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If German "W" is pronounced like an English "V"

and German "V" is pronounced like an English "F"

i.e. W → V V → F

Why is it that I continually hear German speakers pronounce their (English) V's as (English) W's when speaking English? 'Wirtual Reality', 'Wideo' for instance.

It doesn't make sense that these two letters are transposed.

Is there a historic reason for this?

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It's common among Swedes too. Swedish lacks the /w/ sound too, but there's no v->/f/ in Swedish. –  Tim Jul 6 '11 at 8:16
Maybe I misunderstand the question, but what's wrong about Wideo and Wirtual? –  musiKk Jul 6 '11 at 8:37
@Hendrik: OK. With subtleties like this, IPA or audio examples might be useful. –  musiKk Jul 6 '11 at 8:55
@RegDwight: this reminds me of a Loriot skit, where a German TV announcer reads a summary of an English TV series and gets more and more confused with all those "th" sounds: "Gwyneth Molesworth hatte für Lord Hesketh-Fortescue in Nether Addlethorpe einen Schlipth. Verzeihung. Schlips besorgt, ihn aber bei Lord Molesworth-Houghton in Thrumpton Castle liegenlassen." - Hilarious! –  Jan Jul 6 '11 at 14:26
This is called Hypercorrection –  Debilski Jul 10 '11 at 9:25

8 Answers 8

This is a form of a phenomenon called hypercorrection.

The problem is that the sound [w] does not exist in German and indeed there are many German speaking people who are unable or unaware to pronounce this sound and use [v] instead. This is what makes the traditional German accent. (Mainly spoken by people who learned English rather late or only know some phrases.)

Now, if at some point English speaking Germans learn how to pronounce the [w] sound, they will have a tendency to overgeneralise this as they try to hide their original accent. (This happens sub-consciously and is not only a phenomenon seen by English speaking foreigners.) The rule they make up is something like

“Oops, I was wrong the whole time, because I did not know how to say [w] and used [v] instead. I am not going to make that mistake again and will henceforth always use [w].”

The rule may be more complicated or affect only phonemes in certain positions but it is a general phenomenon which has not much to do with how the words are actually spelled. That the German ‘v’ may be pronounced as [f] is irrelevant to this.

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The same thing happens in German with dialects which pronounce sch and ch both as sch. Some speakers overcompensate and use ch too often, ex-chancellor Kohl being a notable example ("Gechichte"). –  starblue Jul 10 '11 at 22:38
@starblue Indeed. There are more examples in the German Wikipedia. –  Debilski Jul 10 '11 at 22:51
Really good answer. I like that word "hypercorrection". –  Marty Green Feb 3 '12 at 13:45
A common phenomenon in British varieties as well. Ever heard of the letter "haitch"? Speakers are afraid to be caught "lower class" h-dropping and therefore over-emphasise it in words where it's usually silent. –  Jules May 3 '12 at 7:23

hang on there, people.

German has an unvoiced "w" sound like in "Wald", which sounds different to the English "wood". The English sound requires much more rounding and tension of the lips when producing the "w".

Since Germans don't normally round the lips when uttering the "w" in "Wald", they also don't tend to make the effort when pronouncing similar looking words in English. Hence, when a German native speaker says "wood", to most English ears it will not sound "pointed" enough and the "w" sound is interpreted to lean towards v rather than w.

German also has an unvoiced "f" sound like in "fallen", which sound the same as the English "falling". These sounds are mostly unproblematic for German learners of English.

English, however also has the voiced "f" sound, like "very", "volume", "variety"

This sound is what Germans struggle with most, since that voiced "f" does not exist in the native German sound scheme.

Add to that the confusion of which consonant is actually pronounced in which way and you have pinned one of the major dilemmas of German accents. In German, there is "Vater" with an "f" sound and "Vase" with a "w" sound (although in my regional dialect, we'd always use a voiced "f" instead of a "w" for Vase, but that cannot be applied to all of Germany),

So, whenever a German speaker comes across an English word with a v, they have to decide whether or not to apply the German "f" like "Vater", or the "w" like "Vase" or the uncomfortable voiced "v" like in "very", which their speech apparatus may note even be able to produce correctly.

