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This article is about the phonology of the German language based on the standard German. It deals with current phonology and phonetics as well as with historical developments thereof, including geographical variants (for details, see the articles on History of German and German dialects).

Since German is a pluricentric language, there are a number of different pronunciations of standard German, though they agree in most respects.

Contents

Vowels

  front central back
unrounded rounded
short long short long short long short long
close i1 y1   u1
near-close ɪ   ʏ     ʊ  
close-mid e1 ø1 øː   o1
mid   ə2    
open-mid ɛ ɛː3 œ     ɔ  
near-open   ɐ2    
open   a  
  • ^1 Short [i y u e ø o] occur only in unstressed syllables of loanwords, for instance in Psychometrie [psyçomeˈtriː] ('psychometry'). They are usually considered complementary allophones together with their long counterparts which cannot occur in unstressed syllables.
  • ^2 The schwa [ə] occurs only in unstressed syllables, for instance in besetzen [bəˈzɛt͡sən] 'occupy'. It is often considered a complementary allophone together with [ɛ] which cannot occur in unstressed syllables. If a sonorant follows in the syllable coda, the schwa often disappears so that the sonorant becomes syllabic, for instance Kissen [ˈkʰɪsn̩] 'pillow', Esel [ˈeːzl̩] ('donkey'). Before /r/, this is realized as [ɐ] in many varieties, for instance besser [ˈbɛsɐ] ('better').
  • ^3 The long open-mid front unrounded vowel [ɛː] is merged with the close-mid front unrounded vowel [eː] in many varieties of standard German. Examples: Ähre [ɛːrə] ('ear [of wheat, etc.]')—Ehre [eːrə] ('honour'), and Bären [bɛːrən] ('bears')—Beeren [beːrən] ('berries') are pairs of homophones for many speakers who will use [eːrə] and [beːrən] indiscriminately. The phonological status of [ɛː] has been the source of much contention in phonological literature for a number of reasons: (1) the insertion of a phoneme /ɛː/ is an irregularity in a vowel system that otherwise has pairs of long and tense vs. short and lax vowels such as [oː] vs. [ɔ]; (2) it has been stated that [ɛː] in Standard German is due more to a hypercorrective, stage-pronunciation oriented (Bühnendeutsch) view than to a consistent differentiation in actual vernacular—while some dialects (Mundarten) do have an opposition of [eː] vs. [ɛː], there is little agreement across dialects as to exactly which lexical items should be pronounced with [eː] and which with [ɛː]; (3) it is plausible to assume that [ɛː] is spelling pronunciation (rather than an "original" feature of the language)—that is, an attempt on part of the speakers to "speak as it is printed" (sprechen wie gedruckt) and to differentiate the spellings e and ä (that is, users of the language license the appearance of e and ä in the written by making them distinct in the spoken language); (4) many speakers with an otherwise fairly standard idiolect find it rather difficult to utter longer passages with all the [e:]s and [ɛ:]s in the right places; such persons apparently have to picture the spellings of the words in question which impedes the flow of speech.

The vowels are often analyzed according to a tenseness contrast, /i y u e ø o/ being the tense vowels and /ɪ ʏ ʊ ɛ œ ɔ/ their lax counterparts. Like the English checked vowels, the German lax vowels require to be followed by a consonant, with the notable exception of [ɛː] (which is however absent in many varieties). In order to apply the division into pairs of tense and lax to all German vowels, [a] is sometimes considered the lax counterpart of tense [aː].

Diphthongs

The German diphthongs are /a͡ɪ a͡ʊ ɔ͡ʏ/, for instance in Ei /a͡ɪ/ 'egg', Sau /za͡ʊ/ 'sow', neu /nɔ͡ʏ/ 'new'. Occasionally, these are transcribed as /a͡e a͡o ɔ͡ø/. Instead of the transcription /ɔ͡ʏ/, the transcription /ɔ͡ɪ/ is used as well.

Marginally, there occur some more diphthongs, for instance

and in loanwords, among others, [œɪ̯ ɔʊ̯ ɛɪ̯ o̯a] as in

  • Feuilleton [fœɪ̯ˈtɔ̃], often [føːiˈtʰɔŋ], [føːjiˈtʰɔŋ],
  • Homepage [ˈhɔʊ̯mˌpʰɛɪ̯d͡ʒ], often [ˈhoːmˌpʰeːt͡ʃ],
  • Croissant [kro̯aˈsɑ̃], [krwaˈsɑ̃], [krwaˈsaŋ].

