Thursday, January 17, 2008


Without any specific reason, a couple of confusions with the German language I've come across repeatedly:
  • The plural of ansatz is neither ansatzes nor ansatze or ansatz's, but ansätze. One produces ä in LaTeX by typing \"a.

  • The German vowel i is pronounced like a short version of the English ee, and NOT like the ai e.g. in aisle. Ernst Ising, the guy from the Ising-model, was German. Consequently, his name is pronounced Ee-sing, not Ai-sing. It's the same reason why the Lie-group is pronounced Lee-group

  • The German language is pronounced the way it is written. I've been told this is a sentence a native English speaker can't even make sense of. Don't know whether that's true (you tell me?), but just to make sure: it means you can learn the alphabet, and know how to pronounce a word by just aligning the letters after each other [1,2]. This means every letter needs to be spoken, particularly the 'e' at the end of words - it sounds like the e in 'set'. Schadenfreude. Luftwaffe.

  • The German word Schild like in Schwarzschild, has nothing to do with the English word 'child'. Instead Schild means 'shield', and Schwarzschild means 'Black Shield' - I would guess it goes back to some kind of family crest. The German sch is pronounced close to the English 'sh' (for the following vowel i, see first point.)

  • Vielbein is not a typo that should read vierbein. Vierbein means 'four legs', whereas viel means 'many'. Thus, vielbein is the appropriate word in an arbitrary number of dimension. (Similarly Dreibein means 'three legs'). Pronounce roughly as fearbain, feelbain, draibain.

  • There is no 'th' in German. The English 'th' is therefore hard learn for the German native speaker. The easiest way to fake a German accent is replacing every 'th' with a 'z'. It is zat easy. Eizer way, therefore the 'th' in Bethe (the guy from the Bethe-Weizsäcker-Zyklus) is pronounced just like a 't'. Recall not to drop the 'e' in the end.

[1] Restrictions apply. The only exception you need to recall is that the 'ie' replaces 'ii', like in die (the) or wie (how), pronounced dee and vee.
[2] Doesn't work in English. Try it: live. L-ai-v-ee? Worse, it's not reproducible: infinity, but finite? break, steak, bleak? More of this?


Kris Krogh said...

Zank you bi!

Kris Krogh said...

Bethe as in Alpher-Bethe-Gamow.

Neil' said...

Yes, German is very logical of course! I lived near Kaiserslautern (military-gov't brat) around 1970, and heard a lot of the wonderful Pfälzische Dialekte AKA Palatinate German. I love the sound of it, not the same as regular German. For "no" they would often say (prn.) "Ney" instead of "Nein." Us US kids would imagine double umlauts on letters etc. to show the strong pronunciations. But the people rarely used alternate names like Grumbeer instead of Kartoffeln, it was just different pronunciation. I like the food of that area, it seems hard to find restaurants specializing in Palatinate but we have one nearby. Ironically, there's a picture of the Spinradel (sp?) Tavern in K-Town that I used to get drunk at age 16, just coincidentally I suppose.

Anonymous said...

"it sounds like the e in 'set'"

Eh? I thought it sounds like the a in "vegetable".

CarlBrannen said...

Isn't there some sort of w and v confusion? I recall this from some German exchange students in high school.

Neil' said...

PS: We loved to get Bellheimer there, very good but hard to find in USA.

Bee said...

Hi Anonymous,

I am not sure whether this is a joke, if so, apologies. I am not a linguist, so can't give you any professional phonetic expressions to describe the vowels but roughly speaking the German vowels are less squeezed than the English ones. The 'a' in vegetable is closer to the German 'ä' than to the 'e'. The way for the German to fake an English accent is to use exactly this, make every 'o' an 'ou' and every 'e' an 'ä'. Goutän Mourgän, vii gät äs innän (Guten Morgen, wie geht es ihnen = Good morning, how are you. Improve Am. English by chewing plenty of gum). If you hear a difference between the 'a' in that and the 'e' in set, that's about the difference between the German 'ä' and the 'e' (at least as far as I can tell). Best,


Bee said...

Hi Carl:

Isn't there some sort of w and v confusion? I recall this from some German exchange students in high school.

