Why, for example, is Kunst pronounced [ˈkʊnst] and not [ˈkʊnʃt], yet the st in Einstein is pronounced [ˈaɪnˌʃtaɪn]?

Is there a rule governing when it is [ʃ] vs. [s]?

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    The stress signs are put before the syllable that is stressed and not before the stressed vowel. I have changed that. – Chris Nov 27 '14 at 21:01

Somewhere in the transition from Middle High German to New High German, the clusters [sk], [st] and [sp] became [ʃ], [ʃt] and [ʃp], respectively, when they were in the onset of a syllable.

So, in German words "st" and "sp" are pronounced [ʃt] and [ʃp] only when they occur at the beginning of a syllable. In "Einstein", this is the case; in "Kunst" it is not.

Some remarks:

  • Foreign words may have the pronunciation [st] or [sp] at the beginning of a syllable; e.g. "ein Star" [st] = a celebrity; but "ein Star" [ʃt] = a starling.
  • In the northern parts of the German speaking area, some speakers only use [st] and [sp]; in some southern parts some speakers use [ʃt] and [ʃp] even when it is in the coda of the syllable.
    This can be used in mocking of dialects. For example a typical Hamburger will say "ich bin über einen [sp]itzen [st]ein ge[st]olpert. And a cliché Swabian will ask "woischd?" for "weißt du?"
  • "Erkenntnisproblem" is pronounced with a [sp] and not with [ʃp] because the compound can be splitted as "Erkenntnis-Problem" but not as "Erkenntni-Sproblem".
  • I hate to correct your Swabian because it is a bit tangential, but I think it would be "woischd". At least that is how Pferdle says it. – Tim Seguine Nov 28 '14 at 8:29
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    Kennsch scho mei schea Schweschda Grischdiene? – Nikolaj-K Nov 28 '14 at 9:30
  • @NikolajK Noi. A schees Xsicht däd i et schnell vergessa. – Tim Seguine Dec 16 '14 at 10:34

As a general rule, "st" is usually pronounced [ʃt] at the beginning of a syllable and [st] in the middle or the end. This is analogously true for "sp"

The "sp" in "Erkenntnisproblem" is not a real "sp", as this is a compound noun ("Erkenntnis-Problem").

Remark: this is not true in the southwest of Germany, where real "st"/"sp" are always pronounced [ʃt]/[ʃp], no matter where they occur in a word. In the north, the opposite is often true (i.e. "[st]/[sp] in all cases).

  • Actually, it's about the beginning of a syllable and not a word. E.g. "verstehen" is not really a compound since "ver-" is not a word but solely a prefix. But essentially you are right, of course. – Chris Nov 27 '14 at 19:51
  • @Chris: You are right, of course. And a tiny bit faster than me :) I edited my answer. – Gerhard Nov 27 '14 at 19:54
  • Even in the Southwest of Germany, the "sp" in "Erkenntnisproblem" remains [sp]. – O. R. Mapper Jul 14 '15 at 5:29
  • Edited - although i thought this was clear from my original answer already. – Gerhard Jul 14 '15 at 8:07

"Erkenntnisproblem" is constructed of two words, "Erkenntnis" and "Problem". The two words keep their pronunciation when combined.

The word "Kunst" has the "st" at the end, there it stays "s-t". However in several dialects, including Swiss German, it will be spoken as "sch-t".

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