Usually, these are not counted among the German diphthongs as German speakers often feel they are distinct marks of ‘foreign words’ (Fremdwörter).

In the varieties where speakers vocalize /r/ to [ɐ] in the syllable coda (see below), a diphthong ending in [ɐ̯] may be formed with virtually every vowel, for instance in Tor [tʰoːɐ̯] 'gate' or in Würde [ˈvʏɐ̯də] 'dignity'.

Consonants

With approximately 25 phonemes, the German consonant system exhibits an average number of consonants in comparison with other languages. One of the more noteworthy ones is the unusual affricate /p͡f/.

  Bilabial Labiodental Alveolar Postalveolar Palatal Velar Uvular Glottal
Plosive p  b   t  d     k  ɡ   ʔ1
Affricate2a   p͡f t͡s t͡ʃ  d͡ʒ2        
Fricative   f  v3 s  z ʃ  ʒ2 ç4 x4 ʁ5 h
Nasal m   n     ŋ6    
Approximant     l   j      
Trill     r5       ʀ5  
  • ^1 In the northern varieties, [ʔ] occurs before word stems with initial vowel. It is not considered a phoneme, but an optional boundary mark of word stems.
  • ^2a The phonemic status of affricates is controversial. The majority view accepts p͡f and t͡s, but not t͡ʃ or the non-native d͡ʒ; some (Kohler 1990) accept none, some accept all, and some (Wiese 1996) accept all as well as other clusters such as ps. See Wiese (1996) pp. 13–14 for discussion.
  • ^2 [d͡ʒ] and [ʒ] occur only in words of foreign origin. In certain varieties, they are replaced by [t͡ʃ] and [ʃ] altogether.
  • ^3 [ʋ] is occasionally considered to be an allophone of [v], especially in Southern varieties of German.
  • ^4 [ç] and [x] are traditionally regarded as allophones after front vowels and back vowels. For a more detailed analysis see below at ich-Laut and ach-Laut. According to some analysis, [χ] is an allophone of [x] after /a aː/ and according to some also after /ʊ ɔ a͡ʊ/.
  • ^5 [r], [ʁ] and [ʀ] are in free variation with one another. [r] is used mainly in Southern varieties. In the syllable coda, the allophone [ɐ] is used in many varieties, except in the South-West.
  • ^6 Some phonologists deny the phoneme /ŋ/ and use /nɡ/ instead, and /nk/ instead of /ŋk/. The phoneme sequence /nɡ/ is realized as [ŋɡ] when /ɡ/ can start a valid onset of the next syllable whose nucleus is a vowel other than unstressed /ə/, /ɪ/, or /ʊ/. It becomes [ŋ] otherwise. Example:
    • Diphthong /dɪftɔnɡ/ [dɪftɔŋ] : diphthongieren /dɪftɔnɡirən/ [ˌdɪftɔŋˈɡiːɐn]
    • Englisch /ɛnɡlɪʃ/ [ɛŋlɪʃ] : Anglo /anɡlo/ [aŋɡlo]
    • Ganges /ɡanɡəs/ [ɡaŋəs] ~ /ɡanɡɛs/ [ɡaŋɡɛs]

The voiceless stops /p/, /t/, /k/ are aspirated except when preceded by a sibilant. The obstruents /b d ɡ z ʒ/ are voiceless [b̥ d̥ ɡ̊ z̥ ʒ̊] in the Southern varieties.

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Ich-Laut and ach-Laut

The term ich-Laut refers to the voiceless palatal fricative [ç], the term ach-Laut to the voiceless velar fricative [x]. In German, these two sounds are allophones occurring in complementary distribution. The allophone [x] occurs after back vowels and /a aː/ (for instance in Buch [buːx] ‘book’), the allophone [ç] after front vowels (for instance in ich [ɪç] ‘I’) and consonants (for instance in Furcht [fʊrçt] ‘fear’) (Kohler 1977, 1990; Wiese 1996: 210).

In loanwords, pronunciation of potential fricatives in onsets of stressed syllables vary: in the Northern varieties of standard German, it is [ç], while in Southern varieties, it is [kʰ], and in Western varieties, it is [ʃ] (for instance in China: [ˈçiːna] vs. [ˈkʰiːna] vs. [ˈʃiːna]).

