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I mean the “official” or “traditional” alphabet, such as the one taught in schools to children. Is the ordering the same as English? Does it include C, which I notice never seems to show up in native-German words? Does it include ü, ö, ä, and ß? If so, where? Does that mean Germans think of the alphabet as having 30 letters? Or is it less than that with some of them considered variants?

It may seem like a silly question, but my wife was asking and I honestly don’t know because I don’t think I was ever taught these things in German class in college. I never thought about it at the time.

To clarify, the question is: How do native Germans¹ think about their alphabet? For example, Swedes drop w from their alphabet and tack å, ä, and ö onto the end. Spanish speakers consider ñ (and, depending on who you ask, ch and ll) to be a separate letter, but unlike the Swedes they have inserted these into the alphabet in dictionary order. They do not consider accented characters like é to be separate letters. Speaking from that context, how then do Germans think about their alphabet?

¹ Recognizing that there will be some variation between Germany, Austria, Switzerland, etc.

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C shows up a lot, in combination with H and K. –  Phira Jun 5 '11 at 9:45
But CK not at the beginning of words. –  bernd_k Jun 5 '11 at 9:59
Celle. –  RegDwight Jun 5 '11 at 21:44
Note that in old German maps you find Köln written as "Coelln", so how traditional shall it get? –  user unknown Aug 8 at 18:43

6 Answers 6

up vote 12 down vote accepted

I learned in school that the alphabet has 26 letters, A to Z, that was in the 1970s and 80s in Germany. Somehow the umlauts and the eszet were never mentioned when the alphabet was enumerated, I suppose because they are not considered proper letters in German.

As for the letter "c", we have plenty of them, but in german words they only occur in the combinations "sch", "ch" and "ck". These is no special handling for such combinations in german.

As for the ordering, in dictionaries and encyclopedias the umlauts are sorted like the base letter, e.g. "ä" is sorted like "a". Only if there is a tie then "ä" is sorted after "a". For example, "Sage" < "Säge" < "sagen" < "sägen".

In phone books umlauts are sorted like base letter + "e", e.g. "ä" is sorted as "ae", etc. This is because phone book contain proper names, which may be written either with umlaut or with base letter + "e", and the correct spelling is not always known. With this sort order such names are still easy to find.

Since you mentioned it, in the Swedish sort order "w" was considered a variant of "v" until 2006, and "ü" is still considered a variant of "y". Both letters were abolished from Swedish words in a relatively recent reform, but continue to exist in proper names.

Edit: Just heard this little song on Arte.

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Might be nice to add an example of phone book ordering so to keep Mueller close to Müller, Schaefer next to Schäfer or w/e. Also, ß is considered a ligature, not a letter, which is why it doesn't show up. The Umlauts are probably best considered letter variants, much like accented Spanish letters. ß would be considered ss in phone books, so Thissen and Thißen show up together, wouldn't it? –  Jan Apr 10 at 22:22

The German alphabet (in German "Deutsches Alphabet" or colloquial "A-B-C") is a variation of the Latin alphabet and includes 26 capitalized letters (same as in English) plus the umlauts (Ä, Ö, Ü) and (only) in Germany and Austria the "scharfes S" (ß). The ß ist not part of the alphabet in Switzerland and Liechtenstein.

If you're referring to a single letter you're supposed to use the neutrum gender: "das A, das B, das C etc."

German alphabet

Note: when I went to school (1970s and 1980s) we used to recite the 26-letter alphabet and didn't add umlauts or the ß.

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Ich möchte anmerken, dass in Österreich die Buchstagen J und Q auch als [jeː] und [kve:] ausgesprochen werden. –  Phira Jun 5 '11 at 9:55
@Phira: Das hängt sehr stark von der Region ab. [je:] habe ich zum ersten Mal gehört, als ich nach Wien kam. In der Schule in Kärnten hieß es immer [jot]. –  raznagul Aug 10 at 8:55

There is no such thing as a “German alphabet”, and while we are at it there is also no such thing as an “English alphabet” either. I don’t really know where this originated, but it appears to be perpetuated by American teachers. To my knowledge, no such concept ever got wide traction anywhere in the German-speaking area. Presumably, for a culture that actually has distinctive features in its writing system, there is less reason to come up with such terminology. (PS: Another explanation would be if such terminology once existed in German but was primarily applied to fraktur letters and cursive handwriting. Not too long ago, many older Germans still considered antiqua and the normal modern handwriting somewhat foreign. I don't know how to test this hypothesis.)