I haven't thought about this before, but yes it seems the German 'v' can be either pronounced like an 'f' (voll, vor, von, Vater, vier... = En: full, before, father, four) or like a 'w' (Vase, virtuell, vulgär... = En: vase, virtual, vulgar). Please don't ask me whether there's some rule behind that, the only ones that I know are those I've been taught by our Chinese postdocs. Best,


Bee said...

Hi Kris: Well done :-) 'bie' would have been even better - the additional e indicates it is a long sound. Best,


Bee said...

Hi Neil',

Yes, German is very logical of course!

Is it? It is hard for me to tell actually. I always found German spelling rather illogical, I think they tried to improve it with the (highly discussed) reform a couple of years ago. Since that happened while I was in the US, I have genuinely no idea what the correct German spelling and grammar is in the year 2008 (if I have to write a text in German I send it to my mother for proofreading). One of the points I think they've tried to get rid of is the ß, which is essentially the same as a 'ss'. I am not even sure whether that still exists. I never use it, if only for the simple reason that the symbol isn't on the English keyboard. Best,


amaragraps said...

One of the things I appreciate about the German language is that it is pronounced exactly as it is spelled. Moreover, what I appreciate most about the language, is the way that you can attach an almost infinite number of nouns together to form a word concept. I find it an elegant way to communicate subtlety. For example, there are several different ways to denote 'computer main memory' in the German language, starting with the word Speicher, however below is what is recognized by the Deutsche Zollamt, the German Customs Office.

die Speichereinheit = computer memory

Einheit : unit
Speicher: memory

Now check out the fun I had with the _translate_ program that was running on my Sun workstation when I worked at MPI-K in Heidelberg:

> translate speicher
allocation Speicherverteilung
caching in_den_Cachespeicher_aufnehmen
cell Speicherzelle
disk-resident plattenspeicherresident
latch Riegel / Signalspeicher
latching Zwischenspeichern
location Speicherstelle
loft Speicher
lofts Speicher
memoriz speichern
memory Speicher
ram Schreib-Lese-Speicher
reSAVE zurueckspeichern
restored zurueckgespeichert
restoring speichere
save Speichern
save speichern
saved gespeichert
saves speichert
savings Abspeicherungen
storage Speicherung
storages Speicherungen
store speicher
store speichern
stored gespeichert
stores speichern
stores speichert
storing speichern
storing speichernd
to store up - aufspeichern


> translate einheit
baseness Gemeinheit
basenesses Gemeinheiten
chunks Einheiten
dibit Zweibiteinheit
dirt Schmutz, Kot, Dreck; Staub; Gemeinheit
element Grundeinheit
measurement Masseinheit
niceties Feinheiten
nicety Feinheit
semantics mathematische_Einheiten
unification Vereinheitlichung
unifications Vereinheitlichungen
unified vereinheitlicht
uniform einheitlich
unify vereinheitlichen
unit Einheit / Bauteil
unitary einheitlich
unity Einheit
universalities Allgemeinheiten
universality Allgemeinheit
vulgarities Gemeinheiten
vulgarity Gemeinheit
die Allgemeinheit - the general public
Gemeinheit! - Dirty trick!

On the other side, I confess that I never developed a fondness for memorizing genders of German nouns and the neurons in my head could never accept verbs split at the end and middle of a sentence.

Kris Krogh said...

To Bie or not to Bie? Zat...

Thomas Larsson said...

Ernst Ising, the guy from the Ising-model, was German. Consequently, his name is pronounced Ee-sing, not Ai-sing.

Alas, the Jew Ising fled from Nazi Germany and spent most of his long life in the US, where he probably adopted his pronounciation. During myown year in the US, I did not call myself Lah-shon.

It's the same reason why the Lie-group is pronounced Lee-group

Uhm. Sophus Lie was Norwegian, and hence his name should be pronounced Lee-eh, with emphasis on the first syllable. Wikipedia disagrees with me here, but they get the pronounciation right for UN secretary-general Trygve Lie.

Thomas Larsson said...

Oops, I should have listened to the ogg file before commenting. Evidently Lie is pronounced differently in Norwegian and Swedish.

Frederic said...

Being a native speaker (Swiss German actually... and there are many Swiss German dialects) of course German seems very logical to me. Now living in the French speaking part of Switzerland, I understand that German is (or appears to be) very difficult to learn.
I've heard that the possibility to create nouns on the fly simply by attaching several nouns together (as in Greek, apparently) makes German well suited for philosophy. Don't know wether that's true.
German: Fussballweltmeisterschaftsspiel
English: soccer world championship play (as translated by BabelFish, althought I'd replace play by game)

Phil Warnell said...

