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How many ä/e sounds are there in German? - UniLang

How many ä/e sounds are there in German?

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Woods
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How many ä/e sounds are there in German?

Postby Woods » 2015-01-09, 20:17

I noticed one of my German friends used the [æ] sound instead of [ɛ] when speaking French. Like in the word « jamais » she would say [ʒamæ] instead of [ʒamɛ] and so one. So did another German person I spoke French with. I pointed it out to the first one and tried to get her to make a sound just between [æ] and [e], i.e. to get the French [ɛ] to sound right. She said it was pretty hard to make something in between. This was the first time I realised there might be a reason Germans use A umlaut in addition to E. I’ve been aware almost since the very beginning that there are more than one e-sounds in German. In other words, I’ve been used to pronouncing the first e in »sehen« as something which is, to my understanding, something between [ɛ] and [i]. But, the word »Herz« for example, I would pronounce [hɛrts] rather than [hærts]. So my question is, am I wrong on this one? How many ä/e-s are there in German? They’re only two, aren’t they? And therefore »Herz« should be [hærts] rather than [hɛrts]?

By [æ] I mean something between English [æ] as in “have” and French [ɛ] as in « jamais ». Maybe I should write the transcription as [ä], to distinguish from English [æ] which is more open. But my question is, there’s no third, [ɛ]-sound in German, is there? They’re only two, aren’t they? And is the more open one always [ä]/[æ], or does it vary from dialect to dialect? Are there places where it sounds like [ɛ] or is it only foreigners that speak like that?

Another question – sometimes it’s arbitrary which one of the two sounds a person would pick, isn't it? The word »später« would be pronounced as [spæter]/[später] by some, but [speter] by others, wouldn’t it?

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Re: How many ä/e sounds are there in German?

Postby linguoboy » 2015-01-09, 21:01

Woods wrote:I noticed one of my German friends used the [æ] sound instead of [ɛ] when speaking French. Like in the word « jamais » she would say [ʒamæ] instead of [ʒamɛ] and so one. So did another German person I spoke French with. I pointed it out to the first one and tried to get her to make a sound just between [æ] and [e], i.e. to get the French [ɛ] to sound right. She said it was pretty hard to make something in between. This was the first time I realised there might be a reason Germans use A umlaut in addition to E. I’ve been aware since almost the very beginning that there are more than one e-sounds in German. In other words, I’ve been used to pronouncing the first e in »sehen« like something which is, to my understanding, something between [ɛ] and [i]. But, the word »Herz« for example, I would pronounce [hɛrts] rather than [hærts]. So my question is, am I wrong on this one? How many ä/e-s are there in German? They’re only two, aren’t they? And therefore »Herz« should be [hærts] rather than [hɛrts]?

Which German are you talking about?

In normative Standard German, there are two qualities ([e] and [ɛ]) plus a length distinction. However, the majority of speakers do not distinguish /eː/ from /ɛː/ and use [eː] for both.

German dialects, however, often show a markedly different distribution. In western varieties of Low Alemannic, for instance, /ɛ/ is generally realised [æ] and this pronunciation may also be found in the regional standard or even in a locally-accented version of the standard language. Some Swiss dialects actually distinguish both [æ] and [ɛ] from [e], e.g. Toggenburg [sægə] "sagen", [ɛsːə] "essen", [lekːə] "legen". (Dialect orthographies may use diacritics to indicate the distinction, e.g. è for [ɛ] or à for [æ].)

So the normative pronunciation of Herz is [hɛɐ̯ts], but there are native speakers (of a German variety, not necessarily Standarddeutsch) who say [hæɐ̯ts].

Woods wrote:Another question – sometimes it’s arbitrary which one of the two sounds a person would pick, is it? The word »später« would be pronounced as [spæter]/[später] by some, but [speter] by others, wouldn’t it?
This shouldn't be "arbitrary" unless you have a speaker who is aiming for a normative standard which they is not natural to them. That is, you may have a speaker who grew up saying [ʃpeːtɐ] but, having learned the prescriptive distinction between /eː/ and /ɛː/, tries to use a more open vowel in this word but only succeeds sporadically.
"Richmond is a real scholar; Owen just learns languages because he can't bear not to know what other people are saying."--Margaret Lattimore on her two sons

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Re: How many ä/e sounds are there in German?

Postby Woods » 2015-01-09, 21:34

Okay, great answer, thanks!

So basically, if I speak with [ɛ] for short e-vowels as I’m used to and [e] for long ones, and occasionally tend to make [ɛ]s [æ]s to sound more native-like, it’ll be fine.

