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⟨sch⟩ is pronounced /ʃ/. ⟨ß⟩ is pronounced /s/. But how can I differentiate between the pronunciations /s/, /ʃ/ and /z/ for your average ⟨s⟩ in written German?

Does it depend on ⟨s⟩' position in a word, or the nature of the cluster ⟨s⟩ is in?

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    @MadBanners: Note that deleting this question and re-asking is by far the easiest way to deal with this. That being said, whether re-asked or migrated, you can improve your question by describing what you already know about the German language, so answerers know where to begin explaining. (Note to moderators: I am a moderator on German Language and I approve of migrating this question.) – Wrzlprmft Sep 6 '16 at 11:24
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    Just to give a meta-answer to your actual question, the pronunciation varies by the surrounding letters but also by dialect, and there are exceptions, usually loanwords. So you cannot necessarily determine it, and it is partly an open choice not an absolute prescription. – Adam Bittlingmayer Sep 6 '16 at 13:02
  • Open choice — as in at the speaker's discretion? @A.M.Bittlingmayer – Mad Banners Sep 6 '16 at 13:12
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    Partly, like rhoticity in English. – Adam Bittlingmayer Sep 6 '16 at 13:51
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Common pronuncations across all German-speaking countries

(Yes, I have to differentiate by region. I’m sorry.)

A final letter s (or a double letter s) at the end of a word will always be /s/ — this is due to terminal devoicing.

This also applies to s at the end of morphemes. Unfortunately, blackletter typefaces are no longer a thing in Germany and with them usage of the long ſ discontinued, but whenever you saw a round s in German blackletter this was pronounced /s/. Without a difference between s and ſ, you cannot always infer this a priori, but you can recognise certain morphemes (especially prefixes) and apply it there.

Examples:

  • Gas /ga:s/
  • Fluss /flus/
  • Ausgabe /ˈaus.ˌga:bə/
  • Wachstube (when intended to be Wachs-Tube) /ˈwaks.ˌtu:bə/

Note: I know I say common across all etc. This is a simplification. Especially in Hessia and close areas, final s may remain voiced, especially if a vowel directly follows it. Using this but not having the speech characteristics of these areas would be considered wrong, though.

A double letter s will always be /s/, unless it crosses a morpheme boundary (and would hence have been sſ in blackletter).

Note that due to this rule we capture all cases of Swiss where ß would have been used in Germany and Austria. (Switzerland does not use ß and always replaces it by ss.)

Examples:

  • Rasse /ˈrasə/
  • Fassung /ˈfasuŋ/
  • Füsse (Swiss spelling) /ˈfy:sə/

But beware of morpheme boundaries: Aussatz, Ausstieg and others are handled below.

Morpheme-initial st and sp are pronounced as /ʃ/. In fact, the clusters /ʃt/ and /ʃp/ underwent a homologous sound shift from proto-Germanic s as /ʃv/, /ʃn/, /ʃm/ and /ʃl/. For all other consonants, this was reflected in the spelling while st and sp for some reason remained that way.

When prefixed, the morpheme still retains its pronunciation; see the example Ausstieg below.

Examples:

  • Stein /ʃtain/ (compare cognate stone)
  • Spiel /ʃpi:l/ (compare cognate spel)
  • Schwein /ʃvain/ (compare cognate swine — just here for completeness)
  • Ausstieg /ˈaus.ˌʃti:g/
  • Wachstube (when intended to be Wach-Stube — the more common case) /ˈwax.ˌʃtu:bə/

Note: The very North of Germany (basically that area that can do a cycle tour to the seaside in a day) did not partake in that sound shift hence local dialect still uses /s/ for these clusters. The same caveat as in the previous section applies.

Standard German as spoken in northern Germany

In northern Germany, a phonemic /s/–/z/ distinction is retained. All cases not covered by the previous article fall under this /s/–/z/ distinction.

Initial and medial single s are pronounced /z/. Note that vowel length in stressed syllables is typically indicated by the letter count of the following consonant, which short vowels being followed by a double consonant (or a consonant cluster). Since doubling s would, as per the rules above, always be pronounced /s/, only morphemes with a long stressed stem vowel can have /z/.

Apart from being the North’s standard, this is also the ‘news-readers’ pronunciation’ in Germany, especially when the show is not aiming at only a certain region.

Examples:

  • Rose /ˈro:zə/
  • Sieg /zi:g/
  • Gase /ˈga:zə/

Note the final example. By adding the plural marker e to the end of Gas, a second stem syllable is acquired and the pronunciation of the s shifts from /s/ to /z/. Without terminal devoicing, Gas would probably be pronounced with /z/, too. School children are taught to extend words to determine whether it should be spelt with s (sound change observed, e.g. Gase) or with ss (no such sound change, e.g. Flüsse /ˈflysə/).

Consonant clusters beginning with s are always pronounced as /s/. This applies to a certain set of stems with a consonant cluster and — more importantly — to endings that contain st. A large number of loanwords could be subsumed under this heading.

Examples:

  • Raspel /ˈraspəl/
  • Rast /rast/
  • triffst (2nd person singular) /trifst/

Standard German spoken in southern Germany, Switzerland and Austria

A distinction of /s/ and /z/ does not exist, the sound is always pronounced voiceless. However, a number of cases may be pronounced /ʃ/ instead.

All occurrances of a single letter s are pronounced /s/ when surrounded by no other consonants. Basically, this is the first section of northern Germany declared void.

Examples:

  • Rose /ˈro:sə/
  • Sieg /si:g/
  • Gase /ˈga:sə/

Note: Comparing to above this shows that southern school pupils have a harder time distinguishing between s and ss in written language, since the mnemonic cannot be applied.

Consonant clusters containing s may be pronounced with a /ʃ/ sound. Whether this is accepted for a certain word or not depends on the region you are in. As a general rule, the further South-West you are (the closer you get to Switzerland) the more cases take /ʃ/. In some areas, parts of clusters may be lost while shifting to /ʃ/ — this especially applies to Swabia where the second person singular st at the end of verbs is consequently pronounced /ʃ/ (without /t/).

Examples:

  • Raspel /ˈraspəl/ or /ˈraspəl/
  • Rast /rast/ or /rast/
  • triffst (2nd person singular) /trifst/ or /trifʃ(t)/

Loanwords

There is no truly general rule for loan words. For some, it depends on the origin language’s pronunciation of the word in question. For others, the rules given above apply as if it were a German word. Many loanwords may not be recognised as loanwords due to their inherently German pronunciation (e.g. Maske).

Examples:

  • Retention of pronunciation:
    • Ski /ʃi:/ (Norwegian)
    • Psalm /psalm/ (Greek)
  • Pronounced according to German standard:
    • Mensa /ˈmɛnza:/ or /ˈmɛnsa:/ (Latin)
    • Software /ˈzoftvɛ:/ or /ˈsoftvɛ:/ (English)

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