Wie geht’s Bee,

I am ashamed to have to admit that despite having a German as one of my best friend’s while in high school, I still never managed to learn much German, other then some the pleasantries. One thing though with being an accepted member in his household and to a lesser extent their local community I did learn to understand and appreciate much of the culture. What comes to mind is my recollection of how my friend’s mother would scold his father for not speaking English or German with enough fluency. She was a stickler for accuracy and yet at the same time a lady with a large heart and understanding nature. Your post serves to point out to me that these same things are also born out in the language.



Felipe said...

Hi Bee,

Back to the "v" and "w" confusion, I've noticed that my German housemate usually makes "w" sound like "v", and then she makes "v" sound like "u", as in "uisitor", instead of "visitor". Have you ever seen this being done by other Germans?

rgb said...

Is it? It is hard for me to tell actually. I always found German spelling rather illogical, I think they tried to improve it with the (highly discussed) reform a couple of years ago.

It sounded fairly logical.Of course, (no offense) some of the colloquial somewhat-like-English words like 'handy' can be quite confusing to a non-German.

While we are at it, could explain the meaning of 'ges'? 'ges' seemed to act like a universal prefix to a variety of words.

Finally, on phonetics: Yes, German seems very phonetic but then why is vielbein and vierbein pronounced differently (according to your post: fear and feel)?

suomynona said...

felipe: in German pronounciation, "v" and "w" are often very close and it doesn't do much if you interchange them. You might sound somewhat funny to some people, but these letters do not carry much acoustic weight. In your housemate's case, she might be aware of this and just got into the habit of some overpronounciation. Germans seem to have a large tolerance span for such things, which might be because there are many dialects around. A good example is the letter "r". Generally, it is pronounced like the French "r", with the throat. In southern Germany the "r" actually very often is pronounced with the tongue, as in slavic languages. Few Germans are aware of this, most think that Bavarians just have the habit to pronounce the "r" a little bit stronger. On the other hand, this difference is very obvious for, say, a Russian.

Anonymous said...

So how do you pronounce 'eigenvalue'?

I was taught that it was EYE-gen-value, but I've heard other Americans say EE-gen-value.

As for Sophus Lie, y'all should count yourselves lucky we don't call them 'Lye' Groups.

suomynona said...

rgb: that's what I mean. Bee used "fear" and "feel" to distinguish the "r" and the "l". The difference between "ea" and "ee" is a bit harder to spot for a German. So it should read "fearbein" and "fealbein", or "feelbein" and "feerbein"(I'm not quit sure).

Gordon Pasha said...

When foreign words get incorporated into common usage in the English language, it is not always the case that the plural
gets incorporated from the foreign language. In many cases it is recreated according to the usual rules of English for forming plurals. Worse, since it takes time for words to get incorporated, there can be periods of "transition" where there is no wide agreement on how to pluralize.

Ans\"atze might be the correct plural of Ansatz in German, but in English ansatzes is used frequently.
(Also capitalization is dropped.)

In English there is no central authority controlling language, so wide use and general acceptability are what rules the language.

In a similar fashion "curriculums" is widely used as a plural or curriculum, although the correct Latin plural would be curricula.
Or indexes as the plural of index instead of the original indices. Or, most horrifying to Italians, biscotti as the singular and biscottis as the plural whereas in the original language it would be biscotto the singular and biscotti the plural.

C'est la vie.

Bee said...

Hi Gordon:

Yeah, sure, language develops with its own dynamics. I just thought I'd let people know. The reason why the plural doesn't get incorporated is probably because most people just have never heard it.

Hi Anonymous:

I was taught that it was EYE-gen-value, but I've heard other Americans say EE-gen-value.

You are right, they are wrong.

Hi Felipe:

Back to the "v" and "w" confusion, I've noticed that my German housemate usually makes "w" sound like "v", and then she makes "v" sound like "u", as in "uisitor", instead of "visitor". Have you ever seen this being done by other Germans?

No, I've never noticed that before. I couldn't even think of a local accent that does that. It sounds to me a bit French actually, maybe English wasn't her first foreign language?

