I might be hearing it wrongly, but I’ve noticed there are actually more than two types of ch sounds:

  • strong (like in Hebrew), e.g. in nach or Woche

  • weak, e.g. in ich

  • /x/ or /k/, e.g. in nächste

  • like in the English word Charlie (?), e.g. in Mädchen, at least when spoken at normal speed (this one got me really confused)

  • a (weak) /ch/ sound (not a ch), e.g. in almost any word ending on g like vierzig.

Can someone please clarify? Which ones are indeed correct? Are there unofficial rules (such as: after /d/ it always sounds like /k/). Historically, was there a different writing for each?

I am primarily interested in standard German.

  • well, i'm not an expert but at the ch-sounds there are also regional differences! -- for example Chemie: in Austria (and in the south of Germany – especially Bavaria) it is pronounced like Kemie and in the north of Germany more than Schemie... – DJCrashdummy Jan 10 '17 at 11:38
  • 5
    The ch in Mädchen is the same as in ich. – Thorsten Dittmar Jan 10 '17 at 11:56
  • a (weak) /ch/ sound – are you sure you want to write this with phonetic brackets? This seems unpronounceable to me and is very far from actual German pronunciation. – Wrzlprmft Jan 10 '17 at 12:04
  • (not native speaker) I think "ch" in "nach" is strong, while in "Woche" is it weak. I don't know why, actually I couldn't say "Woche" with strong "ch" (if I would try, I would say "Woke" instead). Afaik, "Charlie" is said like in English. Mädchen is tricky, because this "dch" makes its pronouncation highly uncommon, if your first language doesn't have this sound you probably can't easily learn it (but Germans will understand you if you say Mächen or Mäd - chen). – peterh Jan 10 '17 at 13:05
  • Remember that German also has a large number of foreign loanwords whose spellings were never adjusted and wherein the ch is pronounced as it would be in the original language: Chile and Check (in hockey) would be like the English ch, Chef uses the French version like English sh and most decendents from Greek are pronounced with a k in the South or like your ‘weak’ version in the North: Chemie, Chelat, Chirurg, China (yes, that’s a Greek loan), … – Jan Jan 10 '17 at 22:16

There are only the two ch sounds that you differentiate in the beginning, those in ach and ich. Now pronunciation of a sound is always influenced by surrounding sounds, often in ways that speakers are not aware of, because their language does not differentiate between these versions. As I am not an expert, I will not try to work this out in detail, but let me comment on your examples:

  • Nächste can be pronounced with an ich-sound, and I do this at least when I enunciate carefully. However, if you try it you may agree that this is not easy to pronounce and that näkste is much easier, which is indeed how it is often pronounced, be it sloppiness or a regional variant.

  • To me, one property of the English ch is that it starts with a t, so you may be just hearing the d (pronounced as t) in Mädchen. Otherwise the ch is pronounce just as in ich, except that it may be slightly more to the front of the mouth because of the surrounding t and e.

  • Indeed the standard pronunciation of -ig as in König is -ich, but there is also the -ik variant. (Note that Könige has a g and königlich a k.) Standard pronunciation is a bit inconsistent here, as -ich is a originally a Northern variant, and the standard pronunciation does not follow other similar Northern features. Many speakers are not aware which variant is considered standard (and some may not even be sure how they usually pronounce it when you ask them) and some speakers from Northern Germany will overcompensate to -ik when trying to speak proper standard German.

  • The ‘overcompensation’ sounds more correct to me ;) – Jan Jan 10 '17 at 22:14
  • Please also note the special behaviour of chs within the same syllable being pronounced as /ks/ as in Fuchs, Achse, but not Schlauch-stück. – fer-rum Jan 13 '17 at 13:10
  • This is why Nächste is pronounced as it is. Pronouncing Nächste as /nech-ste/ seems to be more of a regional dialect, especially since you otherwise would have to pronounce the st as /scht/. (Except in northern German dialects where the st -> /scht/, sp -> /schp/ rules usually do not apply.) – fer-rum Jan 13 '17 at 13:15
  • @fer-rum, dem kann ich nicht folgen. Schreibe doch eine Antwort, wenn Du meinst, dass ich falsch liege. – Carsten S Jan 13 '17 at 13:24
  • Ich meine nicht, dass du generell falsch liegst, habe aber dennoch mal eine Antwort verfasst auf dass sie die bisherigen Erkenntnisse subsummieren möge :) – fer-rum Jan 13 '17 at 14:36

As usual in German, There are a few guidelines and then dialects come along and break everything apart.

