Pronunciation of Vowels

In general, vowel sounds are voiced, which means that they are produced with our vocal cords. Also, unlike consonants, they are articulated without any stricture in the vocal tract. As for German vowels, they have some additional features that differ from vowel sounds in other languages and, therefore, require some special attention:
1) In English, whenever you say [oʊ] or [juː], you actually pronounce TWO sounds (= one diphthong). In German, however, you say [oː] or [uː], as if you cut the sound off at the end. This is a typical feature of German vowel sounds. They are pronounced clearly and consist solely of one pure sound that is preserved throughout their whole articulation.
2) Just like English phonetics, German distinguishes between long and short vowel sounds, which means that each vowel letter stands for two main vowel sounds. The long vowel sound corresponds to the letter’s name in the alphabet, is pronounced as long as the situation allows and accompanied with high muscular tension, while the short vowel sound is pronounced as short as possible and without any muscular tension.

This lesson covers all German vowel letters and their two main sounds.

A a

Long sound [aː]

Open front unrounded vowel.
1) Open: Your jaw is dropped so that the space between the back of your tongue and the hard palate is as great as possible.
2) Front: The tip of your tongue barely touches your lower teeth.
3) Unrounded: Your lips are not rounded.
There are similar sounds in English, however, the German sound [aː] is pronounced much brighter and, since it’s a long sound, as long as the situation allows. In order to make your muscles get used to this sound, open your mouth as wide as possible.
→ ja [jaː] (yes)
→ Tag [tʰaːk] (day)
→ malen [ˈmaːlən]/[maːln] (to paint)

Short sound [a]

This sound is the short version of the previous one and only differs in length. Drop your jaw a little less and pronounce it as short as possible.
→ Mann [man] (man, husband)
→ was [vas] (what)
alle [ˈalə] (all, every)

Ä a

Long sound [ɛː]

Open-mid front unrounded vowel.
1) Open-mid: Your mouth is approximately as open as during the articulation of [a], however, the space between the back of your tongue and the hard palate is a little smaller.
2) Front: The tip of your tongue barely touches your lower teeth.
3) Unrounded: Your lips are not rounded.
Since it’s a long sound, lengthen it as much as the situation allows.
Ära [ˈɛːʁa] (era, age)
→ Käse [ˈkʰɛːzə] (cheese)
→ Rätsel [ˈʁɛːtsəl]/[ˈʁɛːtsl] (riddle, mystery, crossword)

Short sound [ɛ]

This sound is the short version of the previous one and only differs in length. Relax your mouth and pronounce the sound as short as possible. It does occur in English words, such as in “gender” or “any”.
→ Hände [ˈhɛndə] (hands)
Äste [ˈɛstʰə] (branches)
→ kämmen [ˈkʰɛmən] (to comb)

E e

Long sound [eː]

Close-mid front unrounded vowel.
1) Close-mid: In comparison with [ɛː], your mouth is neither open nor completely closed, the corners of the mouth are very wide apart and the space between the back of your tongue and the hard palate is even smaller.
2) Front: The tip of your tongue touches your lower teeth.
3) Unrounded: Your lips are not rounded.
Lengthen the sound as much as the situation allows and don’t forget about the high muscular tension.
→ See [zeː] (lake)
→ wen [veːn] (whom)
→ leben [ˈleːbən]/[ˈleːbm] (to live)

Short sound [ɛ]

The short sound of the vowel letter ⟨E⟩ is identical to the short sound of the vowel letter ⟨Ä⟩, so compared to its long counterpart [eː], it differs in both length and quality.
→ wenn [vɛn] (if, when)
Ende [ˈɛndə] (end, ending)
→ nett [nɛtʰ] (friendly, kind)

I i

Long sound [iː]

Close front unrounded vowel.
1) Close: In comparison with [eː], your mouth is nearly closed, the corners of the mouth are as wide apart as possible and the space between the back of your tongue and the hard palate is so small that the sound can barely be articulated without any stricture.
2) Front: The tip of your tongue touches your lower teeth.
3) Unrounded: Your lips are not rounded.
Lengthen the sound as much as the situation allows and don’t forget about the high muscular tension. Germans pronounce this sound not only in words, but also when they are disgusted by something (e.g. when they see a rat). Also, it can be found in a huge number of English words, such as “teeth”, “dream”, “piece”, or “we”. However, the German sound is pronounced very clearly.
→ Kino [ˈkʰiːno] (movie theater)
Igel [ˈiːgəl]/[ˈiːgl] (hedgehog)
→ Bibel [ˈbiːbəl]/[ˈbiːbl] (Bible)

Short sound [ɪ]

