How German speakers pronounce English  

Someone’s first language tends to cause consistent errors when they speak a second language. I’ve always found it interesting see what types of error people make in speaking (or writing) English they have learnt as a foreign language. Those errors can be useful pointers to the features of the speaker’s first language. Spotting those errors can help English speakers learn that other language.

A chapter in a recent book looked at how German speakers commonly pronounce English. The chapter Persistent Features in the English of German Speakers, by Raymond Hickey, appears in English in the German-Speaking World (2022), edited by Hickey himself.

Under the following headings, I summarise below the main points that Hickey makes:

  • consonants
  • vowels
  • role of spelling
  • specifically German pronunciations
  • stress
  • German English?

For a comment on a common vocabulary error by German speakers of English, please see https://languagemiscellany.com/2022/07/enter-until-15-july

Consonants

At the end of a syllable, stops and fricatives are always unvoiced in German, but may be either voiced or unvoiced in English. Thus, many Germany speakers fail to voice these consonants in speaking English. As result, they pronounce, for example, pub like pup and dog like dock. This is virtually the last feature to disappear from target-like pronunciations by advanced speakers of English.

German speakers tend to replace some English sounds which do not exist in German with near equivalents:  

  • they replace the English ambi-dental fricatives /θ/ (unvoiced, as in thin) and /ð/ (voiced, as in this) with /s/ and /z/
  • German /v/ has less friction than English /v/ and German has no labio-velar approximant /w/. German speakers tend to pronounce both English /v/ and English /w/ alike, with little or no friction. Thus, they often pronounce very as [wɛʁi] and vet and veil like wet and wail.
  • at the start of a word, German speakers simplify the English /ʧ/—which does not exist in German—to a sibilant /ʃ/ as in chips (/ʃɪps/, sounding like English ships).
  • at the start of a syllable, southern German speakers tend to pronounce the voiced alveolo-palatal affricate /ʤ/ as unvoiced /ʧ/ (eg juice as /ʧu:s/ and Jeans as /ʧiːns/). But a few older loans from English have initial/ʤ/, and the German spelling sometimes shows this (Dschungel ‘jungle’)
  • German speakers tend to use the alveolar ‘clear’ [l] form (allophone) of /l/ in all positions. They seldom achieve the velar ‘dark’ lateral [ɫ] allophone that English uses at the end of a syllable.
    (Conversely, it is difficult for English speakers to learn how to replace the English dark [ɫ] with the clear version [/] at the end of a syllable. On a school exchange in Frankfurt when I was 13, my exchange partner tried unsuccessfully to coach me to use the clear [l] at the end of his friend’s surname, which was Bommel. The English dark [ɫ] at the end of a syllable was so ingrained in me that I literally couldn’t ‘hear’ the distinction he was making.)
  • German speakers do not always realise that the stop /g/ is sometimes pronounced after the nasal /ŋ/ in some English words (such as longer /lɒŋgə/—the comparative of long /lɒŋ/—or finger /fɪŋgə/).  In German the stop /g/ never appears after the nasal /ŋ/: (lang /laŋ/ (‘long’);  länger /lɛŋɛɐ/(‘longer’); Finger /fɪŋɛɐ/ (‘finger’)
    For more on the pronunciation of the English digraph <ng>, please see https://languagemiscellany.com/2021/09/droppin-gs-bad-speech
  • German speakers sometimes mispronounce English /s/ as /z/, and English /z/ as /s/.

Vowels

In general, German speakers pronounce English vowels using the nearest German equivalents.

Because German does not have an /æ/ vowel, German speakers often replace it with the low mid short /ɛ/ vowel of German as in nett /nɛt/ ‘nice’. As a result, Germany speakers often pronounce, for example, bad like bed, batter like better and shall like shell.  

On the other hand, the distinction between /æ/ and /ɛ/ distinguishes some pairs of morphologically related English words, such as man and its plural men; for some of these pairs, German speakers fashion a new distinction by raising English /ɛ/ to /ɪ/, thus pronouncing: man /mæn/ as [mɛn]; and men /mɛn/ as [mɪn].

The following are some other (though less striking) instances where German speakers replace the English vowel used in British ‘Received Pronunciation’ (RP) with a slightly different vowel used in standard German:

  • the German long low vowel /aː/ (as in Sahne /zaːnə/ ‘cream’) for RP /ɑ/ (as in staff /stɑ:f/.
  • the German retracted long mid-front vowel /øː/ for the English central stressed schwa-like vowel, as in nurse.
  • the German long mid monophthongs:
    (a) Zeh /tse:/ ‘toe’ for the diphthong in English face; and
    (b) Zoo /tso:/ ‘zoo’ for the diphthong in English goat.

Role of spelling

If speakers do not know how to pronounce a word, they may pronounce the individual letters, leading to non-native pronunciations. For instance, they may pronounce:

  • the verb determine /dɪˈtəːmɪn/ as /di:terˈmaɪn/, pronouncing the first instance of <e> as /i:/ (as in cede) and pronouncing the <i> as /aɪ/ (as in mine).
  • status /ˈsteɪtəs/ as /ˈstɛtjus/, (where /ɛ/ is the German pronunciation of English /æ/).
  • Danish /deɪnɪʃ/ as /dɛnɪʃ/, through a mis-reading of <a> as spelling a short vowel in this word.

