How to pronounce German vowels, diphthongs and the Umlaute

Whether you’re using pronouns, adjectives, nouns or any other kind of word in German - They all have one thing in common. There’s not a single German word without vowels!

If you’re learning German, you might listen to the natives and think to yourself “Those vowels all sound familiar. They must be the same as in English.”

The truth is most of the German vowel sounds also appear in English - but some of them go with different letters. The German “i” sounds like the English “e”. The German “u” is pronounced like an English double “o” and an English “a” has two cute dots in German: “ä”.

Don’t worry. We’re here to untangle all of that and teach you how to correctly pronounce German vowels including diphthongs and “Umlaute”.

Learning how to correctly pronounce German vowels including diphthongs and umlaute.

What are vowels?

In German, vowels are called “Vokale” or “Selbstlaute” (self-sounds) - but what exactly are vowels and how do they work in German?

Vowels or speech sounds are those letters that are formed by releasing air through your mouth without blockage by the tongue or other oral organs. Sounds a little complicated? I agree.

So I came up with an easier definition. If speech was music, vowels would be the beat. As you speak, your lips move in specific ways, depending on the letters you produce. Consonants give your words shape but vowels determine each syllable. So they give the beat, the rhythm of speech.

Vowels are:

  • A
  • E
  • I
  • O
  • U

In German, there are three additional vowels, the so-called “Umlaute”:

  • Ä
  • Ö
  • Ü

All other letters are considered as consonants, in German “Konsonanten” or “Mitlaute” (by-sounds):

  • B
  • C
  • D
  • F
  • G
  • H
  • J
  • K
  • L
  • M
  • N
  • P
  • Q
  • R
  • S
  • T
  • V
  • W
  • X
  • Y
  • Z
  • ß

As the German name suggests, vowels can easily stand alone while consonants sound incomplete without a respective vowel. That’s why the letter “E” is pronounced “E”, but the letter “B” is pronounced “Be”. We add vowels to make a sound complete.

When it comes to German abbreviations, vowels usually decide between an acronym and an initialism. When an abbreviation has enough vowels so that it’s possible to pronounce, it becomes an acronym like the German word BAföG (short for Bundesausbildungsförderungsgesetz).

When an abbreviation mostly consists of consonants, the letters are read out by themselves. Therefore it becomes an initialism like “EU” (Europäische Union).

How to pronounce the German vowels

German vowels are all different from English vowels but the good news is that they’re a lot more consistent than their English equivalents, as German is a much more phonetically consistent language than English.

If you look at the “e” in the English words “egg”, “dinner” “men”, “after” and “Pete”, you’ll notice that the letter is pronounced differently every single time.

In German, there are only two basic forms of each vowel: the long form and the short form. Otherwise, the pronunciation of German vowels is consistent, with very few exceptions.

VowelIPALip positionExamples
A[aː]For the “a” sound, the lips open wide. The short “a” sounds like you’re saying “ah, I see”, while the long “a” sounds like you’re at the dentist going “ahh”.Long
Adel (Royalty)
Ahnen (Ancestors)
Plan (Plan)
Ananas (Pineapple)
Katze (Cat)
An (On)
E[ʔeː]“E” is a closed letter that leaves only a little room between your upper and lower lips, while the tongue rests on the bottom of your mouth.
The short version sounds like the “e” in “bed”.
The long “e” is the same sound, just stretched out: “ehhh”.
Ehre (Honor)
Fee (Fairy)
Schnee (Snow)
Essen (Food)
Ende (End)
Schnell (Fast)
I[iː]For the German “i”, you’re slightly pulling your cheeks back, producing a sharp airflow through your lips.
The long German “i” is pronounced just like an English “e” like the one in “me”. The short “i” is pronounced like the “i” in “kin”.
Igel (Hedgehog)
Tiger (Tiger)
Maschine (Machine)
Mich (Me)
Frühling (Spring)
In (In)
O[oː]When you say “o”, your lips look just like the letter itself.
The long “o” sounds like the “o” in “over” and the short “o” sounds close to an English “aw”.
Mohn (Poppyseed)
Los (Go)
Orakel (oracle)
Stolz (Proud)
Vor (Before)
Tonne (Ton)
U[uː]The “u” looks like a more closed version of the “o”. The long version sounds like the English double “o” in root and the short one sounds similar to the double “o” in “hook”.Long
Huhn (Chicken)
Uhr (Clock)
Schuhe (Shoes)
Muster (Pattern)
Rustikal (Rustic)
Hund (Dog)
Ä[ɛː]The Ä’s lip position is similar to that of the “e” sound but your mouth is slightly wider open.
Correctly pronounced, the German “Ä” sounds like the “a” in “apple”. Notice that many German speakers incorrectly pronounce it like an “e” sound though.
Ähnlich (Similar)
Krähe (Crow)
Fähig (Able)
Hände (Hands)
Bände (Volumes)
Fänd (Would fine)
Ö[øː]For the German “ö”, the lips look like you're saying “o” with the tongue moving towards shaping an “e”. It sounds like the English “u” in “turn”.Long
Möhre (Carrot)
Schön (Beautiful)
Öl (Oil)
Eichhörnchen (Squirrel)
Löcher (Holes)
Wölkchen (Little cloud)
Ü[yː]For the German “ü”, the lips look like you're saying “ooh”, while trying to whistle. It sounds a little like you’re saying “lyr” as in “lyrics” but also saying “ooh” at the same time.Long
Für (For)
Rührei (Scrambled eggs)
Über (Over)
Fürst (Monarch)
Fünf (Five)
Pfütze (Puddle)