The diminutive suffix -chen is always pronounced with an ich-Laut [-çən].[citation needed] Usually, this ending triggers umlaut (compare for instance Hund 'dog' to Hündchen ‘little dog’), so theoretically, it could only occur after front vowels. However, in some comparatively recent coinings, there is no longer an umlaut, for instance in the word Frauchen [ˈfra͡ʊçən] ‘female dog master’ (a diminutive of Frau ‘woman’), so that a back vowel is followed by [ç], even though normally it would be followed by a [x], as in rauchen [ˈraʊxən] ‘to smoke’. This exception to the allophonic distribution is considered by some to be an effect of the morphemic boundary. However, many phoneticians believe that this is an example of phonemicization, where erstwhile allophones undergo a split into separate phonemes.

The allophonic distribution of [ç] after front vowels and [x] after other vowels is also found in other languages, such as Scots, in the pronunciation of light. However, it is by no means inevitable: Dutch, Yiddish, and many Southern German dialects retain [x] in all positions. It is thus reasonable to assume that Old High German ih, the ancestor of modern ich, was pronounced with [x] rather than [ç]. And while it is impossible to know for certain whether Old English words such as niht (modern night) were pronounced with [x] or [ç], [ç] is likely (see Old English phonology#Consonant allophones).

Despite the phonetic history, the complementary distribution of [ç] and [x] in modern Standard German is better described as backing of /ç/ after a back vowel, rather than fronting of /x/ after a front vowel,[citation needed] because [ç] is used in onsets (Chemie [çemiː]) and after consonants (Molch [mɔlç]), and is thus considered the basic sound.[citation needed]

According to certain analyses, the German ach-Laut is further differentiated into two allophones, [x] and [χ]. Some say that [x] occurs after /uː oː/ (for instance in Buch [buːx] ‘book’) and [χ] after /ʊ ɔ a aː a͡ʊ/ (for instance in Bach [baχ] ‘brook’), others say that [x] occurs after /uː oː ʊ ɔ a͡ʊ/ and [χ] after /a aː/.

The suffix -ig is always pronounced [ɪç] in the Standard Language, also in compound words: wichtig [ˈvɪçtɪç] (important), Wichtigkeit [ˈvɪçtɪçka͡ɪt] (importance). The speakers of southern dialects usually pronounce [ɪk], even when speaking Standard German.

Fortis-lenis pairs

Various German consonants occur in pairs at the same place of articulation and in the same manner of articulation, namely the pairs /p-b/, /t-d/, /k-ɡ/, /s-z/, /ʃ-ʒ/. These pairs are often called fortis-lenis pairs, since describing them as voiced/voiceless pairs is inadequate. With certain qualifications, /t͡ʃ-d͡ʒ, f-v/ are also considered fortis-lenis pairs.

The fortis plosives /p, t, k/ are aspirated in most varieties (exceptions include Bavarian-Austrian varieties). The aspiration is strongest in the onset of a stressed syllable (such as Taler [tʰaːlər]), weaker in the onset of an unstressed syllable (such as Vater [faːtʰər]), and weakest in the syllable coda (such as in Saat [zaːtʰ]).

The lenis consonants /b, d, ɡ, z, ʒ/ are voiceless in most southern varieties of German. For clarity, they are often transcribed as [b̥, d̥, ɡ̊, z̥, ʒ̊]. The nature of the phonetic difference between the voiceless lenis consonants and the similarly voiceless fortis consonants is controversial. It is generally described as a difference in articulatory force, and occasionally as a difference in articulatory length; for the most part, it is assumed that one of these characteristics implies the other.

In most varieties of German, the opposition between fortis and lenis is neutralized in the syllable coda, due to terminal devoicing (Auslautverhärtung). A few southern varieties of German, such as Swiss German, present an exception to this.

In various central and southern varieties, the opposition between fortis and lenis is also neutralized in the syllable onset; sometimes just in the onset of stressed syllables, sometimes in all cases.

The pair /f-v/ is not considered a fortis-lenis pair, but a simple voiceless-voiced pair, as /v/ remains voiced in all varieties, including the Southern varieties that devoice the lenes. Generally, the southern /v/ is realized as the voiced approximant [ʋ]. However there are southern varieties which differentiate between a fortis /f/ (such as in sträflich [ˈʃtrɛːflɪç] from Middle High German stræflich) and a lenis /f/ ([v̥], such as in höflich [ˈhøːv̥lɪç] from Middle High German hovelîch); this is analogous to the opposition of fortis /s/ ([s]) and lenis [z̥].