Hi Thomas,

Yes, thanks for pointing this out. I am certainly not going to insist on that, since I have no idea how he'd want his name to be pronounced, or whether he'd care at all. I wouldn't assume though everybody who had to leave Germany was happy having his or her name 'Englished'.

Hi Frederic,

Adding nouns is indeed funny, and I always find similar English constructs quite bulky. It usually requires plenty 'of'. It is easier to understand though.



Bee said...

Hi suomynona, Hi rgb:

Yes, the German 'r' is pronounced a bit differently depending on the local accent.

So it should read "fearbein" and "fealbein", or "feelbein" and "feerbein"

At least the way I pronounce it, the 'r' in 'vier' is indeed introduced with an 'a', i.e. it is not feer, but rather fear. The 'l' in 'viel' doesn't come with that, that's why I wrote 'feel'. You are right however that this isn't a very strict differentiation since it depends on the local accent. One could go so far to just drop the 'r' and make 'vier' a 'fea', and it would still go through. Best,


rillian said...

Re alternate pronunciations for 'nein', I'm pretty sure I've heard a friend of mine say 'nie' instead. Could that be? She's from Saarland.

Assuming I heard correctly, is that a dialect difference, or the equivalent of "Nah" in English?

Fun thread.

Bee said...

Nein, Nee, Ney, Nie, Nö, Nah, Nischtgibbs - I know people who pronounce 'Nein' as 'Yes' ;-)


Anonymous said...

What's the proper way of saying the suffix "-ig"? I've noticed some folks pronounced it like a softer version of "-isch".

(Such as words like könig, Leipzig, honig, etc ...)

Anonymous said...

I've always found the german "ch" to be the hardest to pronounce properly. The sound doesn't appear to exist in American english.

Bee said...

Hi you two Anonymouses above:

yes, the ending 'ig' sometimes sounds like 'ich' or even 'isch' in some regions (e.g. the numbers: fifty = fünfzig), but it's not really a standard way to pronounce it. Best,


Neil' said...

When I said German was logical, I did mean in the sense of "it is pronounced just as it is spelled", once you learn the pattern (i.e., not irregular, like the grotesque English language!) Someone please tell me about the new spelling reform, which albeit "highly discussed" I didn't learn anything about (of course something like that will not be highly discussed in the US...) I wonder if it is analogous to the change from British to American English.

Neil' said...

rillian, "nein" is pronounced like "nay" in Palatinate dialect, which may be similar to "nie" but I don't know what phonetic standard you imply.

Anonymous said...

reply to neil',

Some German writing is kind of hard to read and seems like it's not exactly written in a logical structure.

A perfect example of this is "Mein Kampf" by Hitler. That book reads like it was written by somebody who was uneducated, and who didn't know how to write coherent sentences very well.

Low Math, Meekly Interacting said...

"Vee haff vays of makink you talk!"

Thomas Larsson said...

A peculiarity is that momentum is called Bewegungsgrösse (eigentlich mit Scharf-S, which looks like a beta), whereas Moment means torque. But what is Moment der Bewegungsgrösse?

Phil Warnell said...

Hi Bee,

“The German word Schild like in Schwarzschild, has nothing to do with the English word 'child'. Instead Schild means 'shield', and Schwarzschild means 'Black Shield' - I would guess it goes back to some kind of family crest. The German sch is pronounced close to the English 'sh' (for the following vowel i, see first point.)”

Boy I'm slow, for I just picked up on what you said about the Schwarzschild thing. I never realized the meaning of the surname. Also how ironic that someone with this name would be the first to demonstrate that GR pointed to the formation of black holes or more exactly what minimum solar mass such a object would be and at what related radius. In as this lead to the later development of the event horizon and singularity concepts I find someone with this name most fitting. It’s like if Edison’s last name had been Lumisphere or something.



Frédéric Balmer said...

Concerning the logic of languages, just came across this one:

We'll begin with a box, and the plural is boxes;
But the plural of ox became oxen not oxes.
One fowl is a goose, but two are called geese,
Yet the plural of moose should never be meese.
You may find a lone mouse or a nest full of mice;
Yet the plural of house is houses, not hice.
If the plural of man is always called men,
Why shouldn't the plural of pan be called pen?
If I spoke of my foot and show you my feet,
And I give you a boot, would a pair be called beet?
If one is a tooth and a whole set are teeth,
Why shouldn't the plural of booth be called beeth?
Then one may be that, and three would be those,
Yet hat in the plural would never be hose,
And the plural of cat is cats, not cose.
We speak of a brother and also of brethren,
But though we say mother, we never say methren.
Then the masculine pronouns are he, his and him,
But imagine the feminine, she, shis and shim.


