What’s the most beautiful language?
And which language sounds the harshest?
You’ve maybe seen the meme about different languages, where the “normal” languages like English, Spanish and French all have similar words for one thing, but then the German word is long, weird and consonant-filled.
Or perhaps you’ve seen the scattered responses to that meme, where the meme maker compares long words in other languages to short ones in German—my favorite is comparing “unfortunately” and its Spanish translation desafortunadamente to the simple word leider in German.
But when it comes down to it, the consensus, at least as measured by internet memes and jokes, seems to be that German is a rough, “guttural” language that has long, baffling words. This could be partially because the meme makers cherry-picked the words to fit their message, but there may be a kernel of truth to it.
German does tend to have some long words, but it’s not actually that bad. And at least compared to other languages, it’s really not that difficult to pronounce once you’ve learned how to pronounce the words. And that’s what this post is for.
1. German words are pronounced like they’re written, with little variation
It’s true that German grammar is quite a bit more complicated than English grammar in many senses. For example, German has three genders for their nouns, although the specific gender usually doesn’t have anything to do with whether the object is “masculine,” “feminine,” or “neutral”
German pronunciation, on the other hand, is fairly easy, especially when compared to English. For the most part, German is similar to languages like Spanish, where you pronounce words like they’re written. English, on the other hand, is a huge mess.
Just consider the letter combination “ough.” Most places say that these four simple letters can be pronounced anywhere between 7-10 different ways in English, depending on the word and one’s accent! The mere fact that that number ranges from 7 to 10 should tell you something: It’s hard out there when you’re speaking English!
2. “Long” German words are usually just a bunch of short words crammed together
German words can look long and difficult, but as we saw in the example with the word “unfortunately,” the pendulum can also swing in the other direction. And most of the longer German words are actually made up of several shorter, easy words. It all has to do with how words are formed differently in different languages.
For example, if you want to express a complex idea, like an object and its description, you have a few ways of doing it. In English, we often use compound nouns, where we use the first noun to describe the second one. One example is “the bicycle chain.” We’re talking about a chain, specifically one for a bicycle.
German connects the words to form longer words: Fahrradkette (bicycle chain). Although literally speaking, the word for bicycle, Fahrrad, actually means “driving wheel,” so Fahrradkette would be like seeing the word “drivingwheelchain” in English.)
If you saw the “word” bicyclechain or drivingwheelchain in English, you would likely recognize the two or three separate parts very quickly, and could just combine the pronunciation into one word if needed.
German speakers do the same thing with their words, but for students learning German, it’s harder to recognize where one word ends and where the next begins. So a student could probably pronounce the individual parts Fahr, Rad and Kette, but combining them into one big word is more challenging. Doing that takes practice, but it’s not that hard after a while.
So once you understand these two things about German and German words, pronunciation becomes less intimidating. You’ll realize it’s more a matter of sounding out the word bits to make a whole word. But in order to sound out those bits, you’ll need to have a solid grasp of the alphabet first.
3. You can learn letters and sounds
Words are made up of letters, not pronunciation symbols. Unless you constantly walk around with a dictionary that uses those symbols, you won’t usually see them. You’ll see words written with letters instead. And when you see those words, you’ll have to understand how to interpret those letters and make them into sounds. So by all means, learn the sounds or even the pronunciation symbols if you’d like to, but you must learn the letters and the letter combinations that make those sounds.