In the above examples, and in all examples below, the symbol (ˈ) stands before a syllable bearing primary stress. The symbol (ˌ) stands before a syllable bearing secondary stress.)

Specifically German pronunciations

For some English words, there are traditional German pronunciations which native speakers do not use anywhere in the anglophone world. Examples are:

  • occur /əˈkəː/, pronounced as /ɔˈkjuːɐ/—perhaps originally as an extension of a pronunciation like cure /ˈkjuːɐ/
  • category /kəˈtɛgɔri/ and subsequent /sʌpˈsiːkwɛnt/, both widespread among university students, perhaps because these pronunciations have been handed down by teachers.

German has borrowed many words from English. Borrowed words generally conform wholly or partly to the German system. Their pronunciation within German often differs from their original pronunciation within English. When German speakers use those words within English, they sometimes transfer the German pronunciation into English.   

Stress

German speakers carry over into English some German language requirements on placing stress and on the phonetic effects of stress.

  • German does not reduce unstressed vowels any near as much as English does and does not delete unstressed vowels in the middle of words. German speakers often carry these practices over into English. For example, they may pronounce Canada with full vowels as /ˈkanada/, not as /ˈkænədə/ and separate with 3 syllables as /zɛpaˈraːt/, not as /ˈseprət/).
  • In German, most words with stress on the last syllable are borrowed from French. So, German speakers tend to use initial stress in pronouncing English words that have final stress, like defer.
  • German speakers sometimes carry over into English the German stress patterns for suffixes of Greek or Latin origin. For example, German never stresses the 2nd syllable of the prefix inter-. So, German speakers often stress English interpret on the final syllable as /ɪntɛɐˈpriːt, not as /ɪnˈtɜːprət/.
  • In many pairs of English words, the only thing that distinguishes a noun from a verb or adjective is the position of the stress. Examples include pairs ˈcontent (noun) / conˈtent (adjective) and ˈconvert (noun) / conˈvert (verb).
    German has no similar word formation device, so German speakers often place stress on the initial syllable of both members of these pairs.

Stress and vowel length

German stress patterns and German restrictions on using some long and short vowels combine to cause some uniquely German pronunciations of English words.

For instance, in German, the pronunciation of Berlin is /bɛɐˈliːn/, with stress on the final syllable, which contains a long vowel /-iːn/. In English, the pronunciation is /bəˈlɪn/, with stress in the 1st syllable and a short vowel in the final syllable.

But Germans consistently pronounce Berlin in English as /ˈbɜ:lɪn/, with stress on the 1st syllable and a short final syllable. This is because the stressed final syllable /iːn/ is always long in German. To avoid breaking this German restriction when the final vowel is short, German speakers retract the stress to the first syllable.

English level stress and German secondary stress

Word groups in English frequently consist of sequences of syllables with primary stress (level stress pattern) where the German equivalents have primary stress followed by secondary stress. German speakers tend to transfer the German pattern. Table 1 shows 2 examples, giving: the English stress pattern; the German stress pattern; and the stress pattern used by German speakers in speaking English as a 2nd language (L2).

EnglishˈSecond ˈWorld ˈWarˈHong ˈKong
GermanˌZweiter ˈWeltˌkriegˈHong ˌKong
German L2 EnglishˌSecond ˈWorld ˌWarˈHong ˌKong
Table 1. Stress patterns in English word groups

German English?

Hickey discusses briefly one final question: is it useful to label the version of English spoken by German speakers as a second-language variety in its own right (‘German English’), with a status comparable to the status of native-language varieties, such as like New Zealand English or Canadian English?

Hickey acknowledges that the features he describes are widespread and persistent among pupils, students and other members of the German public. Nevertheless, he argues that there is no social agreement on whether an identifiable entity called ‘German English’ exists, or on its features.

Furthermore, he states that German learners of English strive to speak the language as spoken in anglophone countries, not to become proficient in an identifiable non-native variety of English spoken in their own country.

It seems then, that he rejects the idea of ‘German English’, though he doesn’t say this explicitly.

Other chapters in the book

Here is a list of the 19 chapters in Hicke’s book:

  • 1. English in the German-speaking world: the nature and scale of language influence
  • Part I. The Status of English:
    2. English in the German-speaking world: an inevitable presence
    3. English in Germany and the European context
    4. English in the former German Democratic Republic
  • Part II. The Transmission of English
    5. The history of English instruction in the German-speaking world
    6. English language (teacher) education in Germany after 1945
    7. Supporting English medium instruction at German institutions of higher education
  • Part III. Domains and Features of English
    8. Anglophone practices in Berlin: from historical evidence to transnational communities
    9. English in the German-speaking world: immigration and integration
    10. Processes of language contact in English influence on German
    11. Persistent features in the English of German speakers
    12. Compiling a speech corpus of German English: rhoticity and the BATH vowel
    13. A question of direction: German influence on English
  • Part IV. Beyond Germany
    14. Varieties of English in the Netherlands and Germany
    15. English in Austria: policies and practices
    16. English in Switzerland
    17. English and German in Namibia
    18. English in German-speaking Wisconsin and the aftermath 19. The English ‘infusion’ in Pennsylvania German

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