Basic rules: There is

  1. A "hard" ch spoken after the vowels a, o, u (also after au) like in auch, Loch
  2. A "soft" ch spoken after the vowel e, i (also after ei), ä, ö, ü like in reich, Bäche, Bücher, Löcher
  3. A /ks/ sound, when a chs is written within the same syllable as in Fuchs, but not Buch|stabe
  4. If there is no preceding vowel in the same syllable, usually the following vowel in the same syllable is used (e.g. in the -chen ending)

Advanced rules: Depending on the words origin, pronunciation may vary heavily across dialects:

  • The ch in Nächste developed from a hardening of the h in nah. So it is possible speak a /ks/ after rule 3), a soft ch after rule 2) (preceding ä), a hard ch after rule 1) since the ä is a shift of the a from nah or even nothing at all since the original h in nah is soundless as well. All these variations are done and it is dependent on the dialect what actually is chosen. In the standard speaking, the soundless and soft ch variation seem more prevalent.

  • Words like Chor, Chlor, Charakter or Chemie derive from greek words written with the letter Chi, which is usually pronounced as /k/ (compare: english chemistry). However over time rule 4) took over, thus pronouncing Chemie with a soft ch. One might also cite the Arabic roots of the word for a hard ch sound or even the old Egyptian roots which again used a /k/ sound.

  • Another shift is to turn a soft ch into a /sch/ sound, like in /nüscht/, /nischts/ (nichts). This is usually perceived as inferior pronunciation used by less educated people. (Although it might also be caused by a dialect.)

Related sounds: Pronouncing the -ig ending as /-ich/ or /-k/ are dialect variations that usually shift the pronunciation to be easier for the speaker. It is possible to speak these with a proper /-ig/ sound, but it also is terribly hard.

Conclusion: Use the basic rules when in doubt. Some words tend to have exceptions due to their historical development. Look up their etymology when in doubt, you will have to learn these. Dialects apply own rules.

  • From your comment I was not sure if it would, but this actually makes sense to me ;) – Carsten S Jan 13 '17 at 15:29
  • Uuuh. Bisher hab ich mich ja immer auf »Wer Schemie sagt, muss auch Schlor sagen«, beschränkt, aber ich finde »Wer Schemie sagt, muss auch Schor/Scharakter sagen«, fast noch besser =D – Jan Jan 13 '17 at 17:58

Well, one rule is that the "strong" ch is normally only used after dark vowels, like Dach, doch, Fach, Fuchur. Otherwise you use the "light" ch, as in Kirche, Seuche, Früchte.

Exception: In Bavaria and possibly other southern dialects, the "strong" ch is sometimes also used where others use the "light" variant. Probably because "r" tends to turn into an "a" there sometimes, as in "Kiache" (Kirche).

Mädchen is never pronounced like Charlie, but always like ich (which is true for all -chen endings).

-ig is indeed sometimes (regionally different) pronounced like -ich.

There are some dialects that pronounce some words with a sch instead of a ch - in my opinion that is a terrible thing, but you will hear things like "Schemie" (Chemie) or "Schina" (China) often in certain regions. Nobody has so far been able to explain to me why you would say "Schina", but not "Schor" (Chor) or "Scharakter" (Charakter)... Maybe that also some dark/light vowel thing?

  • Naja, wenn ich mit »Wer Schemie sagt, muss auch Schlor sagen«, komme, habe ich schon ein paar Mal die Antwort »Und warum sagst du nicht Kef?«, gehört; andere bringen dann Kile (das Land in Südamerika) in die Diskussion ein. Man sollte die verschiedenen Ursprungssprachen noch im Hinterkopf behalten ;) – Jan Jan 13 '17 at 18:02
  • Weil das alles keine deutschen Worte sind. Und es heißt eben weder Kile noch Schile... – Thorsten Dittmar Jan 13 '17 at 19:02

Strong (like in Hebrew), as in "nach" or "woche"


Weak, as in "Ich"


/x/ or /k/ as in nächste

standard german: like ich

(This one got me really confused) Mädchen, as in the English word "Charlie"(?) at least when spoken at normal speed.

standard german: like ich

This one is not a "ch" but definitely a (week) /ch/ sound - almost any of "--g" ending, as in "Vierzig"

normally you speek an --g, but some German speak a --ch, the really right method is to speak an --g

  • Regional pronounciation of nächste is indeed sometimes /k/ or even /g/. So it may not be Standard German, but it's not "false" or "wrong". – dirkt Jan 10 '17 at 12:28
  • Some german regions don't follow the rules of german language. Bit it is Not right. Maybe i should use a better Word than false. But from the rules site it is false. But i will change it :) by the way, in you want to learn german, you always have to learn standard german. No matter where you learn it. – FrankAus5419135 Jan 10 '17 at 12:33
  • Basically everyone here pronounces it as /k/ or /g/, I can't even remember when I've heard last someone using /ç/. If you insist that this is "false", I suggest you come here and tell everyone... – dirkt Jan 10 '17 at 12:39
  • @dirkt i know what you mean. But everyone have to learn standard german rules. I had editet my comment to be more lovely to you ;) Please don´t discuss the rightness of standard german and reginal influence german. Thanks a lot ;) – FrankAus5419135 Jan 10 '17 at 13:00
  • I guess the Duden is not really right then. – Carsten S Jan 10 '17 at 17:22

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