ArticleGerman vowels
AuthorHelmut Richter
published / modified /
Article URL
This page
containscontinuation of article

Phonological details


A German word can have several syllables that are stressed to a varying extent, usually with one syllable carrying the primary stress.

In compound words, the stressed syllable of each component remains stressed to some extent – either becoming the syllable with the primary stress or one of the syllables with a secondary stress of the compound. As the pronunciation of the vowels does only depend on whether they are stressed but not on the intensity of the stress, it is not important for the vowel quality to know which component will get the primary stress. Nonetheless, we give a short overview over the most frequent cases:

The remaining portion of this section deals only with non-compound words: what is called a “word” there may either be an isolated word or one component of a compound word.

The normal rule for words of Germanic origin is that they have their stress on the word’s root, that is, the portion which remains when all prefixes and suffixes are stripped off. If the word is not entirely of Germanic origin but contains Germanic prefixes and suffixes as discussed in this paragraph, one can at least say that the stress is not on one of these. Very often, the root is monosyllabic even for quite long words, e.g. Eig-en-tüm-lich-keit-en with no less than five suffixes, none of which ever takes the primary stress. Most of the suffixes start with a vowel; for these, the border between root and suffix or between two suffixes is not a border between syllables.

For the purpose of this rule, one may regard some endings as suffixes even when they are part of the word’s root. For instance, in the word eigen, eig- has no meaning of its own so that the -en, strictly speaking, belongs to the root. The stress pattern is, however, exactly the same as if -en were a suffix attached to a root eig-, and we make no mistake when we regard it as a suffix, thus saving the labour of detemining whether it belongs to the word’s root.

Here are the prefixes and suffixes that have to be considered:

When the word root, after stripping off all prefixes and suffixes, is not monosyllabic, the primary stress is not always predictable. The more frequent cases are:

For the vowel length in a prefix or first component of a compound word not carrying the primary stress, it makes a difference whether it is regarded as an unstressed prefix or as a first component with secondary stress. While this distinction is clear for light prefixes on one hand and for autonomous first components on the other hand, opinions may be divided for prepositions. In practice, the long and close vowels of über-, vor- and zu- are pronounced close and short when unstressed; the standard has long [ʔyːbər-], short [tsu-], and varying [fo(ː)r-]. A special case is her- which is a long and close component of a compound [heːr-] when stressed but a short and open light prefix [hɛr-] when unstressed.

Vowel clusters

The simplest cause for two vowels to appear adjacent in the written form of a word is a syllable boundery between them. There are, however, several situations where the two adjacent vowels belong to the same syllable:

Particularly in the context of proper names, it is sometimes difficult to tell which case applies. For instance, compare the place names Itzehoe [ˌʔɪtsəˈhoː], Laboe [lɑˈbøː], and Buchloe [ˈbuːxloə] with three differently pronounced -oe at the end. Apart from proper names, things are usually much clearer.

Glottal stop

In German, word roots never begin with a vowel. When they are written with a vowel at the beginning, they are pronounced with an unwritten consonant, the glottal stop [ʔ], which is used both at the beginning of a word (Arbeit [ˈʔɑːrbaet]) and within a word at the beginning of the root (bearbeiten [bəˈʔɑːrbaetən]). There is no glottal stop between two vowels in the same morpheme, e.g. Theater [teˈɑːtɛr], nor between root and ending (compare Malerei [ˌmɑːləˈrae] and Osterei [ˈʔoːstɛrˌʔae]). Some compositions are so common that they are now perceived as a single root so that the glottal stop between the morphemes is lost: vollends [ˈfɔlɛnts], reagieren [reɑˈgiːrən], but reanimieren [reʔɑniˈmiːrən] (the standard suggests no glottal stop for the first of these and an optional one for the other two).

In particular, there is no glottal stop in words like hinab or darauf: compositions of hin-, her-, vor- with -ab, -an, -auf, -ein, -aus, -unter, -über are stressed on the second component with no glottal stop between. When two vowels come together in compositions of da-, wo- with -an, -auf, -in, -aus, -unter, -über, an extra 〈r〉 is inserted so that the pronunciation without the glottal stop is facilitated. The hyphenation may today follow either the composition point (hin-ein, vor-über, dar-auf) or the spoken syllables (hi-nein, vo-rüber, da-rauf); prior to the spelling reform in the 1990ies, it had to be done the former way. As only exception, vorab is pronounced with a glottal stop: [foːrˈʔap]. (Of the words constructed as indicated above, *vorein and *vorunter do not exist.)