Near-close front unrounded vowel.
1) Near-close: Your mouth is a little more open than during the articulation of [iː]. Also, the corners of the mouth have a natural space, and the space between the back of your tongue and the hard palate is just a little smaller than during the articulation of [ɛ].
2) Front: The tip of your tongue barely touches your lower teeth.
3) Unrounded: Your lips are not rounded.
Compared to its long counterpart [iː], this sound differs in both length and quality. It is pronounced as short as possible and, too, can be found in many English words, such as “live”, “with” or “if”.
in [ɪn] (in)
→ bitte [ˈbɪtə] (please)
→ wissen [ˈvɪsən]/[ˈvɪsn] (to know)

O o

Long sound [oː]

Close-mid back rounded vowel.
1) Rounded: Round your lips.
2) Close-mid: Leave a little opening for the sound to come out.
3) Back: Raise the body of your tongue towards the uvula so that the tip of your tongue cannot touch your lower teeth.
Again, pronounce this sound as long as the situation allows and don’t forget about the high muscular tension.
→ Rose [ˈʁoːzə] (rose)
→ wo [voː] (where)
Opa [ˈoːpʰa] (grandpa)

Short sound [ɔ]

Open-mid back rounded vowel.
1) Rounded: Round your lips.
2) Open-mid: Leave your mouth opening so great that the sound to come out is barely an O-sound (instead of an A-sound).
3) Back: Raise the body of your tongue towards the uvula so that the tip of your tongue cannot touch your lower teeth.
Compared to its long counterpart [oː], this sound differs in both length and quality. It is pronounced as short as possible, and its quality can be found in the English words “long”, “also”, and “saw”.
oft [ˈɔft] (often)
→ Boss [ˈbɔs] (boss)
→ wollen [ˈvɔlən]/[vɔln] (to want)

Ö ö

Long sound [øː]

Close-mid front rounded vowel.
1), 2) Close-mid, rounded: Round your lips like [oː].
3) Front: Place your tongue like [eː].
This is the rounded counterpart of the unrounded vowel [eː]. Don’t forget about the length, clarity and high muscular tension.
→ Möwe [ˈmøːvə] (gull)
Öl [øːl] (oil)
→ König [ˈkʰøːnɪç] (king)

Short sound [œ]

Open-mid front rounded vowel.
1), 2) Open-mid, rounded: Round your lips like [ɔ].
3) Front: Place your tongue like [ɛ].
This is the rounded counterpart of the unrounded vowel [ɛ]. Pronounce the sound as short as possible.
öffnen [ˈœfnən] (to open)
→ zwölf [tsvœlf] (twelve)
→ Löffel [ˈlœfəl]/[ˈlœfl] (spoon)

U u

Long sound [uː]

Close back rounded vowel.
1) Rounded: Round your lips so that they poke out.
2) Close: The mouth opening must be so small that the sound can barely come out.
3) Back: Raise the back part of your tongue towards the uvula so that the space between the tip of your tongue and your lower teeth is as great as possible.
Pronounce this sound as long as the situation allows and feel the high mus-cular tension. You can find this sound in the English words “moon”, “who”, “you”, “flu”, and “crew”, however, never ignore the pure and clear articulation of German vowels.
→ du [duː] (you, thou)
→ Blume [bluːmə] (flower)
→ gut [guːtʰ] (good, well)

Short sound [ʊ]

Near-close back rounded vowel.
1) Rounded:  Round your lips.
2) Near-close:  Leave a mouth opening that is just a little greater than during the articulation of the close vowel [uː].
3) Back:  Raise the body of your tongue towards the uvula so that the tip of your tongue cannot touch your lower teeth anymore. Compared to its long counterpart [uː], this sound differs in both length and quality. It is pronounced as short as possible and can be found in the English words “woman”, “book”, “could” and “full”.
→ Kuss [kʰʊs] (kiss)
und [ʊntʰ] (and)
→ dumm [dʊm] (stupid)

Ü ü

Long sound [yː]

Close front rounded vowel.
1), 2) Close, rounded: Round your lips like [uː].
3) Front: Place your tongue like [iː].
This is the rounded counterpart of the unrounded vowel [iː]. Pronounce the sound as long as the situation allows.
→ müde [ˈmyːdə] (tired)
üben [ˈyːbən]/[ˈyːbm] (to practice)
→ Hügel [ˈhyːgəl]/[ˈhyːgəl] (hill)

Short sound [ʏ]

Near-close front rounded vowel.
1), 2) Near-close, rounded: Round your lips like [ʊ].
3) Front: Place your tongue like [ɪ].
This is the rounded counterpart of the unrounded vowel [ɪ]. Pronounce the sound as short as possible.
→ küssen [ˈkʰʏsən]/[ˈkʰʏsn] (to kiss)
→ fünf [fʏnf] (to kiss)
→ Müll [mʏl] (waste, garbage, trash)

Y y (as a vowel)

This letter can have the same sounds as the vowel letters ⟨Ü⟩ and ⟨I⟩.
→ Typ [tʰyːp] (type, guy, model)
Ypsilon [ˈʏpsilɔn] (wye)
→ Hobby [ˈhɔbi] (hobby)

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