Stress

Stress in German usually falls on the first syllable, with the following exceptions:

  • Many loanwords, especially proper names, keep their original stress.
  • Verbs of the "-ieren" group (e.g. studieren, kapitulieren, stolzieren) receive stress on their penultimate syllable.
  • Compound adverbs, with her, hin, da, or wo as their first syllable part, receive stress on their second syllable.

Moreover, German makes a distinction in stress between separable prefixes (stress on prefix) and inseparable prefixes (stress on root) in verbs and words derived from such verbs. Therefore:

  • Words beginning with be-, ge-, er-, ver-, zer-, ent-, emp- and a few others receive stress on the second syllable.
  • Words beginning with ab-, auf-, ein-, vor-, and most other prepositional adverbs receive stress on their first syllable.
  • Some prefixes, notably über-, unter-, and um-, can function as separable or inseparable prefixes, and are stressed and unstressed accordingly.
  • Rarely, two homographs with such prefixes are formed. They are not strictly homophones. Consider the word, umschreiben. As um•schreiben (separable prefix), it means 'to rewrite', and is pronounced [ˈʊmʃʀaɪbən], and its associated noun, die Umschreibung also receives stress on the first syllable. On the other hand, umschreiben (inseparable prefix) is pronounced [ʊmˈʃʀaɪbən]. This word means 'to circumscribe', and its associated noun, die Umschreibung ('circumscription') also receives stress on the second syllable. Another example is the word umfahren. With stress on the root ([ʊmˈfaːʀən]) it means 'to drive around (an obstacle in the street)', and with stress on the prefix ([ˈʊmfaːʀən]) it means 'to drive over' or 'to collide with (an object on the street).'

Phonemic mergers

A merger found mostly in Northern accents of German is that of /ɛː/ (spelled ä, äh) with /eː/ (spelled e, ee, or eh). Some speakers merge the two everywhere, some distinguish them everywhere, others keep /ɛː/ distinct only in conditional forms of strong verbs (for example they distinguish ich gäbe 'I would give' vs. ich gebe 'I give', but not Bären 'bears' vs. Beeren 'berries').

Another common merger is that of /ɡ/ at the end of a syllable with /ç/ or respectively /x/, for instance Krieg [ˈkʁiːç], but Kriege [ˈkʁiːɡə]. This pronunciation is frequent all over Central and Northern Germany. However, it is considered slightly informal or colloquial. Only in one case, in the grammatical ending -ig (which corresponds to English -y), this pronunciation is prescribed by the Siebs standard, for instance wichtig [ˈvɪçtɪç]. The merger occurs neither in Austro-Bavarian and Alemannic German nor in the corresponding varieties of standard German.

Many speakers do not distinguish the affricate pf from the simple fricative f in the beginning of a word. The verb (er) fährt '(he) travels' and the noun Pferd 'horse' are then equally pronounced [fɛɐt]. This merger occurs especially in regions where pf does not originally occur in the local dialects, i.e. Northern and Western Germany.

Historical sound changes

The originally distinct vowel phonemes [ei] vs. [iː] and [ou] vs. [uː], as preserved in Middle High German, have merged to [ai] and [au] respectively in Modern Standard German. For example, heiß 'hot' and weiß 'white' rhyme in the modern language, while Middle High German distinguished them as heiz and wîz. Such merger however has not occurred in most German dialects. Words for 'hot' and 'white' do not rhyme in so different varieties as e.g. Lower German (heit vs. wit), Austro-Bavarian (hoaß vs. weiß), Ripuarian (heeß vs. wieß) or Swiss German (heiß vs. wiiß).

The modern phonemes [iː] and [uː] emerged from former diphthongs [iə] and [uə], which were monophthongized after the aforesaid elimination of the according vowels. Again, some dialects have conserved the older forms. We are also reminded of the diphthong character when [iː] continues to be written ie in German (as in Liebe).

See also

References

  • Duden. Aussprachewörterbuch. Dudenverlag: Mannheim/Leipzig/Wien/Zürich (2005). ISBN 3-411-04064-5
  • Kohler, Klaus J. (1977). Einführung in die Phonetik des Deutschen. Berlin: E. Schmidt.
  • Kohler, Klaus J. (1990). German. Journal of the International Phonetic Association 20:48–50.
  • Siebs, Theodor. (1898). Deutsche Bühnensprache. Cologne: Ahn.
  • Wiese, Richard. (1996). The Phonology of German. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-824040-6.

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