When international friends hear me talking German, they always think I must be really angry and having an argument with somebody.

What are the phonetical explanations for making the German language sound so harsh or rude?

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    Probably about the same things that make Russian sound hard. Apparantly, Russian and German share features such as the Auslautverhärtung. – Jan Nov 13 '15 at 17:49
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    While this is a common stereotype, it strongly depends on the words you pull up for comparison. You can easily find German lyric that’s soft as butter, far more full-bodied than your average English gibberish. – dakab Nov 13 '15 at 19:06
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    @Sephi-: Sure, but what I said is not only true for poetry in particular. Even in everyday language, I can manage to sound either harsh or tender. I doubt it’s appropriate to judge a language generalized as “sounding harsh”. Of course it’s a well-founded cliché in respect of German. – dakab Nov 13 '15 at 22:15
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    In addition to what the answers say, this might partially be a subjective perception based upon one's own language. I became aware of this when I, as a German, talked to a Spanish who assured me that to him, Spanish sounds extremely soft, while German is a very hard language. Curiously, from a German point of view, German is not necessarily perceived as "soft", but as "normal", whereas Spanish (at least as spoken in Spain) is frequently associated with the clattering sound of a machine gun. – O. R. Mapper Nov 14 '15 at 0:29
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    My point with my previous comment, by the way, is that how a language sounds is both highly subjective, and depends a lot on the cultural background of the listener. See German Sounds Harsher Than Other Languages, And Here's Why for a humorous example. Many English speakers have only heard German in Adolf Hitler's speeches or parodies of them. Before I started learning German, I expected it to sound angry and guttural; after I started learning it, I was surprised that it didn't sound that way – ThisSuitIsBlackNot Nov 14 '15 at 1:30
up vote 33 down vote accepted

Consonant density

This is a factor because consonants are often perceived more harsh than vowels.

German is a very vowel-rich language. There are reasonable vowel definitions containing 23 of them (see, e.g., this list) plus three diphthongs¹. Consequently, vowels have a high information density,² we do not have to use that many of them, which in turn leads to a high consonant density. To somewhat exemplify this, consider words like zwingst, blinkt, strickt, hältst.

Relatedly, we rarely have vowels in directly following each other. This almost only occurs in diphthongs, of which we have only three¹, and when a word stem ending on a vowel is followed by an inflectional morphem beginning with a vowel such as in säen or schreien. (See below, if you think that two vowels follow each other in words like beerdigen.) This is intertwined with the high vowel density, as direct vowel collisions would inevitably lead to some diphthongisation, which would make the distinction of words very difficult (23 vowels are already difficult to distinguish). Again, this leads to a high consonant density.


¹ not counting vowel + r and ui, which only appears in a very few words.
² See this question for a demonstration.

Prevalence of devoiced consonants

This is a factor because devoiced consonants are usally perceived more harsh than voiced consonants.

A main factor for this is certainly the already mentioned phenomenon of terminal devoicing (Auslautverhärtung), but there is more.

Voiced consonants are very unlikely to follow a short vowel. Just think of how few words there are which are spelt with bb, dd, gg, vv or ww. Moreover, ss does not indicate a short vowel preciding a voiced s, but an unvoiced s.

Finally, the voiced counterpart of the sch sound (ʒ) occurs only in a few loanwords such as Garage. So, we are short of a voiced consonant in comparison to some other European languages. Moreover, many Southern dialects and varieties of German lack the voiced s altogether.

The glottal stop (Glottisschlag)

The glottal stop is the sound separating the two e in beerdigen. Every German word whose first letter is a vowel starts with this sound. Many native speakers are not even aware of this relatively frequent phoneme and it’s one of the hallmarks of a German accent in most other languages.

This is a factor because it is yet another consonantic sound (see above) and a particular harsh one: Many ways of grumbling, grunting and screaming employ a variant of this sound.