By þe way, in part you have þe Germans to þank for þe simplicity of “þe English alphabet”. Before þe English imported heaps of cheap printing presses from Germany in the 15th or 16th century, þ (thorn) and the rarer ȝ (yogh; used e.g. in McKenȝie but also in þouȝ, ouȝt, bouȝt etc.) were still widely used. Þe shiny new presses didn't come wiþ þese letters (þouȝ þey did have useless umlauts instead), and printers simply substituted th and z/gh/y for þem instead of paying for þe missing types.

There is such a thing as the Latin alphabet. In its modern standard version it consists of 26 letters A–Z. Some of them are of relatively recent, Central European (?) origin:

  • The distinction of I and J is new. Originally this was just one letter.
  • The distinction of U and V is new. Originally this was just one letter.
  • The letter W is new. Originally this was the sequence VV or UU.

One of the original 23 letters was a 'foreign' letter even in Latin: K was originally an Etruscan letter that only appeared in Latin words of Etruscan origin. (The Etruscans were the previous big militaristic culture, which was then taken over by their former vassals, the Romans. Apparently the Etruscans distinguished two different K sounds, only one of which was represented by Latin C.)

Possibly caused (but at least much exacerbated) by the ubiquity of typewriters and later of computers that could only present the very restricted ASCII character set, there is a modern American tradition of totally rejecting not just modified Latin characters but even accented letters that have been fully part of English since practically forever. All major dictionaries are full of English words, mostly of French origin, whose standard spelling has an accent. They do, however, not always agree on the details. Sometimes the accented form is primary in one dictionary and secondary in the other, and for another word the roles are reversed. In many cases such as resume (the noun, not the verb) the accent is critical for fast and efficient communication, even in English. E.g., I only had to add “(the noun, not the verb)” because I used the non-standard, ersatz spelling for resumé which came to be accepted as correct only because sometimes technical difficulties prevent the better spelling. (By the way, resumé is not the French spelling of the word. The French spelling is résumé.)

There is of course such a thing as “the alphabet” as taught to German children. Usually it is presented starting with A–Z, then there is a separate block of the three umlauts ä, ö, and ü, and finally in a third block or at the end of the second, there is ß. This is also the normal order in which children recount the alphabet. Though usually they stop after the first block of 26 letters, or possibly after the second. Except for the lack of nationalist ideology, this is just like American children don’t mention é as part of “the English alphabet”.

Accented and special letters; sorting

Here are two slightly more standard questions:

  • The distinction between special letters added to the standard Latin alphabet, and accented versions of (standard or special) letters.
  • The sort order when making lists. Fortunately this is less relevant nowadays than it once was.

Generally, an accent is something added at some stage to a letter in an existing spelling in order to distinguish it from other spellings, or for consistency with other spellings that were derived in this way. When it’s technically impossible to print an accent (as used to be the case often for capital letters), it’s acceptable to just drop it. An example is the diaeresis in the English word coöperate (New Yorker spelling).

The two dots in ä, ö, and ü are what remains of the letter e after generations of scribes placed it above the previous vowel in certain situations. When those letters cannot be printed correctly, the only acceptable work-around, ever, is to use ae, oe, or ue instead. Therefore, ä, ö, ü in German are not accented letters, in particular not a, o, u with diaereses. They are special letters designed to be used with the Latin alphabet; they are modified Latin letters. Yet they are not full members of the alphabet.

Similarly, ß evolved out of a ligature for sz at a time when German didn’t really distinguish s and z s and z were used differently than today. The z in this context was later regularised to an s and isn’t optically recognisable anymore (because the z shape has changed), but the letter ß is still often called s z (usually spelled Eszett). When ß is not available, as is always the case when using capitals only since ß has no capital version, the only acceptable solution is to replace it by ss. (Definitely not by a single s, and definitely not by β (Greek beta), as is still often done in manuals produced in Asia.)

When it comes to sorting, the standard German point of view is that ä is sorted as ae etc., and ß is sorted as ss. Things become tricky and very chaotic when you have to sort Müller, Mueller, Müllermeister and Muellermeister, for example. There is no established standard for handling this.