(Remember that the formation of sound patterns are pretty much internalised within the first 10 years of life and after that most people are physically not able to learn to produce different sounds with their speech apparatus. It's the gift of children to learn more than one language without any conceivable accent. Once you've topped the age of ten or twelve, you'll probably have an accent for the rest of your life. I can find sources for that if required).

For Germans, it's already difficult enough to pronounce the English "w" sound with pointed lips and remember to get it right each time: What, Where, When, were we walking or why not? This is quite an exercise for a German native.

"F" is easy. Been there, done that. Feel it. "Fühl mal." No prob.

But the voiced "f" in "very varying varieties of vases" is about as much as you can challenge a German speaker. "Vase" is the same word in German and pronounced "wase" in most German regions. The other v sounds are not native German sounds, so a substitute must be found. The first, unconscious impulse will be to substitute them with a more familiar sound. And since "vase" is clearly a German "w", there's no surprise that the v sounds will be pretty close to the German variety of "w" when that sentence is pronounced by a German speaker.

Hence: "*Wirtual reality"

This is an unconscious process. It can be influenced by training. People who actually LISTEN to their own pronunciation will notice a difference to native speakers and may choose to correct their pronunciation. In most situations, though, non-native speakers have stopped to LISTEN to their own pronunciation. Add to that the physical inability to learn to produce new sounds after your speech producing muscles have honed in at a status quo when you're abpout 10 years old, and there's your foreign language accent.

Henry Kissinger was 15 when he moved to the US (if I remember correctly). He had a German accent throughout his adult life. His younger siblings were much more successful in adopting to the language of their new country of residence and did not have an accent, at least not as strong as Henry's.

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Hang on there, @teylyn. The question is not about Germans having problems to pronounce "wood". And that voiced "f" (from the English "very") does exist in the native German sound scheme, namely, it's the "w" in "wer". –  Hendrik Vogt Jul 6 '11 at 12:01
@teylyn: Wow, I didn't even notice that English has a different "w". The wrong "v", though, I really learned at school. And to not being able to speak accent-free as an adult: I once met a Chinese woman that really had no accent and claimed to having learned German only a few years ago. So now and then, there seems to be an exception... @Hendrik Vogt: As I have stated above, this must be a dialect thing. There is no difference between my "w" in "wer" and "Wald". –  ladybug Jul 6 '11 at 12:25
@ladybug: There's no difference between my "w" in "wer" and "Wald" either, but this "w" is also the same as my "v" in "very". As it should, or am I mistaken? –  Hendrik Vogt Jul 6 '11 at 14:06
@Hendrik Vogt: I am not sure about "very", but I can guarantee for "Vodka": there the "v" is definitively not the same as the "w" in "Wodka". Having read your explanation above, I would say it is formed much like German "w", putting your upper teeth on your lower lip, but instead of going forward like in German "w" you now make an "f" sound. (Not like the normal "f" with your teeth behind your lips) It "feels" like speaking "wf". At least that was what my English colleagues were satisfied with. :) –  ladybug Jul 6 '11 at 14:36
@ladybug: It funny and nicely confusing to discuss very similar things at two different spots :-) (What does above mean?) I'm wondering if the English "wf" thing is a question of where the English speaker comes from. Where are your English colleagues located? –  Hendrik Vogt Jul 6 '11 at 14:42

Much of the confusion that arises when Germans pronounce words containing the letter V comes from the inconsistent pronunciation of V in German where it can be pronounced like W or like F e.g.:

Vase [ˈvaːzə] pronounced like W

Vogel [ˈfoːɡl̩] pronounced like F

Germans are uncertain on how to pronounce such a word when it is not well known to them.

Whenever we know a foreign word is written V we now have to decide whether to pronounce it like F or like W. Knowing that it's not F in the examples given, together with having learned that in English W is pronounced like U (wet [wɛt]) leads to this peculiar ill-pronunciation of English words when valleys may eventually mutate to Wellies.