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    Gibt es Sprachen, in denen der Anfangsvokal (falls das Wort mit einem Vokal beginnt) ohne Glottisschlag gesprochen wird? Als klassischer Chor-Sänger weiß ich, dass es schwer ist, ein Wort, das mit einem Vokal beginnt (z.B. »alles«) so anzusingen oder auszusprechen, dass kein Glottisschlag hörbar ist (vor allem, wenn die erste Silbe auf einem langen Ton und piano gesungen werden soll). Mir gelingt das nur, wenn ich ein leises »h« vor den Vokal setze (»halles«). Daher würde mich interessieren, ob es Sprachen gibt, in denen wirklich kein Glottisschlag vor einem Anfangs-Vokal gesprochen wird. – Hubert Schölnast Nov 14 '15 at 10:38
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    @HubertSchölnast Mich aus dem Fenster lehnend würde ich sagen: Nein, wenn das Wort am Satzanfang steht (irgendwann muss die Luft ja anfangen); ja, wenn das Wort in der Satzmitte steht, in diesem Fall wird einfach das vorherige Wort »überführt«. Vgl Französisch il a, das klingt wie illá (als ein Wort). – Jan Nov 14 '15 at 13:13
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    @HubertSchölnast: Ich konnte zumindest keine Quelle finden, die behauptet, dass z. B. im Englischen ein Glottisschlag vor Anfangsvokalen genutzt wird (selbst am Satzanfang). Ich persönlich finde es jetzt auch nicht so schwer, den Glottisschlag nicht zu nutzen, und das obwohl Deutsch meine Muttersprache ist. Im Zweifelsfall frag aber ruhig mal auf Linguistics oder English Language & Usage. – Wrzlprmft Nov 14 '15 at 14:44
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    @HubertSchölnast: Jeder Deutsche/Engländer/Holländer/etc, der eine roman. Sprache lernt, muß sich den Verschlußlaut (VL) abgewöhnen lernen, wenn er keinen germanischen Akzent will. Umgekehrt muß jeder Romane, der eine germ. Sprache lernt, auch den VL ("attacco duro") lernen; wenn er ihn nicht lernt, hört man sofort seinen Akzent. Wenn du den Trick mit dem "h" brauchst, dann hast du den VL nicht einsparen gelernt, wodurch du ital. Texte mit germ. Akzent singen wirst. - Im Engl. gibt es den VL sogar im Wort, z.B. 'impor'nt (wichtig), oder ba'l (Schlacht). Hör mal zu, wenn Bush/Obama spricht. – Lumi Nov 14 '15 at 16:06
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    @Aston: No, German only sounds that harsh. – Wrzlprmft Nov 15 '15 at 10:52

As @Jan said, the so called Auslautverhärtung definitely plays into that, but if you think in terms of pronunciation and intonation you'll also notice that many languages link their words together in ways that the German language simply doesn't. Take English for example; among other things, words that begin with a vowel are usually linked to the word that comes before them.

"[…]for example[…]" — /fə_r_ɪɡˈzɑːmpl/

In written English you see that those are two words, but if you didn't know any English and you heard those two words, you wouldn't know where the first ended and the second began. That's the kind of linking between words that you don't really find in German and I take it speakers of foreign languages find that rough and perhaps even "unnatural". My English pronunciation professor likes to say, that "Germans don't like their words to touch each other." Think of any German sentence and try it out.

Ich war gestern Abend im Kino.

You can clearly distinguish each word as a single entity. No word ending slides into the subsequent word. Compare that to English and you'll either sound like a robot or like you're angrily forcing each word out at a time. (You're hopefully not a robot.)

Another thing is the pitch of your voice. Obviously voices vary in pitch, but in general you notice that other languages use a much wider range than German does. It makes it sound a little monotonous compared to other languages.

Lastly the probably most obvious thing is the sound /x/ that we use for words like "Kuchen" ([ˈkuːxn̩]). That one sounds awfully harsh, doesn't it?

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    Actually I disagree on /x/. It sounds much harsher the way the Dutch use it, imho. – Jan Nov 13 '15 at 19:09
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    @Jan It's really not that different, but there are two different versions of this sound in the Dutch language ‒ the /ɣ/ and the one we use /x/. The first one, you'll find in words like "Huygens" or "goed." Even though it's written as a "g" they pronounce it somewhat like /x/, just a little "darker". (That's what I think anyway, I'm not a Dutch speaker or student, though.) Anyway, even if the Dutch do pronounce this sound even harsher than we do, it doesn't change the fact that it's a really rough sound to begin with. – Sephi- Nov 13 '15 at 19:47
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    You can clearly distinguish each word as a single entity because you understand German. There is the phenomenon that words that would otherwise start with a vowel get prepended with a glottal stop, but in your example sentence, this only helps in identifying the word boundary before and after Abend. Good luck separating Ich and war, though … – chirlu Nov 13 '15 at 23:10
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    Statt wie ein Nachrichtensprecher "Guten STOP Abend" zu prononcieren, sagt der normale Deutsche oft einfach "Nabend" und da ist definitiv keine Pause zwischen den Wörtern. Eine natürliche Tendenz zum Verschleifen läßt sich im gesamten norddeutschen Sprachraum beobachten. Dagegen steht das erzieherische Ideal des monotonen Nachrichtensprechers. Was eine weitere Illustration meines nunmehr minuspunktigen Beitrages zur Künstlichkeit darstellt … :) – Lumi Nov 14 '15 at 12:34
  • @chirlu In my native dialect I would blur "gestern Abend" together. But then, norther dialects sound much harsher to me than the southern ones. – Sebastian Redl Nov 18 '15 at 23:44

Wrzlprmft’s answer is great and definitely deserves the acceptance. However, there is another aspect he failed to address: aspiration.

In German, (almost) all unvoiced stops are aspirated, whether they occur word-initial (Tor) word-final (rot) or word-internal (hatte). By comparison, in French or Finnish stops are always unaspirated and in English they are usually only aspirated in word-initial positions. The aspiration often causes speakers of those languages to perceive German as rather harsh and often even perceive a German accent in their own language as harsh.

A milder, second aspekt is the presence of up to all four different affricates: tz, tsch, pf and in dialects kch. While ts and tsch are somewhat known across many languages (and, ironically, tsch is rather rare in German), pf and kch are very rare across the world and only occur in German across the developped countries. Especially the non-dialectal pf may also contribute significantly to perceived harshness.