As you figured it out, I was talking about the different ways to render the standard language. I’m far from speaking it well, so it’s pretty early for me at this point to get into the dialects.

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Re: How many ä/e sounds are there in German?

Postby linguoboy » 2015-01-09, 21:53

Woods wrote:So basically, if I speak with [ɛ] for short e-vowels as I’m used to and [e] for long ones, and occasionally tend to make [ɛ]s [æ]s to sound more native-like, it’ll be fine.
As long as you make the long vowels phonetically long as well as tense. Shortening them sounds conspicuously foreign.

[æ] for /ɛ/ is most common before /r/. You'll find this sort of lowering even in varieties which don't otherwise feature [æ]. (The same is true of French, cf. for instance the informal spelling marde for merde.)

As mentioned above, not all treatments of German pronunciation talk about this, but short close vowels are found in unaccented syllables, albeit only in foreign borrowings, e.g. Geometrie. (Substituting [ɛ] here sounds less foreign than getting vowel length long, IMHO.)

Woods wrote:As you figured it out, I was talking about the different ways to render the standard language. I’m far from speaking it well, so it’s pretty early for me at this point to get into the dialects.
Well, given the linguistic situation in Germany, you can't really deal with native speakers without getting into them. That is, if you ask them for advice on pronunciation, grammar, etc., you have to be prepared that some of what they tell you will reflect nonstandard usage--and they themselves may or may not be aware this is the case. Again, in my experience, certain dialect features are singled out as markers of regional identity (e.g. diminutive endings, tag questions, distribution of sibilants) and are very salient to speakers whereas others are not.
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Re: How many ä/e sounds are there in German?

Postby Woods » 2015-01-09, 22:27

This thing about French might be true, but I’ve never thought about it. However, I’ve never heard anyone say « marde ». Actually I don’t think it’s true.

A language where r completely alters the preceding vowel (and also the following) is Danish. There, [i] befomes [ɛ], [e] becomes [a] and many more in between that are hard to grasp and hard to describe. (Maybe Benjamino can help with a description, I have a really hard time with it.)

As long as you make the long vowels phonetically long as well as tense.


I'll have to get more into long [ɛ]/[ä], I think. Can you think of such examples?

»Geometrie« is [geomɛt’ri] then? I’m kind of making it so, I think Danish pushes me in the right direction.
Last edited by Woods on 2015-01-09, 22:46, edited 1 time in total.

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Re: How many ä/e sounds are there in German?

Postby linguoboy » 2015-01-09, 22:46

Woods wrote:This thing about French might be true, but I’ve never thought about it. However, I’ve never heard anyone say « marde ». Actually I don’t think it’s true.

I think marde is misleading as it suggests [maʁd] rather than [mæʁd], which I think is nearer the mark for most speakers.

Woods wrote:»Geometrie« is [geomɛt’ri] then? I’m kind of making it so, I think Danish pushes me in the right direction.

/geomeˈtriː/ (all vowels close, but only the stressed one long as well)
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Re: How many ä/e sounds are there in German?

Postby Woods » 2015-01-09, 22:49

Can you think of examples of long [ɛ]/[ä]? I edited this in my post apparently as you were typing.

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Re: How many ä/e sounds are there in German?

Postby linguoboy » 2015-01-09, 23:01

Woods wrote:Can you think of examples of long [ɛ]/[ä]? I edited this in my post apparently as you were typing.

Sure: the classic contrastive pair is Bären /̍bɛːrən/ vs Beeren /̍beːrən/. But, as I said, this is not a distinction most German-speakers make in spontaneous speech.
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Re: How many ä/e sounds are there in German?

Postby Woods » 2015-01-10, 8:12

Okay. I know many Germans would say /̍beːrən/ for Bären. I wouldn’t, but I might say /̍bɛrən/ or /̍bärən/ without the colon. I’ll try to notice the distinction in order to avoid sounding foreign.

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Re: How many ä/e sounds are there in German?

Postby linguoboy » 2015-01-10, 17:37

Woods wrote:Okay. I know many Germans would say /̍beːrən/ for Bären. I wouldn’t, but I might say /̍bɛrən/ or /̍bärən/ without the colon. I’ll try to notice the distinction in order to avoid sounding foreign.
[bɛrən] would be heard as Bärren/Berren. The latter exists as a proper name and the former could be interpreted as dialect term (e.g. a nonstandard umlaut plural of Barren).
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