Friday, 10 July 2009

learning to pronounce German

Two days ago we were discussing some not-so-good advice on how to pronounce Spanish. By way of contrast, Edward Aveyard has drawn to my attention an excellent website on how to pronounce German: A Guide to German Pronunciation, created by Paul Joyce of the University of Portsmouth. I share Edward’s admiration for it.

You will see that it has one index for the German consonants, one for the vowels, and one for various other helpful bits of information.

I haven’t yet worked through it all, but the parts I have looked at and listened to seem helpful and accurate.

I would make two small criticisms:
(1) The native speakers making the recordings, when performing a number of separate examples, repeatedly use listing intonation. The non-final items have a rise, the final item has a fall. It would have been better to insist on a fall (final) tone for each item, so that the irrelevant intonation difference does not distract the learners’ attention. When I record samples of English words for textbooks, I am always very careful about this.
(2) There is sometimes a mismatch between what the author advises and what the speaker on the recording actually does.
For example, on the page for the letter g, in the section headed "The ‘-ig’ ending", the author correctly tells the learner to pronounce it -ɪç, i.e. with a palatal fricative (ich-Laut). The accompanying sound clip illustrates this. But on the page entitled "The consonantal 'r'" we find among the examples the words richtig and ruhig — and on the associated sound clip we hear not -ɪç but -ɪk. This is a well-known alternative pronunciation for this ending, though in the Duden Aussprachewörterbuch Mangold characterizes it as “ungenormter Lautung”, “außerhalb der Standardlautung” (non-standardized pronunciation, not part of standard pronunciation). Using ɪk for -ig is not a disaster, since millions of Germans do it: what should be avoided in a pedagogical text is prescribing one thing but doing another.

Never mind: I recommend this site.

11 comments:

  1. I thought -ɪç and -ɪk were Northern and Southern standard, but both standard, as opposed to -ɪç- or -ɪʝ- between vowels, which is Northern non-standard regiolect.

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  2. Nice site indeed. Surfing it I found another minor point to criticise: The pronunciation of German 'Wasser' sounds pedantic, because the speaker pronounces the word-final letter 'r' as a uvular trill. He goes on saying 'Winter' with a final voiced velar fricative, but in 'wunderbar' there is no consonant audible for either r-letter. Also, the friction of the initial /v/ is too strong for German; it's more like an English /v/.

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  3. I'm glad you like it. It's a large website, and is better than any other guide to German pronunciation I've seen. Standard German may have established spelling-to-sound rules, but it's a long haul to master the large number of phonemes, so a serious German student needs a pronunciation guide.

    It has some good cultural information on it as well. I didn't know that Switzerland and Liechtenstein have not used ß since the 1930s.

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  4. I was once party to a conversation with a German friend, in which it transpired that he couldn't hear the difference between the words "Kerry" and "curry" as pronounced in (Australian) English. This was in the context of map directions, and whether we were being navigated to Kerry Street or Curry Street.

    I found this interesting, and reasoned that German places more weight on openness when distinguishing between /a/ and /e/, whereas English places more weight on frontness.

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  5. Or it might be the German insecurity about how to pronounce /ʌ/, and even more so how to pronounce it in the German word Curry, where a lot of variants are used.

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  6. @Lipman: "... a lot of variants are used." The only ones that come to my mind are those containing either /ə/ or /œ/.

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  7. [a], [y] (Cologne: Kürriwoorsch) &c. Never heard [ə].

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  8. Oh well, those Ripuarians!!

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  9. I agree that, on the whole, it is a nice site. But in several cases, mostly in unstressed syllables of bisyllabic words, the sound samples show hypercorrect or - as Kraut put it - "pedantic" pronunciation.
    This applies to the syllable-final unstressed /r/'s as well as the unstressed vowels. Just listen to the prefixes in the section "German unstressed '-er'", you can even hear the strain in her voice when the speaker tries to insert an [R]-sound in the first two examples (btw., in the last one, "hereinkommen", the /r/ is not vocalized in German because it's used to bridge the hiatus). Unless you want to make Swiss Standard Pronunciation your model pronunciation for German, I would not recommend ever using any /r/-sound in an unstressed syllable-coda in German. The rules for /r/-vocalization are almost identical to the RP ones.
    And in the section "The German Consonant 'b'", for example, the unstressed vowels after /b/ often have full [e]-quality. It sounds almost like there were two stressed syllables in those words. The most usual everyday Standard German pronunciation would be one with no vowel and a syllabic nasal which is regularly assimilated to the preceding [b], i.e. [glaubm] (even the DUDEN Aussprachewörterbuch recommends/prescribes [glaubn], though without assimilation).

    The bisyllabic words obviously show a spelling pronunciation generated by the reading of word lists, which, I think, originates mainly from the widespread belief in the German-speaking area that all letters in a word should be pronounced.

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  10. If I recall correctly, a 1990s Duden gave pronunciations like [-ər] for [-ɐ], which, if indeed true, should discourage people from taking it seriously and from referring to it for actual pronunciation.
    If anybody knows a publisher of dictionaries or textbooks that uses decent IPA, distinguishes between [phonetic] and /phonemic/ and gives actual pronunciation, I'd be glad to learn about it.

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  11. David Marjanović15 August 2009 at 19:22

    This is a well-known alternative pronunciation for this ending, though in the Duden Aussprachewörterbuch Mangold characterizes it as “ungenormter Lautung”, “außerhalb der Standardlautung” (non-standardized pronunciation, not part of standard pronunciation).

    Bah. The "Ausspracheduden" doesn't even encompass the variation found in TV news speakers in Germany, let alone Austria, and never mind Switzerland anyway. -[ɪç] comes from Low German, which lacks /g/ altogether...

    If I recall correctly, a 1990s Duden gave pronunciations like [-ər] for [-ɐ], which, if indeed true, should discourage people from taking it seriously and from referring to it for actual pronunciation.

    This was probably intended as a phonemic rather than phonetic transcription.

    When a German dictionary uses brackets, that doesn't mean "phonetic transcription". It merely means "IPA". There's a tradition of using an IPA transcription for German that is mostly phonemic but distinguishes [x] from [ç] and insists on the existence of a schwa.

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