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Why is "vier" in the beginning of "vierzehn" [ˈfɪrʦeːn] not pronounced the same as the standalone "vier" [fiːɐ]?

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Not sure if there's more to it, but pronouncing the "vier" in "vierzehn" the same way as the actual "vier" sounds quite stilted. "firzehn" rolls off the tongue a lot smoother. –  Hackworth Apr 27 '13 at 7:55
Something to explore is also that a German "r" within a word tends to roll the tongue more than at the end of a word, and the shift in pronunciation of "vierzehn" is almost like trying to roll the tongue quickly. German historically has a strong emphasis on rolling the tongue with an "r". –  Kevin Apr 27 '13 at 16:26
You also say eighteen, not eight teen ;-) Or more old-fashioned tuppence, not two pence. –  Thorsten Dittmar Apr 30 '13 at 8:34
I always wondered why the pronunciation of "vier" is so different from that of the same word when it's part of "Klavier". As in all languages, I assume German is pronounced the way that's easiest to speak... –  ssc May 1 '13 at 18:11
@ssc Because it is not the same word. –  starblue May 3 '13 at 17:00

5 Answers 5

I can not read this pronunciation language, but they are pronounced exatcly the same. If you are speaking very fast and not very clear vier might be a little clearer than vierzehn.

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No, they are not pronounced the same: vier vs. vierzehn in Duden sound samples. –  Takkat Apr 27 '13 at 9:06
No it's not, if you refer to standard German. As the Question is tagged "beginners", we should always refer to standard German. –  Toscho Apr 27 '13 at 10:12
I'm also a native speaker for 30 years now and I thought this question is wrong, because they are pronounced the same, at least to me. –  Sentry Apr 28 '13 at 9:54
@Sentry Really? Say "vierzehn Hirten und vierzehn Tiere", with your normal, everyday voice. Does your "vierzehn" have the (shorter and somewhat darker) "ɪ" of "Hirten" or the (longer and higher) "iː" of "Tiere"? Repeat the test with your friends and family. –  Uwe Apr 30 '13 at 9:21
@Uwe Yes, really. I do realize that it is probably wrong, but when I read the question I couldn't think of any difference. After looking it up in the Duden I also see that the "ie" in "vierzehn" is pronounced like in "wirr". But if someone would've asked me if "vierzehn" is pronounced like "vier", I would've agreed. I also can't recall any time where I've been corrected about "vierzehn" ... weird. –  Sentry Apr 30 '13 at 11:18
  1. "Rules" for pronunciations are merely descriptive not prescriptive.
  2. The pronunciation depends on the whole word.
  3. The numbers up until 20 were more often used than numbers greater than 20 when the German language developed. That's why the pronunciation of "vierzehn" could develop more independently from "vier" than for example "vierhundert". So, the word "vierzehn" got a pronunciation different from the pronunciation constructed out of the parts "vier" and "zehn".
  4. There are more examples, where the word differs from the construction of its parts:
    • 11, 12: completely different
    • 16: second "s" is dropped
    • 17: second syllable is dropped
  5. One model could be the shortening of the first part of the numbers from 13 to 19, but there are only two numbers, where this is possible:
    • vier → vierzehn: long "i" becomes short "i"
    • sieben → siebzehn: two syllables become one syllable
    • in all the other numbers there is only one syllable and the vowels are already short or diphthongs, which can't be shortened.
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The general pattern that can be observed here is reduction: vowels get shorter and laxer (14, 17), consonants or entire syllables get dropped (16, 17, also the colloquial "fuffzehn"). By the way, the English "five → fifteen" shows a similar phenomenon. –  Uwe Apr 27 '13 at 10:54
@Uwe, I think you should write an answer. –  Carsten Schultz Jan 4 at 19:13

This is a very good question. I can only state assumptions. I think it evolved as a quirk because it's easier to pronounce. For example, the word 'fünfzehn' (15) is sometimes pronounced 'fuffzehn', and the word 'zwanzig' (20) is sometimes pronounced 'zwanzich' (very common in northern Germany).

Try to slowly pronounce the word 'vier' with a long 'i' and after that, pronounce it with a short 'i'. You will notice that the long 'i' sound takes considerably more effort to produce. For a clear, long 'i' sound, you have to open your mouth quite a bit, while for the short 'i' sound, it can stay shut. As Hackworth stated, it rolls easier off the tongue.

The interesting thing with 'vierzehn' is that its pronunciation quirk (the short 'i') is actually made official - dictionaries list it as the only correct pronunciation.

The word 'siebzehn' (17) is another interesting example. Myself and everyone I know pronounce it with a short 'i' sound as well, just like 'vierzehn'. But in contrast to 'vierzehn', dictionaries list 'siebzehn' as pronounced with a long 'i'. You see, there are quite some inconsistencies.

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“zwanzig” vs. “zwanzich” is actually the topic of this question: How is the ending -ig pronounced, and where? –  Speravir Apr 27 '13 at 20:56
In fact "zwanzich" is stage German (Bühnendeutsch) –  Hagen von Eitzen May 1 '13 at 21:29

I want to add, as a complement to Martin H.'s answer, where the pronunciation of 15 is evoked, the following map from the Atlas zur deutschen Alltagssprache

enter image description here

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You can pronounce the beginning the same like four if you have not been understood the first time. Then you'd just say vier - zehn. But if you pronounce it in one word firzehn. The whole word sounds more balanced to me. Also I have a hard time pronouncing zehn after saying vier like if vier was standalone. There is just not enough air left. So I have to shorten the vier to get the ten out with enough pressure. Which alters the pronunciation of the syllable vier.

This would be a case of time-travel. The future is influencing the present in a way. ;)

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