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+1 Exactly! Germans are eager to show off that they have learned the sound in "wet", but since "v" and "w" are overlapping in their own language they sometimes overdo it. –  Stovner Jul 7 '11 at 16:40
vier / Klavier - same letters, different pronounciation. (OK, some people say 'Klafier', but IMEx, that's uncommon.) –  ssc Aug 27 at 20:43

Just a guess, but I'm pretty sure it's the right explanation.

I think it's a cognitive problem. Most Germans don't speak and listen to English every day, but they read a lot of English words.

Since V (like in "Vase") and W ("Welt") express the exact same sound (IPA: [v]) in German, the brain easily confuses the English sounds for the correspondent letters. I suppose that's the reason German speakers use the wrong sound sometimes.

Many people are aware of the mistake at the moment they spoke the word. It happens to me sometimes too.

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I think that the German "w" (and "v" when it's not pronounced like "f") is pronounced like the English "v". The English "w" does not exist in German. When learning English, it is quite a task to say "wolf" instead of "volf". Some of the people who say "wideo" are just too eager to do it right.

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Seriously, I think this all goes back to different dialects in German... neither have I heard anyone say "volf" nor am I able to pronounce it that way. Where do you come from? –  ladybug Jul 6 '11 at 12:18
@ladybug: Bavaria. Do you really pronounce the v in Vase differently from the w in wer? I never noticed that when I heard Saxonian dialect. But maybe I was distracted by other more striking differences ;-) –  Stefan Walter Jul 6 '11 at 16:03
No, Vase and wer are equal. I've had quite the discussion with Hendrik Vogt here on the topic... but I am still unsure of the result, to be honest. :) –  ladybug Jul 6 '11 at 16:29
@ladybug (opening a 3rd thread :-)): When Stefan writes "volf", he surely means that people use the German "w" instead of the English "w" while trying to pronounce the English word "wolf". Does this clarify things, or did you already read it like that? @Stefan: Note that Jan's answer is deleted now. –  Hendrik Vogt Jul 8 '11 at 12:52
@Hendrik Vogt: ah... nevermind... I even asked a friend of mine who studied linguistics and he couldn't help me. ^^ But he assured me, that the original question could easily be answered with the overcompensating. –  ladybug Jul 16 '11 at 14:32

I am a German and grew up near Dortmund. I can't remember how our teacher taught us to pronounce the w and v. But I still remember the conditional clauses and present perfect tenses they taught us for years. Maybe the focus on the correct pronunciation is also a good idea.

I think that w and v is pronounced differently in the German accents and that makes it difficult for us. I run dict.cc and listened to the pronunciation of wall and video and there's a difference in British and American English.

But, it's an interesting discussion and I want to reduce my accent a bit. Will take a closer look to the pronunciation of these.

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I've lived in Germany now for 24 years. I am American and quite adept in both languages. My kids go to German schools and my ex-wife's siblings are teachers. I have literally spent HOURS of my life discussing the falsity with them, but English-teachers in Germany tell their pupils that there is no difference between the letters w and v in correct English pronunciation. They continually say willage and walley instead of village and valley and – to top it off – say that that is the correct pronunciation in Oxford English. My own kids have trouble with their teachers, who tell them they are learning English and not American. Hypercorrection is possibly the root of the evil, but perpetuity comes from the education system. It's funny, since November is pronounced almost exactly the same by both groups, but they are extremely resilient in their beliefs. Just keep correcting them until they start to circumvent or see the light. But don't hold your breath!

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Another native English speaker who lived several years in Germany. I found this page because I "Googled" the exact same question asked in this thread: i.e. why, since Germans have the W = V thing (i.e. they say "November" almost exactly as we do), do they say "wallet" instead of "valley" and "wery" instead of "very" when they clearly can pronounce the "v" in English exactly as we do? So, hypercorrection, and teaching it incorrectly are clearly the culprits, especially since many, many Germans who speak English DO pronounce "very" and "valley" perfectly. Also, again writing as a native English speaker, I do not subscribe to the idea that British variants of "W" "V" or "F" for that matter have anything to do with this question.

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