German orthography

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German orthography, although largely phonemic, 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. Today, German orthography is regulated by the Rat für deutsche Rechtschreibung (RdR; German for "Council for German Orthography").

History of German orthography[edit]

Middle Ages[edit]

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)/. This 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 in the High Middle Ages, during the reign of the Hohenstaufen dynasty, 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.

Early modern period[edit]

Until the 16th century, a new interregional standard developed on the basis of the East Central German and Austro-Bavarian varieties. This was influenced by several factors:

  • Under the Habsburg dynasty, there was a strong tendency to a common language in the chancellery.
  • Since Eastern Central Germany had been colonized only during the High and Late Middle Ages in the course of the Ostsiedlung by people from different regions of Germany, the varieties spoken were compromises of different dialects.
  • Eastern Central Germany was culturally very important, with the universities of Erfurt and Leipzig and especially with the Luther Bible translation, which was considered exemplary.
  • The invention of printing led to an increased production of books, and the printers were interested in using a common language to sell their books in an area as wide as possible.

In the mid 16th century, when, during the Counter-Reformation, Catholicism was reintroduced in Austria and Bavaria, the Lutheran language was rejected. Instead, a specific southern interregional language was used, based on the language of the Habsburgian chancellery.

In northern Germany, the Lutheran East Central German replaced the Low German written language until 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.

19th century and early 20th century[edit]

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 Prussian 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, by such people as 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 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.

In 1944, the Nazi German government planned a reform of the orthography, but because of World War II, it was never implemented.

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.

German spelling reform of 1996[edit]

The new orthography is obligatory only in schools. A 14 July 1998 decision of the Federal Constitutional Court of Germany [1] 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.

Features of German spelling[edit]

Vowel length[edit]

Even though vowel length is phonemic in German, it is not consistently represented. However, there are different ways of identifying long vowels:

  • A vowel in an open syllable (a free vowel) is long, for instance in ge-ben ('to give'), sa-gen ('to say').
  • The digraph ie usually represents long /iː/, for instance in Liebe ('love'), hier ('here'). This use is a historical spelling based on the Middle High German diphthong /iə/ which was monophthongized in Early New High German. It has been generalized to words that etymologically never had that diphthong, for instance viel ('much'), Friede ('peace') (Middle High German vil, vride). Occasionally – typically in word-final position – this digraph represents /iː.ə/ as in the plural noun Knie /kniː.ə/ ('knees') (cf. singular Knie /kniː/)
  • A silent h indicates the vowel length in certain cases. That h derives from an old /x/ in some words, for instance sehen ('to see') zehn ('ten'), but in other words it has no etymological justification, for instance gehen ('to go') or mahlen ('to mill').
  • The letters a, e, o may be doubled in a few words, for instance Saat ('seed'), See ('sea'/'lake'), Moor ('moor').
  • A doubled consonant after a vowel indicates that the vowel is short, while a single consonant often indicates the vowel is long, e.g. Kamm ('comb') has a short vowel /kam/, while kam ('came') has long vowel /kaːm/.
  • k and z are not doubled, but instead replaced by ck (as in English) or tz (except in Italian loanwords that have zz). Until the spelling reform of 1996, however, ck was divided across a line break as k-k, though.
  • For different consonants and for sounds represented by more than one letter (ch and sch) after a vowel, no clear rule can be given, because they can appear after long vowels, yet are not redoubled if belonging to the same stem, e.g. Mond /mo:nt/ 'moon', Hand /hant/ 'hand'. On a stem boundary, reduplication usually takes place, e. g. nimm-t 'takes'; however, in fixed, no longer productive derivates, this too can fall away, e. g. Geschäft [gɘʃɛft] 'business' despite schaffen 'get sth. done'.

Double or triple consonants[edit]

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'; sse 'kisses' → Kuss 'kiss'.

Triple consonants affect only the spelling, not the pronunciation. They occur when words are written together, as in Schifffahrt ('shipping') from Schiff and Fahrt, Sauerstoffflasche ('oxygen bottle') from Sauerstoff and Flasche. Before the spelling reform of 1996, only two consonants were written if the sequence was followed by a vowel (e.g. Schiffahrt but Sauerstoffflasche). If hyphenated at the end of a line, all three consonants were always written (e.g., Schiff-fahrt and Sauerstoff-flasche). The new spelling of both words is Schifffahrt and Sauerstoffflasche, with triple consonants in all contexts.

Typical letters[edit]

ei: This digraph represents the diphthong /a͡ɪ/. The spelling goes back to the Middle High German pronunciation of that diphthong, which was [e͡i]. The spelling ai is found in only a very few native words (e.g. Saite 'string') but is commonly used to Romanize /a͡ɪ/ in foreign loans from languages such as Chinese.

eu: This digraph represents the diphthong [ɔ͡ʏ] which goes back to the Middle High German monophthong [yː] represented by iu.

ß: This letter alternates with ss. For more information, see: ß.

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]. This change to [ʃ] was represented in certain spellings, for instance Schnee 'snow', Kirsche 'cherry' (Middle High German s, kirse). The digraphs st, sp, however, remained unaltered.

v: The letter v occurs only in a few native words. In these native words, it represents /f/. This goes back to the 12th and 13th century, when prevocalic /f/ was voiced to /v/. That voicing was lost again in the late Middle Ages, but the v still remains in certain words, for instance in Vogel (compare Scandinavian fugl or English fowl) 'bird' (hence the letter v is sometimes called Vogel-fau), viel 'much'.

w: The letter w represents the sound /v/. In the 17th century, the former sound [w] became [v] but the spelling remained the same. An analogous sound change had happened in Late Antique Latin.

z: The letter z represents the sound /t͡s/. This sound, a product of the High German consonant shift, was written with z since Old High German in the 8th century.

