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I'm interested (or rather "re-interested") in learning German. When I looked up some basic lessons to get myself started, I found this on about.com. If you click on any of those words, you can hear the word said by a German-speaker, to improve your pronunciation. The issue I'm having is that I took German in high school, and I'm noticing a significant difference between how the words are pronounced on this site, and how my German teacher would pronounce similar words. For example, try "Gruß dich". The site says "dish", just like it would be pronounced in English!

My teacher had me learn a different way to say the "ch". I can't explain it, but it's certainly not like "sh". It feels like it comes more from the throat.

Also, you can see on that page that some of the phrases have "sch" in them. These, my teacher would pronounce just like the English "sh", but the site does not differentiate between them.

Actually, she seemed mildly offended when I incorrectly repeated a word after her that had the "ch" sound in it. Is this a regional variation? She's from Austria, if that helps. As a German beginner, which way should I pronounce the words?

Thanks for looking!

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Welcome to GL&U! Good question, I can understand your problem with the audio files. See Milch? Milsh? Why the pronunciation difference? for a related question. (And please don't be so quick in accepting answers - it is recommended to wait at least a day to wait for more answers.) –  Hendrik Vogt May 4 '12 at 5:52
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As there are already some good answers, I just add a hint I gave to an American friend: "It sounds like an angry cat". –  Black May 13 '12 at 16:59
    
There are a lot of German dictionaries online with audio facility where you can hear the sound. –  rogermue Mar 29 at 8:18

7 Answers 7

up vote 8 down vote accepted

There are two different pronunciations for "ch" in standard German.

  • /χ/ (as in Bach, wach, lachen)
  • /ç/ (as in ich, Mädchen)

Your question is about the pronunciation variations of /ç/. While there is just one standard pronunciation, in some dialects, though, the sound is differently spoken. In some regions the "ch" in words like ich, Mädchen, ... is spoken as /ʃ/ (which actually is the sound of "sch" as in waschen, Taschen, ...).

That is not wrong or unnatural or even funny. As the answer to the related question points out those people aren't able to speak a normal /ç/, even if they try to - at least, it's very hard and needs much concentration.

I recommend to foreign speakers to pronounce "ch" as /ç/, but remember the alternative /ʃ/.


I reread your question and now I think that "It feels like it comes more from the throat." means the /χ/-sound. As already mentioned, there are two different pronunciation and you just have to learn when to pronounce the "ch" as either /ç/ or /χ/. (The rule is very simple: Use /χ/ after a, o, u except when "ch" is followed by diminutive -chen WIKIPEDIA)


Side note (based on the comments): There is a small distinction between /χ/ and /x/. The actual German sound is the former one, but some sources shows the latter to simplify matters.

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Please note that there is a difference between the uvular and the velar unvoiced fricative - you used the symbol for the uvular one /χ/ - but you're actually talking about the velar one in your answer which is represented by /x/. I took the liberty to fix this :) –  Mac May 4 '12 at 7:39
    
@Mac No, I don't. –  Em1 May 4 '12 at 7:43
    
@Em1: Do you know where /x/ is used instead? I didn't know of such a thing. –  Hendrik Vogt May 4 '12 at 7:56
    
@HendrikVogt Ne, kann ich nicht. Weil ich gerade feststelle, dass ich meine Quelle falsch gelesen habe. Wenn ich jetzt aber mal der Wikipedia vertrauen darf, ist /χ/ der "ch"-Laut für Wörter wie Bach, etc., aber Wörterbücher verwenden gerne die Darstellung /x/ (weil das Zeichen einfacher zu drucken ist?!). –  Em1 May 4 '12 at 8:20
    
@Em1 Auf welchen Wikipedia-Eintrag beziehst Du Dich? –  Mac May 4 '12 at 8:22

As Em1 pointed out, there are two different pronunciations for "ch" in standard German. BOTH sound "throaty", although they're produced in the mouth:

  • /x/ (voiced velar fricative - tongue touches the soft palate, but not the uvula) - use this when the ch is preceded by a "dark" vowel, such as a, o, u

  • /ç/ (voiced palatal fricative - tongue touches the hard palate) - use this in all other cases.