Kaleberg said...

German was pretty easy for my father. As far as he was concerned it was just Yiddish written in a Latin alphabet. (Then again, he thought the same thing about Dutch, but he could get directions, order food, shop in stores, and even argue politics).

Also, what happens in languages like German and Spanish when pronunciation changes? Do they change the spelling of the word. I remember in the 19th, Daniel Webster wanted to reform English spelling and proposed that "bridegroom" should be spelled "bridegoom" so people could figure out how to pronounce it. Of course, that latter "r" is pronounced now.

There is something to be said for just learning the words and using the spelling as a mnemonic. Look at Chinese. If you learn to read Mandarin or Cantonese you can read either, even if you can only speak one of them. (I gather that a common Chinese response to a stranger speaking an incomprehensible dialect was to start drawing characters on one's hand).

Thomas D said...

There are at least two e's in German: sometimes referred to as open and closed.

'Essen' has one of each. The first one is like English 'best', the second like 'beaten' - basically a 'schwa' or neutral syllable. 'Bethe' has a long open (?) e and a short closed one. Though to add to the confusion, Bethe's first 'e' is not a longer version of either of the ones in 'Essen'.

So no, German is not phonetic!!

However you can usually figure out by the context which 'e' you should be using. The later in a word the 'e' comes the more likely it is to be a schwa.

jhi said...

> The German language is pronounced the way it is written.

Well, yes and no.

What you meant is something along the lines "in German the spelling and pronunciation are tightly coupled and regular, and there are only few N:1 or 1:N grapheme<->phoneme mappings".

I know this because in Finnish we make the same claim of "pronounced the same way it is written" :-) With equally good claim.

This feature of languages is, I think, more common than the unbelievable mess English is. Of non-English languages I know Finnish, Swedish, German, and a little bit of French, and in all these cases the mapping is very good approximation of "pronounced the same way it is written". It is just that in each language the mappings are slightly different.

Neil' said...

jhi, I should have asked you earlier (and I'll post to your blog also) but I heard an interesting comment about Finnish from a philosopher who spoke it natively: something IIRC about not having a subject in the ordinary sense, making it more amenable to expressing or finding credible, Wittgenstein's idea that "the mind" is tied up with other people and language etc. Does this make sense to you?

PS: If so, an example of the Sapir-Worf hypothesis.

jhi said...

Wow, it's been far too long since I read Wittgenstein to comment on how well the Finnish language is applicable to his ideas... and off-hand I'm not certain what this Finnish philosopher might have meant by Finnish not having a subject in the common sense.


The only thing that comes to mind is that the word for "I" while existing in Finnish, can be dropped and often is since other parts of the sentence carry the same information redundantly. But that sounds a but too mechanical a thing for someone so subtle as philosopher.

Neil' said...

FWIW, I heard Rush Limbaugh on Wednesday, talking about the German newspaper "Die Welt" - he pronounced it like English "Dye" or "Die" not "Dee" as in proper German. And this guy is supposed to be a broadcast great, the "Excellence in Broadcasting Network" (I have another word in mind that sounds like "excellence" but is a bit different ...) etc.

Limbaugh was talking about Die Welt reporting on his execrable and unethical "operation chaos" (rousing Republican voters to vote for Hillary in the Democratic (not "Democrat") primaries, to make it harder for Democrats to have an early nominee. Limbaugh never batted an eye when he later quote Chris Matthews slamming RL for cheapening the right to vote, fought and died for by so many. He just snickered like the adolescent puke he is. Well, that sort of attitude is what you expect of a slob who can't pronounce proper simple German, and thinks that our breathing out CO2 as part of the closed surface carbon cycle is like adding carbon pulled from under ground, etc. (I recommend the 90s book Logic and Mr. Limbaugh if you can get it - it's a good introduction to logical fallacies, using Limbaugh's bloviations as examples!)

Cathy Lara said...

These are all excellent points that you make! There is a 'th' in my name. When I lived in Germany, I got used to the fact that no one could pronounce my name which is Cathy. Interesting about the word 'Schild.' Since I speak German, I hadn't realized that native English speakers think 'child' when they see it.