Do you sometimes wish you didn’t have a foreign accent while speaking German? Perhaps then for once German natives would stop switching to English and finally honor your painstakingly constructed utterances! Well, it takes time to develop a good command of a foreign language, especially when it comes to accent-free speaking. The muscles in our throat, tongue and jaws are hard-wired to the set of sounds belonging to our mother tongue, and learning a new language often means breaking with ingrained habits.
This is why sometimes it can be helpful to take an indirect approach. So today, let’s learn a few key points about how to speak with a German accent, to help fine-tune your ears for the peculiarities of German phonetics and just have some fun!
1. “Say vot?” – Instead of “W” and “WH”, just say “V”
When a German speaker wants to say: “Where is my wife’s jewelry?”, it will often sound like this: “Vere is my vife’s jevelry?’. That’s because in German, there is no “W” sound like in the English “war”, or “white”. It all sounds like “V” in “vase” or “Vienna”. Vice versa, when you see a German sentence like: “Wo sind die Bratwürste?”, simply make those German “W”s sound like English “V”s, so what you’ll actually say will sound more like: “Vo sind die Bratvürste?”
2. “Somesing to sink about!” – Flatten “TH” to “Z” or “S”
Next up, let’s take a look at the most dreaded sound for German natives, the English “TH”, also known as voiced or voiceless dental fricative. This sound doesn’t exist in German, so struggling with positioning the tongue at the back of the upper teeth, most native Germans will just blurt out something that sounds like “Z” in “zoo”, or “S” in “sea”. Therefore, a sentence like: “This is something I’ve been thinking about.”, after applying our German accent, will sound like this: “Ziss iss somesing I’ve been sinking about.”
3. Let’s get Fricative! – Gargle Every “R” In Your Throat
And since we’re talking about sounds that don’t exist in German, let’s take a look at the English “R” as in “rude” or “river”. When speaking with a German accent, never make that sound! Ever. Instead — and this is a bit tricky, because this replacement sound doesn’t exist in English — pronounce all “R”s as what linguists call voiced uvular fricatives. To produce it, try gargling without water until there’s a soft vibration in the throat. The German “R” in “Ratte” or “fragen” sounds like this:
audio via Wikipedia / Creative Commons
As an alternative to the voiced uvular fricative, sometimes German also uses a uvular trill, but except for poetry readings and some local dialects it’s slowly fading out of fashion. It sounds like this:
audio via Wikipedia / Creative Commons
4. “Ze kitts heff many frents.” – Harden your consonants
Another interesting phenomenon in German is called “Auslautverhärtung”, meaning whenever presented with a “soft” consonant at the end of a word, such as “g, d, b”, we pronounce them like their “harder” brothers “k, t, p”. So let’s take a look at a sentence like: “I hurt my head in the pub.” After putting it through a German accent, it will sound like this: “I hurt my hett in the pup.” Needless to say, this makes for a lot of funny misunderstandings, because in English, the meaning of some words changes when doing this, i.e. pub/pup, kid/kit, rib/rip.
The same thing happens with the “S” sound, by the way. Whenever you hear someone do a bad German accent on TV or in the movies, they will just hiss all their “S”s all over the place, but it actually just happens at the end of words! So, whenever you see the letter “S” in a German word like “sitzen” or “reisen” it’s not hissed, but pronounced like the English “Z” in “breeze”. But when it appears at the end, like in “Bus” or “Reis”, it sounds like the regular English “S” in “sorrow” or “fuss”.
These are just a few key points, but by following these couple of rules, you got the basic features of an authentic German accent, whether for your next audition as a stereotypical Teutonic scientist or just to amuse friends and family.