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It is clear that there are different, equally valid ways to read a word in German (e.g. alveolar or uvular r, etc.) How true is the converse statement: phonetics fully determine the spelling? I'm specifically interested in the influence that different German accents might have on the spelling. For instance, is there a German accent by which phonemes are omitted?

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up vote 12 down vote accepted

Phonetics do not fully determine the spelling in German. For instance, terminal devoicing is not reflected in the orthography ("Wand" = [vant]), and vowel length can be indicated in several ways ("e" in "Weg", "ee" in "See", and "eh" in "Mehl" represent the same vowel [eː]).

There are some phonemes that are omitted very frequently. The most important case is probably [ə] in final syllables. For example "reden" = [ˈʁeːdən] usually becomes [ˈʁeːdn], "haben" = [ˈhaːbən] becomes [ˈhaːbm] or colloquially even [ham]. Coming from the Ruhr area, I'd pronounce a phrase like "das haben wir nicht" as [dasˈhamvənɪç]. In the Swabian dialect, initial "ge" becomes "k", so "gesund" [gəˈzʊnt] is pronounced as [ksʊnt].

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There are many examples of homophones that are spelled differently, such as See and seh, Leute and läute, Rad and Rat, Lerche and Lärche etc. – chirlu May 18 '13 at 9:28
An example for same spelling, but different phonetic: Weg/weg „Ich ging auf demselben Weg weg, auf dem ich hergekommen war.“ – Speravir May 22 '13 at 22:18

There are four main reasons why the spelling of a German word might deviate from the phonetic spelling (which is rather complicated itself, especially concerning the indication of the length of vowels):

  • Loanwords and proper names, even if they are hardly perceived as such anymore. Either they are pronounced different like Maschine (the phonetic spelling would be Maschiene), or they are not covered by phonetic spelling, like Motiv or egal.
  • Consistency over inflections of the word. E.g., apart from the initial consonant, Wald and Halt are pronounced identically due to terminal devoicing (Auslautverhärtung), but if inflected the last letter is pronounced differently (Wälder vs. Halte). In another example, Wälder and Gelder are pronounced identically (apart from the initial consonant), but are inflections of differently pronounced words (Wald, Geld).
  • Avoiding that two phonetically identical words are spelled identically, e.g., Waagen vs. Wagen, seit vs. seid, dass vs. das.
  • Composites words, who are pronounced differently than a simple composition of their parts, e.g., vierzehn, fünffach.

A longer description with more examples can be found in the preface to the official spelling rules.

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Thanks, useful information. +1 Maybe I didn't reflected in the question's title what I am really after, so is my fault, but I was really interested in the accents. – c.p. May 18 '13 at 16:14

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