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I know that Chemnitz is not pronounced [Hem-nits] but [Kem-nits] due to its Slavic etymology origin (Kamenitsa/Kamienitsa etc.) But if so, why isn't it then spelled Kemnitz?

That brings me to my second question - what about the town Cham and lake Chiemsee? Why aren't they subject to the textbook Ch German sound which to me sounds approx. like English H or Spanish J? How did they get the [K]? Is it a Bavarian thing? Cham's close to Slavic lands but Chiemsee seems too far remote for some Slavic influence.

And 3rd question, my last I promice, is "Chs" always pronounced like [ks] as in Sachsen? Is it possible to have CHS being read as [h] followed by [s] or [z] in German, e.g. Tachsen (Tahzen)?

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    Just fyi: THere is also a town named Kemnitz. – jonathan.scholbach Apr 12 at 22:23
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    "the textbook Ch German sound which to me sounds approx. like English H or Spanish J?" - it has been alluded to in Huber's answer, but to be clear: From a German perspective, the "ch" sound (the one that occurs in "ach", "och", and "uch") and the "h" sound are two very different sounds. The former is indeed somewhat similar to the Spanish "j", whereas the latter is the same as the English "h". – O. R. Mapper Apr 13 at 5:01
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The German digraph »ch« is NEVER pronounced like »h«. English has no sound like German »ch«. Only some Scottish words like "loch" (as in "Loch Ness") contain this sound, but only in Scottish pronunciation, not in standard English pronunciation.

»Ch« can be pronounced as [x] or [χ]

»Ch« is pronounced as a voiceless velar fricative (IPA-Symbol: [x]) or a voiceless uvular fricative (IPA-Symbol: [χ])1 in this case:

  • after velar vowels (aka "dark vowels" or "back vowels") like »a«, »o«, »u« or »au«, if »ch« is not part of the diminutive suffix »-chen«.
    Examples:

    Dach, Loch, Buch, Rauch

»Ch« can be pronounced as [ç]

»Ch« is pronounced as a voiceless palatal fricative (IPA-Symbol: [ç])1 in these chases:

  • After any vowel that was not listed before (»e«, »i«, »ä«, »ö«, »ü«, »y«, »ei«, »eu«, ...).

    Pech, ich, Gespräch, Küche, Psyche, Teich, euch, ...

  • After any consonant,

    Milch, durch, manch, ...

  • At the beginning of a syllable inside a word, including the diminutive suffix »-chen«

    Kirche, welcher, Frauchen, Autochen

»Ch« combined with preceding »s« as part of »sch« is [ʃ]

If there is an »s« before »ch«, and both belong to the same syllable, then it's no longer a digraph but the trigraph »sch« that is pronounced as a voiceless postalveolar fricative (IPA-Symbol [ʃ]) like the English digraph »sh«:

German: Fisch = [fɪʃ], Schuh = [ʃuː], Busch = [bʊʃ], ...
English: fish = [fɪʃ], shoe = [ʃuː], bush = [bʊʃ], ...

If the »s« before »ch« belongs to another syllable, then its [ç], as described before (»Häuschen«).

»Ch« combined with following »s« as part of »chs« is [ks]

If an »s« comes after »ch« within the same syllable, and if this »s« already is part of the stem, then it will be pronounced like »k«, and together with the »s« this gives [ks] which also is the standard pronunciation for the letter »x«. And so, the two German words »sechs« (Engl: six) and the word »Sex« (engl: sex) have an almost identical pronunciation in German. Only the »s« at the beginning of the word is pronounced differently in northern parts of German sprachraum. In southern regions both words sound exactly identical.

Dachs = [daks], Fuchs = [fʊks], Lachs = [laks], Wuchs = [vuːks], Gewächs = [ɡəˈvɛks]

But if the »s« after »ch« is attached because of a grammatical modification (i.e. if it is not part of the stem), then »ch« is pronounced as a fricative ([x], [χ] or [ç]) as described above

mittwochs = [ˈmɪtvɔxs], (des) Bereichs = [bəˈʁaɪ̯çs]

So, part of the stem: »der Buchs« (box tree, boxwood) = [bʊks]
Not part of the stem: »des Buchs« (genitive form of »Buch« = Engl. book) = [buːxs]


»Ch« at the beginning of a word can be [k], [ʃ], [ç] or [t͡ʃ]

If »ch« is at the beginning of a word, then it really gets complicated, because then also regional differences have to be respected.

