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The German Alphabet for Beginners

written by: Peter Boysen•edited by: Rebecca Scudder•updated: 6/12/2010

How is the German alphabet different from the alphabet we use in English? Not that different, after all, but there are some key concepts you'll need to understand to learn the German language.

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    Different Language, Same Letters

    Here’s the good news: the German alphabet has the same 26 letters as the Roman alphabet we use to write the English language. Don’t be intimidated by those floating dots that appear over some of the vowels, or that crazy thing that looks like a capital “B” that someone let the air out of – the German alphabet is a piece of cake for English-language speakers.

    Now for the basics – A through Z, upper-case and lower-case, the German and English alphabets are the same.

    In the English language, the vowels are a, e, i, o, and u. Y and w sometimes are associated with vowel sounds as well. In German, the five major English vowels also have vowel sounds – although they’re not quite the same sounds as their English counterparts. Click here to read my article about the Sounds of the German Alphabet.

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    Well, not exactly the same...

    In addition to those vowel sounds, though, the German language has three others, and these are denoted by umlauts: pairs of dots that hover above three of the vowels. In German, you will often see them: Ä, Ö, Ü, ä, ö, ü. If you are writing words that contain umlauts and do not have the ability to include umlauts in your typing (you may be on a computer with a restricted character set), you should add an e afterward. For example, the name Böhm could also be written Boehm.

    But what about the crazy thing that looks like a B? You mean ß? This is called the es-zett, or the sharp S. The short explanation of this character is that it stands for a double-s. There are some technical rules that determine whether or not you write ß or ss, and those rules can change depending on whether or not you live in Germany and Austria or Switzerland. For the beginner, though, you only need to know two things about the ß: it appears instead of ss when those two letters end a word. The word Faß (tap) would be an example. You would not do it when the second s in the pair came as the result of making the noun into a plural. For example, the German word for bus is Bus, and the plural is Busse, not Buße.

    Also, there are some differences in the sounds. In German, a sounds like "ah"; e sounds like "ay"; i sounds like "ee"; o sounds like the short "o" sound in English; and u sounds like "oo." The German letter y (called upsilon in German), sounds like "yoo."

    Some of the consonants are different, too. V sounds like the English f, and w sounds like the English v. Z in German sounds like tz.

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    Common in English, Rare in German

    There are some letters that are pretty common in English that you will only see rarely in German. The letter c will almost never appear unless it has an h or a k after it, unless it is a word that has come directly from another language, like Chance, which came into German from the French language. These words are called “loanwords” and are often passed from one language directly into another when cultures mix. The letters x and y also appear mostly in loanwords in German. The letter y appears almost exclusively in words that came into German from the Greek language. (Note to reader: For more cool information about rarely used letters in German, visit Wikipedia.