A Quick & Dirty Guide to the German Language

In Upper Austria, there is a village called "Fucking".
Doesn't mean anything in German.

It has become a fashion in recent years to add a section on the local language to guidebooks. Personally, I find them completely useless - you might be able to ask for directions with a poor pronunciation, but how on earth should you understand the answer? Most Austrians speak at least some basic English and you will get around with this language pretty well. I find only two useful things in language guides: A way to express that you care about the tongue of your host country; and some basic understanding of directions, door labels and food on menus rather than actual conversations.

The monk Martin Luther formalised German by translating the Bible in the 16th century

In this section, I will therefore try to focus on these two aspects. You will not find a way of asking for directions - rely on your English or the power of gestures and good will. More important than asking complex questions is a proper pronunciation of words - you will need this for naming your Hotel, villages or street names. Don′t panic - pronunciation is actually among the few things in German that follow pretty definite rules and is therefore easier and more logical than in English. With the exception of foreign words, you can almost always tell how a German word is pronounced from how it is written.

Generally, German is pronounced further in the front of your mouth and more vigorously than English. This gives an advantage to British people in comparison to North Americans. The following list will give you all letters of the alphabet and an English word in which the appropriate sound occurs and a German word as an example:

Single Letter Pronunciation

A - like in "hard" - "Arbeit" (work)
B - as in English - "Buch" (book)
C - like c in "can", in other words like "ts" - "Computer" (a foreign word) or
"Csäsar" (like "Tsaysar", Cesar)
D - as in English - "Dose" (can)
F - as in English - "Frau" (woman)
G - like in goose - "Gans" (goose)
H - like in hand - "Hand" (hand)
I - like in interest - "Interesse" (interest)
J - like y in yes - "Jade" (jade)
K - like c in can - "Keller" (basement)
L - like in like - "Luft" (air)
M - like in man - "Mann" (man)
N - like in night - "Nacht" (night)
O - either like in orange or like a in "all" - "Onkel" (uncle)
P - as in English - "Panther" (pather)
Q - like in "quail" - "Quelle" (source)
R - like the Scottish "RRR" (rolled) - "Rot" (red)
S - like in street - "Saat" (seed)
T - like in tunnel - "Tunnel" (tunnel)
U - like oo in moose - "Untergrund" (underground)
V - like w in world or f in false - "Vase" (vase) or "Vogel" (f; bird)
W - like v in van - "Welt" (world)
X - like in Xenopus ("ks") - "Xylophon" (sticcado)
Y - like in you or like the Umlaut ü (see below) - "Ying" (ying) or "Tyrannei" (tyranny)
Z - somewhat like a harsh "tse" - "Zug" (train)
Ä - like a in can - "Änderung" (change)
Ö - like the u in occur - "Österreich" (Austria)
Ü - like the French u; ask a native speaker for an example - "Übung" (exercise)
ß - like in street - "Straße" (street)

Diphtongs & Combinations of letters

ai and ei - like the i in like - "Ei" (egg)
au - like the ow in owl - "Auto" (car)
eu and äu - like the oi in oil - "Europa" (Europe)
ie - like ee in see (longer e) - "Wie" (how)
ck - like in lick - "spucken" (spit)
ch - like the Scottish ch (Loch Ness); the way swans hiss - "Loch" (hole)
ph - like f in freedom - "Physik" (physics)
qu - like in quail - "Qualle" (jellyfish)
sch - like sh in shit - "Schönheit" (beauty)
sp - like shop with to p (shp) - "Sprache" (language)
st - like shutter with no u (sht) - "Strand" (beach)

On contrast to English, "kn" and "pf" are always pronounced with both letters (Knabe - boy) or "Pfarrer" (priest). "Th" is pronounced like an English "t", there is no English "th"-sound in German (think of typically German accents - "sink of typically Cherman accents…").

Common obstacles for English native speakers

The sounds most commonly mispronounced by English native speakers are "ch", "r" (mind the rolling!) and "ü". This is obviously because these sounds don′t exist in English. Also note the "st" and "sp" combinations and add a "sht" or "shp" to the spelling in your mind. "A" and "u" are also tricky.

A selection of useful Words & Phrases

Whatever of the following phrases you use, make it clear that you don′t speak German properly (in case it isn′t obvious anyway), smile and say "Bitte" ("please") and "Danke" ("thank you") a lot.

Matters of Life & Death

Grüss Gott - Formal hello
Auf Wiedersehen - Good bye
Bitte - please, you are welcome
Danke - thank you
Sprechen Sie English? - Do you speak English?
Ich spreche kein Deutsch - I don′t speak German
Spanisch - Spanish
Italienisch - Italian
Französisch - French
Toilette - toilet
Supermarkt - supermarket
Restaurant - restaurant (pronounced the French way)
Weit - far
Nah - near
Ausgang - exit
Eingang - entrance
Wie viel? - How much?
Speisekarte - menu
Öffnungszeiten - opening hours
Wie spät ist es? - What time is it?
Entschuldigung- Excuse me, sorry
Ich verstehe nicht - I don′t understand.

Restaurants - Know what you Eat

The following list doesn′t aim to teach you the vocabulary, but it should help you to understand the basic ingredients. Culinary terms are often different in Austrian German and Standard German. Always ask for an English menu ("Speisekarte auf Englisch"), many places have them, but you have to make it clear that you need them. They sometimes even describe what the meal consists of in a very tourist-friendly manner.

Fleisch - meat
Rind - beef
Schwein - pork
Huhn - chicken
Truthahn - turkey
Vegetarisch - vegetarian
Kalb - calf, veal
Gemüse - vegetables
Kartoffeln - potatoes
Suppe - soup
Vorspeisen - starters
Hauptgerichte - main courses
Nachspeisen - desserts
Getränke - drinks
Kuchen - cake
Torte - tart


Bahnhof - station
Flughafen - airport
Busbahnhof - bus station
Taxi - taxi
Fahrschein - ticket
Wien - Vienna
Zug - train
Auto - car
Tankstelle - petrol station
Führerschein - driving license

Numbers from One to Twelve

Eins, zwei, drei, vier, fünf, sechs, sieben, acht, neun, zehn, elf, zwölf.

Weekdays (Monday to Sunday)

Montag, Dienstag, Mittwoch, Donnertag, Freitag, Samstag, Sonntag

Months from January to December

Jänner, Februar, März, April, Mai, Juni, Juli, August, September, Oktober, November, Dezember

Further Reading

The German Language Guide of About.com

A similar website run by the BBC

An excellent English-German online dictionary

Practicalities & Useful Bits

Etiquette - Climate - Money - Language - Media - Politics - Quick Facts - Visa - Tourist Traps - Lifestyle - Like & Dislike - Transportation

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