The fact that some other languages also make frequent use of letters that look like German umlauts causes additional difficulty. Danish ø is not one of them, but has the same function and much the same history (from oe) as German ö. So does Swedish ö. In Scandinavia, Danish ø and Swedish ö are probably considered fully equivalent variant forms of the same letter; I am just not sure if people distinguish them in names. In sorting, they come after z.

This creates all sorts of problems when you try to sort lots of author names or even work titles. You must treat ö in a German name as oe and ö in an English or French word as o. You may decide to treat Swedish ö and maybe even Danish ø like German ö, but then whatever you do with Danish å will cause some inconsistency. Not to forget Finnish ä, Hungarian öü, Turkish ü and Chinese pinyin ö, which are all special letters but not umlauts, even though they look and sound exactly like the German umlauts¹. Using the rules of the original language is no help if someone was born in one country and ended up in the other, possibly turning German ö in a German name of Danish origin into a Swedish ö.

¹ An umlaut is a specific type of modification of a base vowel for grammatical reasons which occurs in Germanic languages. Remnants in English: brother -> brethren, fall → fell, foot → feet, old → elder, long → length, full → fill. Nobody adopts umlauts, of course, but the graphical appearance of the German umlauts seems to be a big cultural export hit.

Recognizing that there will be some variation between Germany, Austria, Switzerland, etc.

I am not aware of any variation between the German-speaking countries. There seems to be no reason for one anyway. Of course, ß is not used in Switzerland, but that just means that the most rarely mentioned part of the alphabet is never mentioned there.

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ß is not available, as is always the case when using capitals only since ß has no capital version – Typefaces with a capital ß exist since more than a hundred years (see here). You may think of its usage what you like, but as it is, the always is wrong. –  Wrzlprmft Aug 8 at 19:29
They are special letters designed to be used with the Latin alphabet; they are modified Latin letters. Yet they are not full members of the alphabet. – So, how exactly are they different from, e.g., w? –  Wrzlprmft Aug 8 at 19:31
W has become a naturalised member of what we call the Latin alphabet today. But the umlauts aren't conventionally counted even by German-speakers, just like accented letters aren't counted by French-speakers. That's what I mean by not being full members. Obviously the glyphs exist in fonts and such. –  Hans Adler Aug 8 at 20:17
Capital ß is, and has always been, a rare oddity that is rarely used even when it happens to exist in a font, because normally there is no support for it and it looks just as wrong among the capital letters as β substituting ß does in a word. This is the sense in which, I insist, capital ß has never existed. Black swans also exist technically, but since they are rare freaks of nature, it's correct to say they don't. –  Hans Adler Aug 8 at 20:25
This is the sense in which, I insist, capital ß has never existed. – But this is not the sense, in which you claim that it never existed in your answer. As I said, you can think about the capital ß what you like, but to claim that a capital ß is never available is not true. –  Wrzlprmft Aug 8 at 21:13

It is the same as yours. 26 letters and in the same order. The Umlaute ä, ö, ü where seen as modifications of a, o, u by Diakritisches Zeichen and ß was not seen as full member of the Alphabet. The exact classification was a bit vague.

Later at university (mathematical linguistic) there was a strict differentiation between character set and alphabet. The first determines which letters are parts of words and the latter has the focus on sorting order.

Undoubtedly ä, ö, ü and ß are part of character set which is used by the German language.

The problem is that there where two different sorting orders for the Umlaute in use.

In Encyclopedic dictionaries ä, ö, ü where treated as modifications by diacritics and sorted like a, o, u (or just behind them in case of ties) and the sort order by phone books, which treated them as synonym of ae, oe and ue.

EDIT: In context of early computer without NLS support one had to be prepared for a sort order with äöü behind z, but that was a weakness of early machines.

@starblue thanks for correcting my memories.

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German Wikipedia writes that the official alphabet is 26 + umlauts + ß in Germany + Austria: de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deutsches_Alphabet –  splattne Jun 5 '11 at 9:51
Wikipedia contradicts this: " In reformed orthography the grapheme ß ... is considered a separate letter". –  Tim Jun 5 '11 at 9:52
"The Umlaute ä, ö, ü where seen as modifications of a, o, u by Diakritisches Zeichen" - Notably, they are not "felt" as the same level of modification as accented vowels in most other Western languages I can think of are. Try the text message test: Many native speakers of French, Spanish, etc., would, when having to quickly write a text message with only ASCII characters available, silently drop all the accents. However, I cannot see a German speaker do the same; umlauts will usually be substituted with their two-letter replacement such as "ae", "oe", or "ue". –  O. R. Mapper Aug 8 at 12:57