Wir müssen unterscheiden zwischen den deutschen Dialekten einerseits und der künstlichen sogenannten hochdeutschen Sprache andererseits.

Die Dialekte klingen nicht unbedingt hart. Sie sind nämlich das gesprochene Wort. Sie sind die echte deutsche Sprache - pluralistisch, natürlich, organisch gewachsen.

Die sogenannte Hochsprache dagegen klingt hart. Sie ist künstlich. Sie wurde für die Schrift entwickelt und auf die Schrift ausgerichtet. Niemand hat früher so gesprochen. Hochdeutsch wurde über die Schule und das Militär ausgerollt. In Norddeutschland mußte Hochdeutsch sogar als Fremdsprache gelernt werden, weil es sehr weit von den niederdeutschen Dialekten entfernt ist.

Die Künstlichkeit klingt eben nicht natürlich, flüssig, weich. Tschechisch und Ivrit (Neuhebräisch) wurden beide künstlich reanimiert und da hört man die gleiche Künstlichkeit.

Was außer der Künstlichkeit macht den Klang des Hochdeutschen hart?

  • Verschlußlaut (glottal stop)
  • behauchte Plosive
  • Auslautverhärtung
  • Abwesenheit weicher Laute wie w in englisch way oder ll in spanisch paella

Aber die eingangs erwähnte Künstlichkeit ist der Hauptfaktor. Hochdeutsch entstammt der Schrift und nicht der Rede, oder mit Saussure gesprochen: … relève de la langue, et non pas de la parole.

Es kommt natürlich auch sehr auf den jeweiligen Sprecher an. Manche Leute sprechen halt sehr explosiv, andere ganz entspannt. Das macht sehr viel aus.

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    Für mich klingen viele deutsche Dialekte aus dem nördlichen Gebiet des deutschen Sprachraums sogar härter als das Standarddeutsch. Das liegt vermutlich daran, dass ich aus einer Gegend komme, deren Dialekt besonders reich an Diphthongen und langgezogenen Vokalen, dafür arm an Fortis-Konsonanten ist. Auch die Auslautverhärtung kommt hier im östlichen Süden des deutschen Sprachraums weitaus seltener vor als weiter im Norden. – Hubert Schölnast Nov 14 '15 at 10:52

As a matter of fact, after two weeks in Berlin, I only thought it sounded harsh on one occasion - when a public servant was being rude on purpose.

Usually it sounds 'normal'.

Alright, I heard that one before :) I am a native German AND Englishspeaker. I have lived for 3 years+ in USA(Elementary School), Germany-Bavaria/Munich(HighSchool, some College),England-London(University), and now Austria-Vienna(Grad-study,Work).

In my opinion, and also from experience, I think the "harsh sounding german" is mostly (not 100% tho) a stereotype.

I think it mostly has to do with the terrible history of Germany in the 20th century:mostly WW-II, Hitler and the Holocaust. This has left the Country as well as the language with a really bad reputation over the years. In Countries like the US, and even England, most people still draw their knowledge of Germany from the many Hollywood Nazi Movies - with tall blonde Soldiers shouting around orders, running into combat like robots from Star Wars (guess who was the Prototype for the Empire), and laughing like evil devils.

I would compare it to the way the arabic and maybe russian is portrayed in Hollywood movies atm. Most Englishspeakers think those languages sound harsh as well.

Now - that being said, many German dialects could sound a bit harsh to the average Englishspeaker even if History had gone down a different path. I noticed that (British, and even US) English is generally more polite than the major northern German dialects. Also, while seeming a little bit rude at times, German is still very formal: The kind of Wordgames, and new Word creations that is common in English, and especially the humor has only started to enter spoken common German the last 20years or so. I have to admit that I sometimes miss the humor and lightness so common in general English conversation when I am in Germany. But it's not the only Country to have that problem, and that is not a general characteristic of the language itself. For example, if you go from Bavaria to Austria,Vienna, people have a more laisser-faire way, and they speak, even though akin to Bavarian dialect, in a more melodic, sing-sang and humorous tone. And even though Viennese does have a lot of peculiarities, it still IS the same (German) language...

  • 90 % of your argument is Hitler and Holocaust, but the perceived harshness is true even for people who have never heard of Hitler and the Holocaust (yet). – Jan Apr 26 '16 at 15:30
  • Yeah, well - I suppose the spoken German language does sound harsher than some other languages. – localhost Apr 26 '16 at 15:46
  • Who hasn't heard of Hitler though? I can only think of little children and some reclusive tribes, who live away from modern civilization.It definitely is a factor in public perception. That's what I meant. – localhost Apr 26 '16 at 15:52
  • Well, children, people who forget half their education after school outside of Germany, people outside of the western culture circle? No, but on a more serious note, things like history are stored in the cerebrum while perceptions are often created a step earlier in the cerebellum. Meaning that a language will be perceived as harsh/soft/boring before people conciously think ‘oh they are from X, meaning Y’. – Jan Apr 26 '16 at 19:06

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