All foreign learners should concentrate on these and forget other variants for the moment - then you should be pretty safe. The good thing is: this will come natural, anyway, because it acommodates the natural movement of the tongue when talking, so it's much easier than it sounds. :)


NOTE: the /χ/ sound is the voiceless equivalent of the "French" "r", made all the way back against the uvula (the soft little stalactite at the back of your mouth). It sounds a bit like clearing your throat. Most Germans find this rather hard to pronounce, but it is commonly used by the Swiss and Tyrolians, I think. It is also common in Arab languages.

/x/ is made a bit further to the front.

Take a look at a table with the IPA and maybe play around a bit, trying the various positions of the tongue.


To answer the most important bit of your question, Hassan: Your teacher was right, Austrian or not :)

I can't listen to the example you mentioned at the moment, but I'm fairly sure this is ripuarian dialect (even if the speaker is not aware of the fact) - they typicaly use /ʃ/.

In Bavaria there's another variant, but only for word initial position: /k/

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What makes you say it's /x/ and not /χ/? About the audio examples: The speaker pronouces the "ch" somewhere between /ç/ and /ʃ/, it's hard to tell. –  Hendrik Vogt May 4 '12 at 8:00
    
@HendrikVogt: Ah, sorry, I edited an explanation into my answer. –  Mac May 4 '12 at 8:10
    
I can't follow. The very throaty sound in Arab languages is even further back than /χ/, it's /ħ/. Also have a look at the list of IPA symbols on the German wikipedia. –  Hendrik Vogt May 4 '12 at 8:26
    
I think the discussion about /x/ and /χ/ is superfluous. I checked several WIKI-pages and while the one says that /x/ is wrong the other says /x/ is correct. As long as nobody of us has a better source than WIKI, let's say both are right. ;p Btw. In one point @Hendrik is right. The Arab languages definitively create the sound further back. –  Em1 May 4 '12 at 8:40
    
LOL: I just tried to figure out how we could do this: "tongue touches ... the uvula" :D –  Takkat May 4 '12 at 9:31

Roughly speaking there are two variants to pronounce "ch"

  • in "lachen" the sound is produced in the back of the throat. It is perfectly similar to "ch" in "Loch Ness". I don't know the correct terminology, let's name it "throaty" sound here.

  • in "Grüß dich" the sound is produced in the mouth by pressing the tongue to the roof of the mouth. I think there is no similar sound in common english. It is not totally unlike "sh"s in "dishwasher", but you will probably be recognized by your pronunciation of this after 10 years of practice /wink/. Let's call this one "mouthy" pronunciation.

I think there is a rule (with exceptions, of course) about when the "ch" is throaty and when it is mouthy. After an "open vowel" like "a" the "ch" us usually "throaty", after a "closed vowel" like "i" it is usually "mouthy".

  • "throaty": Dach, suchen, kochen, machen, lachen, Buch, Nacht
  • "mouthy": Fichte, dich, echt, zechen, möchten, lächeln (!), Bücher (!), nächtlich (!)
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Careful about the voiced/unvoiced thing: neither of these sounds is voiced. The only difference between them is where they're formed. See the discussion in the comments to the other answers for a variety of opinions where the darker "ch" is commonly formed :) –  Mac May 9 '12 at 7:52
    
ok, my mistake. –  towi May 9 '12 at 8:35

There are a lot of German dictionaries online with audio facility where you can hear the sound.

The ch-sound after the vowel a is different from the ch-sound after i. I simply call the first ch "Bach-sound. When you pronounce the German word Bach the mouth opening is wide for the vowel a. When you pronounce the ch-sound you keep this wide mouth opening and the air stream from your lungs passes the vocal cords, which have the widest opening, without any vibration. The sound of this German ch might be compared to the rough sound of an angry cat.

When you pronounce the ch-sound after the vowel i as in the word ich, your tongue position in the mouth room is high when you pronounce i. The ch-sound after i, which I simply call ich-sound is produced exactly in the same way as the Bach-sound, only with small mouth opening as it is necessary for the vowel i.