Try it out for yourself and notice the difference between vowels and consonants.

If you need help pronouncing any of them, be sure to check out our fun beginner's guide to learning the German alphabet.

Man learning the difference between vowels and consonants in German.

German diphthongs

A diphthong, also called “Doppellaut” in German is a monosyllabic speech sound consisting of two vowels. That means two vowels are pronounced together as in the English word “eye”, which combines an “ah” sound and an “e” sound. The pronunciation of these double vowels in German will sound familiar to you. You just need to learn their spelling.

Vowel diphthongsPronunciationSounds like in EnglishExamples
au[aʊ̯]The German diphthong “au” sounds just like the English “ou” in “out”.Maus (Mouse)
Zuhause (Home)
Austausch (Exchange)
Blau (Blue)
ei, ai[aɪ̯]The German diphthongs “ei” and “ai” are both pronounced like an English “i”, like the one in “mine”.Mein (My)
Ei (Egg)
Mai (May)
Saite (String)
ie[i]This diphthong is sometimes used the same way in English, as in the word “tier”. It sounds like an “e”.Hier (Here)
Lied (Song)
Niedlich (Cute)
Wieder (Again)
eu, äu[ɔʏ̯]The German diphthongs “eu” and “äu” sound the same. They’re both pronounced like the “oy” in “decoy”.Freund (Friend)
Leute (People)
Äußerst (Extremely)
Träume (Dreams)

The German words you never knew you needed to know

If you stretch any German vowel, you get a beautiful little interjection word that no textbook is ever gonna teach you. Here they are, short, sweet and absolutely vital - from “eek” to “umm”.

  • I: “Ieeeh” or “Igitt” (eek) is a German exclamation of disgust. It’s what you’ll commonly hear German kids say when they spot spinach on their plate.
  • O: By itself, “oh” (oh), as in English, indicates some form of disappointment, sorrow or regret - from “oh, I dropped my sandwich” to John Travolta’s line in Pulp Fiction: “oh, man, I shot Marvin in the face.”
  • U: “Uhh” (ooh) expresses excitement or announces that something big is gonna happen.
  • Au: “Au”, “aua”, or “autsch” (ouch) is used to express pain.
  • Ä: “Ähh” or “ähm” (um) is the filler word that lets others know you don’t know. Or you’re still thinking about it.
  • A: “Ah” or “aha” (ah) is what German-speakers say when they learn something new or have an epiphany.

The Aha moment

The German linguist and psychologist Karl Bühler coined the term “Aha-Erlebnis”, which describes the abrupt recognition of a sought-after but previously unknown context of meaning. It comes with that beautiful feeling you get when you’ve been confused for a while until someone finally explains the issue to you in a comprehensive and logical way and you go “ahhhh! Now I get it!”

That’s exactly the feeling we aim to give you with every article on our insightful German language blog.

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