Ignoring the table of contents and the preface, the official German spelling rules begin with the following:

Die Schreibung des Deutschen beruht auf einer Buchstabenschrift. Jeder Buchstabe existiert als Kleinbuchstabe und als Großbuchstabe (Ausnahme ß):

a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z ä ö ü ß

Die Umlautbuchstaben ä, ö, ü werden im Folgenden mit den Buchstaben a, o, u zusammen eingeordnet; ß nach ss. […]

In Fremdwörtern und fremdsprachigen Eigennamen kommen außerdem Buchstaben mit zusätzlichen Zeichen sowie Ligaturen vor (zum Beispiel ç, é, â, œ).

To my knowledge, this is the only official source (and certainly the highest ranking official one) on what is a German letter and what isn’t. Essentially it states that the German orthography uses 30 letters and it does not make a distinction between a–z, the umlauts and ß. Furthermore it states that additional letters can be used for loanwords and foreign names.

While there is a statement about which sorting is used in the rules themselves, no sorting is prescribed. However there are DIN norms for sorting, namely DIN 5007 and DIN 31638. They suggest different sortings depending on the application (see Starblue’s answer for details), but do not define a sorting of the alphabet itself (which is not their purpose anyway) and thus yield no answer as to where ä, ö, ü and ß should be located.


It’s tradition to exclude the umlauts and ß from the German alphabet, but that’s really just that: a tradition.

I guess most German speakers (and I have asked some) will answer that the German alphabet has 26 letters, because and only because that’s what they were taught in school. If there were an agreement to teach that the German alphabet has 30 letters, I am pretty sure you would get this as an answer – because for all orthographic purposes, they are full members of the German letter repertoire¹. The reason for this tradition lies in the fact that both the umlauts and the ß originally evolved from the Latin base letters; roughly: ae → ä, oe → ö, ue → ü, sz → ß.

However – and that’s my personal opinion – this tradition should be abolished as it is rather confusing to anybody learning our orthography. If we were to adhere to history, we could also not regard w as a separate letter, as it originates from vv or uu, respectively (and is younger than the ß by some criteria).

¹ Should anybody argue that they differ, because we have rules how to replace them when unavailable: That’s only because the other letters are hardly ever unavailable.

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The Finnish way of counting letters backs the tradition argument: Finns consider the alphabet to have 29 letters (including å, ä and ö). However, only 28 are ever used in Finnish words and if you exclude loanwords, the number reduces itself a lot more (to 21, g only being present in the ng combination). –  Jan Aug 27 at 12:05
If you see things this way, the 'German alphabet' has more than 30 letters. By any reasonable standard, das Café has been a full member of the German language for a long time now, and there isn't really an acceptable way to spell the word without an accent. The dead keys for ' and ` on German typewriters and computer keyboards aren't just to make it easier to write French quotations and German names of Huguenot origin like de Maizière. –  Hans Adler Aug 28 at 5:10
@HansAdler: I did not offer any opinion in my answer as to how many letters I want the German alphabet to have. But as you are asking: The contents of the alphabet only matter to school children and language learners anyway nowadays and for those, the 30-letter alphabet is certainly the least confusing choice in my opinion. You have to draw the line somewhere and there is a clear gap in frequency between the least frequent of the 30 (q) and the most frequent other letter (é), namely a factor of 27 going by dictionary entries. –  Wrzlprmft Aug 28 at 6:16
@Wrzlprmft: Oops. I am not fully awake yet, apparently. - Thanks for the information. I wouldn't know how to test this easily, but I agree that a factor of 27 is definitely good enough for cutting off a statistics-based definition unless there are larger factors before (which I don't think is the case). I guess one should really test a natural corpus (minus names and foreign phrases) rather than a dictionary, or weight dictionary entries by their frequency, but presumably the result wouldn't be too different. –  Hans Adler Aug 28 at 6:31

The alphabet which is taught in schools is the same as the alphabet in English. The Umlaute and the ß are separated from the normal ABC.

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Welcome. We value your contribution. Nevertheless, if you don't modify it, it will likely be removed by the community, since this answer doesn't state something not contained in other answers. –  c.p. Aug 11 at 11:13
Also feel free to take a tour and consult the help center in case of questions. –  Jan Aug 27 at 12:02

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