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Are Rad and Rat seriously pronounced in the same way? I’ve recently read that both Rad and Rat are pronounced in the same way as /rat/. Basically in both cases the end letter is a /t/.

Is it really like that? Or does it regard only specific areas of Germany/Austria?

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  • No they are not. One is pronounced with a "d" in the end, the other with a "t".
    – Robert
    Jun 25 '16 at 15:16
  • 5
    @Robert: Please do not use comments for answering. Also, it’s not that simple, to say the very least.
    – Wrzlprmft
    Jun 25 '16 at 15:41
  • 1
    Yes, both are pronounced as [ʀaːt] in standard German.
    – Eller
    Jun 25 '16 at 15:47
  • Ok, so someone says it is the same and someone says it is different. In both cases : why?
    – E.V.
    Jun 25 '16 at 15:52
  • 1
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In Standard German, a phenomenon called terminal devoicing (Auslautverhärtung in German) affects the pronunciation of word-final (or more generally: morpheme-final) consonants. It leads to the merging of the phoneme pairs b–p, d–t, w–f, g–k and /z/–/s/ (a phoneme pair not reflected in orthography). These are typically pronounced as if the unvoiced letter were present. Thus, Rad is — in Standard German — pronounced as Rat (/rat/).[1]

If the final consonant is moved away from the end of the morpheme, for example by adding a syllabic inflection,[2] terminal devoicing does not kick in and the voiced sound is spoken. Thus, Räder is /​ˈ​rɛ:dɐ/ while Räte is /​ˈ​rɛ:tə/.

The morpheme-boundary one is important. If you build a compound word, such as Radlager, terminal devoicing still happens. Standard German pronunciation is /​ˈ​rat​ˌ​lagɐ/.

I explicitly said Standard German throughout this answer so far (in all cases except for one). This is because terminal devoicing is not prevalent throughout all dialects of Germany, Switzerland, Austria and the other places where German is natively spoken. Rather, it is a feature most present in the North of Germany. Southern speakers[3] tend to differentiate between hard and soft final consonants, so that e.g. in Bavaria a difference can be heard between Rad and Rat.[4]

Terminal devoicing is not a feature only present in German. It is also observed in Catalan, Dutch, Russian, Czech, Korean and others. The Scandinavian languages do not feature it, as it developed after the division between continental and North Sea Germanic.


Notes:

[1]: Some argue that the /a/ in Rad/Rat should be long (/ra:t/). I argue that long and short /a/ are more of a phonetic difference than a phonemic one in German.

[2]: Beware with e.g. genitive forms. Des Rades is /ˈradəs/ because an additional syllable is introduced. The more common and shorter des Rads is /ˈrats/, because the consonant is still part of the morpheme-final consonant cluster.

[3]: Southern here is meant as a synonym for oberdeutsche Dialekte: Bavarian (bairisch) and Alemannian dialects including those spoken in Switzerland, Austria, Alsace, South Tyrol and Liechtenstein. The Franconian dialects (which I consider to be central German, because Franconia is in central Germany) tend to merge the two sounds but much closer to a /d/ sound than a /t/ sound. You may realise that the entire issue is very complicated.

[4]: Phonetically, one may argue that a final d may still be a tad harder than initial or medial d but the difference is less than the difference between d and t.

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  • This might be more suitable for a separate question, but does terminal devoicing affect the vowel at all? I'm thinking of the difference between the vowels in English "write" and "ride".
    – chepner
    Jun 25 '16 at 19:43
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    @chepner Nope, it doesn’t.
    – Jan
    Jun 25 '16 at 20:07
  • I have come across several papers that describe the idea of "incomplete neutralization," where even though devoicing occurs, their are still some phonetic differences on average between words ending in a devoiced lenis consonant and words ending in a fortis consonant. For example: bodowinter.com/papers/winter_rottger_IN_grazer.pdf Do you know anything about this? Is it possibly due to influence from the non-devoicing dialects you mention?
    – sumelic
    Jun 26 '16 at 3:09
  • I’m quite convinced there is a phonemic difference between long and short /a/ in Ratte vs. Rate.
    – chirlu
    Jun 26 '16 at 16:31
  • @sumelic That’s a very interesting article and unfortunately I don’t know anything about this. One quote sticks out, though: Most speakers perceived no difference while they produced a difference, meaning that even I would have a hard time differentiating incompletely neutralised /d/ from /t/ when listening to someone whose speech includes full terminal devoicing.
    – Jan
    Jun 26 '16 at 16:37
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They both end with the same /t/ sound, that's true. However, to my perception, Rat tends to be pronounced with a significantly longer a than Rad. So basically

  • Rad /ʁat/
  • Rat /ʁa:t/

This is at least the case in more western standard German (Rhine/Ruhr) in compounds like Stadtrat /'ʃtatʁa:t/ vs Fahrrad /'faʁat/.

The longer a-sound has the effect that the t-t in Rat stands out more than the d-t in Rad, hence it can indeed appear as a bit harder, even if the consonant itself is exactly the same.

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    To me, the vowel in Rat must be long, while I would accept both a long or a short vowel in Rad.
    – Carsten S
    Jun 25 '16 at 23:15
  • Welcome to German Language Stack Exchange. Very nice first answer! As you have some ten thousand rep on SO, pointing you to the tour and help center is probably superfluous, but I’ll do so anyway because traditions ;)
    – Jan
    Jun 25 '16 at 23:25

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