beautiful.
  • "Ü": "Übung" /uebung/ - exercise; "fühlen" /fuelen/ - to feel.

Umlauts are an essential aspect of German pronunciation and can significantly change the meaning of a word. For example, "Mutter" means mother, while "Mütter" means mothers. Though the pronunciation may seem strange at first, keep practicing, and soon the sounds of these umlauts will become familiar to you.


The "ß" character is a unique letter in the German alphabet, known as "Eszett" or "sharp S." It resembles a combination of a lowercase "s" and a lowercase "z," or two "s" letters fused together, but it's important to note that it's a distinct letter in its own right, not a digraph.

The "ß" is pronounced as the English "s" sound, like in "see" or "sound." However, it only appears after long vowels or diphthongs, which makes it a useful indicator of vowel length in German words.

Here are some examples of German words that contain the "ß":

  • "Straße" /shtrasse/ - street.
  • "Fuß"/fuss/ - foot.
  • "Groß" /gross/ - big.
  • "Heißen" /haissen/ - to be called.
  • "Maße" /masse/ - dimensions.

In the 1996 spelling reform in Germany, the rules for using "ß" were changed. The letter now appears less frequently, but it's still essential to know its pronunciation and usage. Misusing "ß" can lead to misunderstandings as it can change the meaning of a word. For example, "Masse" means mass, but "Maße" means dimensions.

Digraphs and Trigraphs

Digraphs are combinations of two letters representing a single sound. In this section, you will learn the basics of German digraphs and their usage.

How to use the digraph "ch"

The digraph "ch" in German is one of the most common and unique features of the language. It consists of the combination of the letters "c" and "h" to form a sound that is not present in the English language.

In German, the pronunciation of "ch" can vary depending on the vowel that precedes it and whether it appears at the beginning, middle, or end of a word. There are two main pronunciations of "ch":

  1. Hard "ch": this is a guttural sound produced in the back of the throat, similar to the "ch" in the English word "hole." This sound is common when "ch" is preceded by "a," "o," "u," and "au."
  2. Soft "ch": this sound is more airy and softer, similar to an "h" sound in English words like "hidden" or "hit." It is typically found when "ch" follows "e," "i," "ä," "ö," "ü," "ei," "eu," and "äu."
  3. At the beginning of words, "ch" is pronounced as a "k" sound.

Here are some examples of words with the digraph "ch":

  • Hard "ch": "Buch"/buh/ (book), "Dach"/dah/ (roof), "nach"/nah/ (after), "Acht"/aht/ (eight).
  • Soft "ch": "ich" /ih`/ (I), "mich" /mih`/ (me), "nicht" /nih`t/ (not), "licht" /lih`t/ (light).
  • Beginning of words: "chor"/kor/ (choir), "Chemie"/kem'i/ (chemistry).

The "ch" digraph is a unique feature of the German language, and while it may seem tricky at first, with practice, you'll be able to master its pronunciation. Paying attention to the surrounding vowels will give you clues about whether to pronounce it as a hard or soft "ch."

How to use the trigraph "sch"

The "sch" digraph is pronounced as /sh/ in English and has a phonetic transcription as /ʃ/, similar to the sound you hear at the beginning of the English words "ship," "shop," or "should."

Here are a few examples of German words that include the "sch" digraph:

  • "Schule" /shule/ - school.
  • "Tisch" /tish/ - table.
  • "Fisch"/fish/ - fish.
  • "Schön" /sh`oen/ - beautiful.

This pronunciation remains consistent no matter where "sch" appears in a word — at the beginning, in the middle, or at the end. It also stays the same regardless of the vowel that follows or precedes it.

How to use the digraph "ei"

In German, "ei" is a digraph, which is a combination of two letters producing one distinct sound like the English word "eye." This is true regardless of where the digraph appears in the word. It's also worth noting that the "ei" digraph in German is pronounced the same way as the "ai" digraph.

Here are a few examples of words containing the "ei" digraph:

  • "Ei"/ai/ - egg.
  • "Mein"/main/ - my.
  • "Klein" /kl`ain/ - small.
  • "Nein"/nain/ - no.
  • "Freiheit" /fraiheit/ - freedom.

Understanding the pronunciation of the "ei" digraph is an essential step in mastering German pronunciation. While it may feel counterintuitive to English speakers at first, remember that the sound is equivalent to "eye."

How to use the digraph "ie"

In German, "ie" is another common digraph, a pair of letters that together produce a single distinct sound. Although this combination appears similar to "ei," the pronunciation is different and sounds like the English "ee," as in the words "see" or "tree." 

Note: The "ie" sound remains consistent no matter where it appears in a word.

Here are a few examples of German words with the "ie" digraph:

  • "Sie"/see/ - she.
  • "Bieten" /beeten/ - to offer.
  • "Lied"/leed/ - song.
  • "Tiere"/teere/ - animals.
  • "Liebe" /leebe/ - love.

Repeat the words aloud, listen to native speakers, and you'll soon master the pronunciation of the "ie" digraph. Although it may initially seem strange to pronounce "ie" as "ee," it will soon become natural to you as you become more familiar with the German language.

How to use the digraphs "eu" and äu"

In the German language, "eu" and "äu" are digraphs, which are pairs of letters that create one distinct sound, like the English /oy/ as in "boy" or /oi/ as in the English word "voice." This pronunciation remains consistent no matter where the digraph appears in a word.

Here are some examples of German words that include these digraphs:

  • "Neun" /noin/ - nine.
  • "Deutsch" /doich/ - German).
  • "Euro" /oiro/ - Euro.
  • "Heute" /hoite/ - today. 
  • "Läuft" /loift/ - runs.
  • "Häuser" /hoiser/ - houses.
  • "Mäuse" /moise/ - mice.

Grasping the pronunciation of "eu" and "äu" is a crucial step towards fluency in German. It may take some time to get accustomed to the "oy" sound, but with continuous practice, you'll master it. Remember, listening to native German speakers and repeating words aloud can significantly improve your pronunciation.

The tetragraph "tsch" in German

The combination "tsch" in German is a tetragraph, a sequence of four letters representing a single distinct sound. This sound doesn't occur frequently, but when it does, it is particularly distinctive. It is pronounced similarly to the English "ch," as in "chips" or "church." This pronunciation is consistent, irrespective of where it appears in a word or what other letters surround it.

Here are some examples of German words containing the "tsch" tetragraph:

  • "Deutsch" /doich/ - German.
  • "Tschechisch" /chechish/ - Czech.
  • "Klatsch" /klach/ - gossip.

Mastering the pronunciation of "tsch" can be challenging for non-native speakers, especially because it's a combination of letters not found in many languages. However, with consistent practice, it will become easier.


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Understanding the German alphabet is the first step toward fluency. By familiarizing yourself with its unique letters, digraphs, and diacritical marks, you'll find German a rich and rewarding language to learn. Keep practicing, and you'll soon master the unique sounds and rhythms of German.

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