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I know that in German there are long and short versions of "a", "e", "i", "o", "u", "ä", "ö", "ü", but are there long and short versions of "ai / ei", "au", "eu / äu", and "ie"?

On a side note, with which of these "vowels" do you use the hard or soft ch? (Please explain this in English, I haven't learned any German words yet, I'm mostly focusing on pronunciation and grammar first).

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    Welcome to German SE! The heading of your question says how many vowels, but it's rather about are there short diphtongs? and when is the <ch>-sound altered? I'm going to adjust it accordingly. – amadeusamadeus Mar 8 at 0:32
  • @amadeusamadeus Ok, thanks! – User Mar 8 at 5:05
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    Please only ask questions one at a time. a) There might be a different, best answer for each. b) The answer for one of them may be resolved, while the other isn't. c) Shorter answers are much better than longer ones. – user unknown Mar 8 at 6:18
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Do not mix up written and spoken vowels!

Monophthongs

There are 9 different written vowels in German (a, e, i, o, u, ä, ö, ü, y) but 30 different vowels in spoken German if you count long and short vowels as distinct vowels and if you count stressed and unstressed versions as different sounds too. You should at least differentiate between long and short vowels, because for example the only difference between the spoken words

  • Stahl (pronunciation: [ʃtaːl]) (English: steel) and
  • Stall (pronunciation: [ʃtal]) (English: barn, stable)

is the length of the vowel. There are many other minimal pairs where only the length of a vowel makes the difference between two words.

I didn't find any minimal pairs where the only difference is the stress, but still stressed and unstressed vowels sound different, and using a stressed vowel when it should be unstressed or vice verse would result in a wrong pronunciation. For example in the word Kosmos the only difference between the two o-sounds is the stress. (Both of them are short [ɔ] sounds, but the first is stressed, the second is not).

But on the other hand the spoken vowel in März is the very same as the first vowel in Mercedes and also the first vowels in Type and Tüte are equal although they are written with different letters. But the letter y often also is pronounced like i (Party, Hobby), and in rare cases a written y even becomes a diphthong (y is pronounced as [aɪ̯] in Nylon)

Diphthongs

Diphthongs are always spoken as two vowels where you slide from one vowel to the other. This takes some time, and so all diphthongs are longer than short monophtongs.

Standard German has only four diphthongs (in German dialects there are much more):

(Note, that Leib and Laib are pronounced equally although they are written different and mean different things. Leib = body; Laib = loaf)

But there are also many spoken diphthongs that are not written as diphthongs (i.e. as two vowels) because the written consonant r, when it comes after a vowel, very often is pronounced as a schwa-sound and builds the second sound of a diphthong:

  • [eːɐ̯] - er
  • [iːɐ̯] - ihr
  • [oːɐ̯] - Ohr
  • [uːɐ̯] - Uhr
  • (some more)

(Note, that the letter h in the last 3 examples is just a length marker that is silent, so all 4 words consists of a diphthong only without any consonant)

When you now compare the first 4 non-schwa-diphthong with the 4 examples of schwa diphthongs, you will notice, that the first sound of the non-schwa-diphthong was a short vowel, while in the other examples it was a long vowel, which means, that also diphthongs come in two different lengths. So, we have:

  • short monophthongs: Stall
  • short diphthongs: Haus
  • long monophthongs: Stahl
  • long diphthongs: Ohr

(Note, that the length of diphthongs does not strictly depend on the schwa-sound. »er« in the prefix »ver-« is a short schwa-diphthong: verlieren [fɛɐ̯ˈliːʁən])

Triphthongs

As far as I know there is only one German word with a triphthong:

It is an onomatopoetic word that tries to imitate the typical sound of a cat (AE: meow, BE: miaow) from it derived is the verb miauen

ich - ach

The German ch-Sound can be [ç] like in ich or [x] like in ach.

Use [ç] when it appears in the suffix -chen (Mädchen = [ˈmeːtçən]) or when it comes after vowels, that are articulated in the front of the mouth:

When ch comes after a vowel that is produced in the back of the mouth you should use [x]:

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    Speyer, Mayer are not triphthongs? (at least in a similar sense to Ohr being a diphthong) – David Mar 8 at 14:23
  • The three vowels in them are in separate syllables: [maɪ̯.ɐ]. Also, the [ɐ] does not really have phonemic status, but is just a reduction of the syllable /ɛr/ (in this case). – phipsgabler Mar 8 at 14:53
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    "I didn't find any minimal pairs where the only difference is the stress": umfahren is the opposite of umfahren =) – Libavius Mar 8 at 15:38
  • I am not sure if miau actually counts as a triphthong; I would pronounce it as two syllables, and Duden also suggest splitting it as mi-au. But thinking of other words with three vowels got me another example where the difference is the stress: "das Stauende" as in end of traffic jam and "das Stauende" as in the thing that causes a blockade. – mlk Mar 8 at 16:16
  • @mlk: The difference between the two versions od »Stauende« is a consonant called »glottal stop« (German: Glottisschlag). IPA-Symbol [​ʔ​]. End of traffic jam: [ˈʃtaʊ̯ˌʔɛndə] (see Stauende. But: The cause of a blockade is [ˈʃtaʊ̯əndə] see stauende. The glottal stop is a consonant that exists in many languages (including German and English) but has no representation as written character in most languages. – Hubert Schölnast Mar 9 at 8:32
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You are right to count the short and long versions, but not that short ä and e sound the same. And "ie" is just a long i. I would not count the diphthongs as separate vowels, but if you do, there are no long and short versions.

The "ch" is soft after front vowels, those are i, e, and the umlauts. Indeed, ä is similar to a, but more to the front, etc., so that makes sense.

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Question 1

Diphtongs (also called Doppelvokale -- 'double vowels') are phonetically made up out of two short vowels and thus always long (short + short ~= long). There's no short version of them. The two vowels of a hypothetical short diphtong would have to be spoken half as long as a short vowel which isn't possible because in German, short is already the shortest length.

<ie> is not a diphtong but a long [i:].

Question 2

Hard and soft aren't really good terms. Let's better talk of velar (for the rear, throat-near version) and palatal (for the more frontal/mid version).

The velar/back sound is used to pronounce <ch> after back and centrally articulated vowels. These are: [a], [o], [u], and [au].

After all other vowels, the palatal/mid sound for <ch> is used.

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  • I think your argument in the first paragraph does not follow: in languages with more metric phonology (I'm thinking of classical Greek here), you can regularly have long diphthongs, which are then made up of one long vowel plus a short one. So, three short units in your theory. (And the same goes with German if you count the cases ending in [ɐ̯]). – phipsgabler Mar 8 at 15:09
  • @phipsgabler I noticed a big misunderstanding here. First, I was just describing that in German, there are two vowel quantities. Of course in Ancient Greek there can be three, but that's one of few known exceptions. No argument and no theory so far. Then I stated the fact that a vowel cannot be shorter than short (because there is no 'supershort' vowel quantity in German), but I don't see how you got the idea that that would mean the combination of a diphtong + vocalised /r/ couldn't be longer than long. Three short vowels are perfectly fine, but three half short vowels weren't. – amadeusamadeus Mar 8 at 15:47
  • I precisely tried to argue that a diphthong plus [ɐ̯] would be longer than long. I just read your wording above as if you said that diphthongs could only have two "short" units, nothing else. The confusion probably arised because I'd call a "short diphthong" one with two "units", and a "long diphthong" one with three, whereas you call the former "long", and therefore derive a contradiction for "short". Just a Sprachproblem :) – phipsgabler Mar 8 at 15:55

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