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From what I know, any single s not at the ending is pronounced as an English z. If this is true, then the name Gregor Samsa should be read with two z's.

But a person on Forvo pronounces it like English s's - http://www.forvo.com/word/gregor_samsa/

Is this just one exception? Is this regional? Am I just mishearing what he's saying?

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I too would pronounce the name with both S sounding as they do in English. I don't think it's correct to say that "any single s not at the ending is pronounced as an English z" - I can think of as many examples as counter-examples. Compare "Saal" (very clearly pronounced as S) with "sammeln" (very clearly prounounced as Z). –  user3655 Nov 1 '13 at 5:58
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@primo: Where are you from? In standard pronunciation, indeed all s at the start of a word are pronounced [z]; that includes Saal. However, the regional and individual variations are huge in this case. Within a word, though, both [z] and [s] may appear and distinguish words (e.g. reisen vs. reißen). –  chirlu Nov 1 '13 at 7:25
    
Actually, it's not clear to me if in the link, this person pronounces /s/. –  c.p. Nov 1 '13 at 8:10
    
I can't open it from here, unfortunately. –  chirlu Nov 1 '13 at 8:52
    
@chirlu Stuttgart. I chose examples which both began sa, as the in the name being discussed. A more prominent example is perhaps "sondern" (/s/), although "besonders" is as /z/. "Saison" is another, but as it is borrowed from French, it follows that pronounciation. –  user3655 Nov 1 '13 at 9:58

2 Answers 2

up vote 6 down vote accepted

In German standard pronunciation, there are contrasting /s/ and /z/ phonemes; for instance, Busen [ˈbuːzn̩] and Bußen [ˈbuːsn̩] differ only in the voicedness of the s (a so-called minimal pair). This difference is, however, neutralized both at the start and at the end of words: At the start of words, only a voiced [z] may appear; at the end of words, only a voiceless [s] is possible. Exceptions are sometimes made for loanwords: Skala [ˈskaːla], Sex [sɛks] (in contrast to the numeral sechs [zɛks]). As with other cases of Auslautverhärtung, intentionally pronouncing a voiced [z] at the end of a word is difficult for many German native speakers, contributing to the German accent in foreign languages.

Within words, the different s sounds are not always clearly marked in the spelling. A ß always corresponds to a voiceless [s] and a ss most of the time; but an s may stand for [z] or [s]:

Felsen [ˈfɛlzn̩], Gläser [ˈɡlɛːzɐ], Fasten [ˈfastn̩], Obst [oːpst]

The right pronunciation can sometimes be told from the adjacent sounds, though not always.


All of the above concerned the standard pronunciation. In reality, there is huge regional and individual variation in the pronunciation of the s sounds. In Germany’s southern half, [s] prevails for word-initial s, but even in the northern parts, far from everyone will follow the standard pronunciation. A speech and language therapist also told me once that [z] is considered the most difficult sound in German, causing difficulties for many children when learning the language. Some of them may give up on trying to produce [z] at all.

The speaker who provided your sample seems to like the voiceless [s]. :-) He not only says [ˈsamsa] (Samsa), but also [ˈkʁiːsə] (Krise) and [bəˈsɪçtɪɡʊŋ] (Besichtigung); though there are examples such as simultan where he in fact does say [z]. According to his profile, he is from Franconia in the southern half of Germany and now lives in Sweden (Swedish does not have a voiced [z] at all); perhaps the non-standard s pronunciation has to do with this background.


Now for the pronunciation of Samsa. As already remarked by Toscho, it is a name, and names do not always follow the standard rules; as it is an invented name, however, we may attempt an informed guess. The relevant rules are these:

  • As stated above, s at the start of a word is voiced.
  • In the combinations ls, ms, ns, rs between vowels, the s is voiced. (Bremse [ˈbʁɛmzə])

Thus, the standard pronunciation should indeed be [ˈzamza].

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Brought a tear to my eye. Great answer. –  Mirov Nov 2 '13 at 21:57

One would have to ask Kafka himself to answer the question safely. It's a name and for those no rules exist.

Standard pronounciation assumed, both s in Samsa would be pronounced [z].

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Gregor Gysi und Sandra Maischberger sind auch Namen - wieso sollten für die keine Regeln existieren? –  user unknown Nov 1 '13 at 15:49
    
@userunknown Weil Namen älter sind als die aktuelle deutsche Sprache und Standardaussprache. Des Weiteren ist die Schreibung von Namen konservativer als Ausspracheregeln. –  Toscho Nov 1 '13 at 17:21
    
Und stimmt das für alle Namen, auch für Meier, Müller, Wagner und Schmitt? Wenn nein, was deutet bei Samsa darauf hin, dass es nicht ähnlich sein könnte? –  user unknown Nov 2 '13 at 3:21
    
@userunknown Ja, es stimmt auch für diese Namen, dass sie älter sind. Bezüglich der Aussprache muss ich dir diesselbe Antwort geben: Es gibt keine Regel für ihre Aussprache, die eine sichere Vorhersage erlaubt. –  Toscho Nov 2 '13 at 8:12
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Zumindest hiernach stammt der Name Samsa nicht von Kafka selber. Und auch die Quelle könnte durch einen realen Namen inspiriert sein, da es zumindest heute einige Samsas im Telefonbuch gibt. So oder so wäre Kafka selber schuld, wenn er eine nicht-Standardaussprache des Namens gewünscht hätte ohne dies zu erwähnen. Wer eine Figur Meier oder Kaffeetrinken nennt, muss auch davon ausgehen, dass sie nach Standardaussprache ausgesprochen wird, bis er das Gegenteil verlautet. –  Wrzlprmft Nov 2 '13 at 21:31

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