Foreign words[edit]

For technical terms, the foreign spelling is often retained, for instance 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.[2] Both Photographie and Fotografie are correct, but not the mixed variants Fotographie* or Photografie*.[2]

For other foreign words both the foreign spelling and a revised German spelling are correct, like in Delphin / Delfin[3] or Portemonnaie / Portmonee.[4]

For some words, where 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 not be spelled as Photo.[5]

Grapheme-to-phoneme correspondences[edit]

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.

Consonants[edit]

Double consonants are pronounced as single consonants, except in compound words.

  • b: at end of syllable: [p]; otherwise: [b] or [b̥]
  • c: before ä, e, and i: [ts]; otherwise: [k]
  • ch: after a, o, and u: [x]; after other vowels or consonants or initially: [ç] or [k] (word-initially in Southern Germany); the suffix -chen always [ç]. In Austro-Bavarian, especially in Austria, [ç] may always be substituted by [x].
  • chs: [ks] within a morpheme (e.g. Dachs [daks] "badger"); [çs] or [xs] across a morpheme boundary (e.g. Dachs [daxs] "roof (genitive)")
  • ck: [k], follows short vowels
  • d: at end of syllable: [t]; otherwise: [d] or [d̥]
  • dsch: [dʒ] or [d̥ʒ̊], used in loanwords and transliterations only, words borrowed from English can alternatively retain the original <j>. Many speakers pronounce <dsch> as <tsch>, because [dʒ] is not native to German.
  • dt: [t]
  • f: [f]
  • g: in the ending -ig: [ç] or [k] (Southern German); at the end of a syllable: [k]; otherwise: [ɡ] or [ɡ̊]
  • h: before a vowel: [h]; when lengthening a vowel: silent
  • j: [j] in most words and [ʒ] in loanwords from French (as in jardin, French for garden)
  • k: [k]
  • l: [l]
  • m: [m]
  • n: [n]
  • ng: usually: [ŋ]; in compound words where the first element ends in "n" and the second element begins with "g": [ŋɡ] or [ŋɡ̊]
  • nk: [ŋk]
  • p: [p]
  • pf: [p̪f] in all cases with some speakers; with other speakers [f] at the beginning of words (or at the beginning of compound words' elements) and [p̪f] in all other cases
  • ph: [f]
  • qu: [kv] or [kw] in a few regions
  • r: the standard German pronunciation of r varies regionally:
    • [ʁ] before vowels, [ɐ] otherwise; or
    • [ɐ] after long vowels, [ʁ] otherwise; or
    • [r] or [ɾ] before vowels, [ɐ] otherwise (Austro-Bavarian); or
    • [r] in all cases (Swiss German)
  • s: before and between vowels: [z] or [z̥]; before consonants or when final: [s]; before p or t at the beginning of a word or syllable: [ʃ]
  • sch: [ʃ], also [sç] when used in the diminutive of a word ending on "s", (e.g. Mäuschen "little mouse")
  • ss: [s]
  • ß: [s]
  • t: [t]
  • th: [t]
  • ti: in -tion, -tiär, -tial, -tiell: [tsɪ̯]; otherwise: [ti]
  • tsch: [tʃ]
  • tz: [ts], follows short vowels
  • tzsch: [tʃ]
  • v: in foreign borrowings: [v]; otherwise: [f]
  • w: [v]
  • x: [ks]
  • z: [ts]
  • zsch: [tʃ]

Vowels[edit]

  front central back
unrounded rounded
short long short long short long short long
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
mid   [ə] e    
open-mid [ɛ] ä or e [ɛː] ä or äh [œ]     [ɔ] o  
near-open   [ɐ]    
open   [a] a [aː] a, ah, or aa  

Short vowels[edit]

Consonants are sometimes doubled in writing to indicate the preceding vowel is to be pronounced as a short vowel. One-syllable words are pronounced with long vowels, with 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 is pronounced short as in the English word funnel in spite of the single consonant on the end. This ending occurs in words such as Tunnel "tunnel" or Mörtel "mortar" or in proper names such as Fennel.

  • a: [a] as in Wasser "water"
  • ä: [ɛ] as in Männer "men"
  • e: [ɛ] as in Bett "bed"; unstressed [ə] as in Ochse "ox"
  • i: [ɪ] as in Mittel "means"
  • o: [ɔ] as in kommen "to come"
  • ö: [œ] as in Göttin "goddess"
  • u: [ʊ] as in Mutter "mother"
  • ü: [ʏ] as in Müller "miller"
  • y: [ʏ] as in Dystrophie "dystrophy"

Long vowels[edit]

A vowel usually has a long sound if the vowel in question occurs:

  • as the final letter (except for e)
  • followed by a single consonant as in bot "offered"
  • before a single consonant followed by a vowel as in Wagen "car"
  • doubled as in Boot "boat"
  • followed by an h as in Weh "pain"

Long vowels are generally pronounced with greater tenseness than short vowels.

The long vowels map as follows:

  • a, ah, and aa: [aː]
  • ä, äh: [ɛː] or [eː]
  • e, eh, and ee: [eː]
  • i, ie, ih, and ieh: [iː]
  • o, oh, and oo: [oː]
  • ö, öh: [øː]
  • u and uh: [uː]
  • ü and üh: [yː]
  • y: [yː]

Diphthongs[edit]

  • au: [aʊ]
  • eu and äu: [ɔʏ]
  • ei, ai, ey, and ay: [aɪ]

See also[edit]

Footnotes[edit]