The two different ch-sounds have two different phonetic signs. Actually this wouldn't be necessary.It is almost impossible to produce a Bach-sound after i or an ich-sound after a. You would have to speak two separate syllables and you would have to change the mouth opening.

I don't know whether this theoretical explanation will help you. Normally a teacher produces the sounds, explains to you how these sounds are produced, and corrects you when you don't hit it with the first go.

I'm and old man and my knowledge of technical things in the computer sector are limited. Otherwise I would like to make a video about the way of producing the ch-sounds.

I have just had a look at a youtube video "German "CH" Pronunciation". The speaker talks a lot, but I don't think that that way will teach someone how to pronounce German ch. There are several things to show: The mouth cavity, the mouth opening and the tongue position when you pronounce the vowels /a/ and /i/. This can best be shown by diagrams showing the mouth room in a vertical cut so that one sees the mouth cavity and the tongue position from the side. When producing an /i/ the lip position changes. This can be shown with diagrams showing the mouth from the front.

The second important thing is a the behaviour of the vocal cords. There are models that can give an understanding of the vocal corrds, but it is important to convey a feeling for the vocal cords. When someone produces the loud sound of a long /aaaaa/ the vocal cords are opened wide and without any tension. They begin to vibrate and one can feel this vibration in the throat clearly. When someone produces the sound /h/ a light air stream from the lungs passes through the vocal cords without any vibration. When we produce a strong air stream the vocal cords get tension and the typical ch-sound is produced. The vocal cords are open and tense, there is no vibration. As I said before it is the sound of an angry cat.

This can't be shown with diagrams . The learner has to produce the different sounds and observe what things happen during articulation.

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„It is almost impossible to produce a Bach-sound after i“, except if you are Swiss ;) [Or don't they do this and this is done only in mockery of Swiss German?] –  Carsten Schultz Mar 29 at 21:19
    
@rogermue: Bitte keine edits im gelöschten Post - den kann nämlich niemand lesen! –  Takkat Mar 30 at 8:33

I found a nice youtube-video on words with "ch".

My teacher had me learn a different way to say the "ch". I can't explain it, but it's certainly not like "sh". It feels like it comes more from the throat.

It does, yes. As some other posters already pointed out, there are two ch-sounds.

One of them (the /χ/) sounds like the "ch" in "Loch Ness", doesn't it?

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I'm resurrecting an old thread here, but none of the previous answers mentioned that Ch, at the beginning of a word, is not pronounced the same way.

Depending on where you are in germany, words like 'China' or 'Chemie' are either pronounced 'K'ina, 'K'emie, or 'Sch'ina, 'Sch'emie. This pronounciation is kept if the word is the second part of a longer word, like 'Südostchina' or 'Schulchemie'.

I've never heard anyone use the /x/ or /ç/ in these cases.

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Also see german.stackexchange.com/questions/3551/… for pronunciation variants in leading Ch-. –  Takkat Feb 26 at 7:19
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You have never heard anyone pronounce China in the most common way, namely with /ç/? –  Carsten Schultz Mar 30 at 10:44
    
Offensichtlich lebe ich nicht im "richtigen" Teil Deutschlands. In Süddeutschland is "Kina" die verbreitetste Aussprache, von "zugewanderten" höre ich oft "Schina". de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stimmloser_palataler_Frikativ führt /ç/ ebenfalls als "oft auch bei anlautendem ch", also muss es "irgendwo weiter nördlich" wohl so sein, aber ich kenne diese Aussprachevariante tatsächlich nicht einmal aus dem Fernsehen. –  Guntram Blohm Apr 1 at 16:33

Just last week a choral conductor gave our group a good way to remember how to pronounce the soft "ch" in German correctly: Say the English name "Hugh", then start to repeat it but stay on the first letter "H". Note how it sounds and feels.

I think that's a brilliant way for non-German speakers, or at least native English speakers, to remember how the "soft" ch sounds.

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