In regions where Bavarian and Alemannic dialects are spoken2, »ch« at the beginning of a word is often pronounced like »k«:

Chemie = [keˈmiː], China = [ˈkiːna], Chirurg = [kiˈʁʊʁk] or [kiˈʁʊʁg]

In other regions (I believe in the north, where Low German is spoken2), it becomes the same sound as »sch«:

Chemie = [ʃeˈmiː], China = [ˈʃiːna], Chirurg = [ʃiˈʁʊʁk]

And in the other regions people use the voiceless palatal fricative:

Chemie = [çeˈmiː], China = [ˈçiːna], Chirurg = [çiˈʁʊʁk]

But geographic names of places in German, Austria, and Switzerland are pronounced equally everywhere, and in which way it should be pronounced depends on where this place is located.

So, Chiemsee is in Bavaria, where Bavarian dialects are spoken, so the ch is pronounces like k: [ˈkiːmzeː]. Even if people from Hamburg or Essen pronounce this name. For Chemnitz it's the same. (When Chemnitz got it's name, the local dialect used [k] for »ch« at the beginning of a word. I'm not sure, if they would pronounce it today with [k] if it was a new word, because I don't know how people in Chemnitz now pronounce words like »Chemie« or »China«)

Sorry, I can't help you with »Cham« becasue I don't know it.

But for many other words, there are no regional differences. They are pronounces equally everywhere:

Chef = [ʃɛf] or [ʃeːf]
Champignon = [ˈʃampɪnjɔŋ]
Charme = [ʃaʁm]

Chor = [koːɐ̯]
Chaos = [ˈkaːɔs]
Christ = [kʁɪst]
Chrom = [kʁoːm]

Chip = [t͡ʃɪp]
Chart = [t͡ʃaʁt] or [t͡ʃaːɐ̯t]
Chat = [t͡ʃɛt] or [t͡ʃæt]


Best strategy to learn the correct pronunciation

The best strategy to learn the correct pronunciation of a word is to learn it for each word separately. Your brain will find the correct patterns after a while on it's own, just by learning many different words.

Learning German pronunciations is much easier than English pronunciation, because English has much more and much more complicated rules for pronunciation than almost any other language, including German.


1 The Wikipedia articles have links to soundfiles, so you can hear the sounds
2 For the geographical distribution of German dialects please read this article.

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    "And so, the two German words »sechs« (Engl: six) and the word »Sex« (engl: sex) have an identical pronunciation in German." Nicht in Norddeutschland. Sechs beginnt mit einem stimmhaften S, Sex mit einem stimmlosen S. Siehe duden.de/rechtschreibung/Sex unter Aussprache. – Roland Apr 13 at 6:38
  • @Roland: ok, das kann sein. Im Süden, insbesondere im Osten Österreichs, wo ich lebe, gibt es kein stimmhaftes S (bei keinem Wort). Daher trifft meine Aussage zumindest im Süden zu. – Hubert Schölnast Apr 13 at 8:24
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    In Hesse and Palatia, all [ç] are replaced by [ʃ], like isch and Schemie. I don't associate Schemie with Low German though because in Low German the pronunciation becomes more spitz (e.g., removing even the [ʃ] from s-pitz), while Middle German dialects generally make it more soft. – amadeusamadeus Apr 13 at 11:20
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The question why there are spellings like Chemnitz, Chiemsee, Cham requires a historical explanation. In the course of the High German consonant shift, Germanic P T K turned into F S CH or PF Z KCH in High German. Modern standard German is based on varieties that have not completed this process. Initial K remains unshifted in modern standard German. Only the southermost varieties, High Alemannic and South Bavarian, have shifted initial K.

In Old or Middle High German, shifted K was often transcribed as ⟨ch⟩ following the Roman custom of representing Greek Χ (pronounced [x]) with CH. This is probably the origin of spellings like Chiemsee or Cham in Switzerland (which is indeed pronounced [ˈxaːm]). It might also be the origin of the spelling of Cham in Bavaria. It would seem that the shifted pronunciation of K used to be more widespread than it is today. At least, there were numerous spellings with ⟨kh⟩ for [kx] in older times in the Austro-Bavarian oberdeutsche Schreibsprache.

At least for Chemnitz, it seems unlikely that it was ever pronounced with shifted K because it is far from the regions where K was shifted. According to Karlheinz Hengst in Wann und wie wurde Kemnitz Chemnitz?, the reason could be that CH was perceived as a more classical alternative letter to K. And also for differentiation from the numerous places called Kemnitz.

Regarding the pronunciation of CHS, it is a regional thing. It is well-known that English has different regional pronunciations. There are typical differences in the way people from the U.S., England, New Zealand, etc. pronounce different words. It is the same with German. While CHS is pronounced as [ks] in many regions, in other regions you will hear pronunciations like [xs] or [çs], especially in Swiss Standard German.

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