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What’s with the -ch- in German?

I’ve laid out in previous posts what the four letters German uses that we don’t (Ä/ ä, Ö/ö, Ü /ü three umlauts and an extra s- ß!), but German also uses familiar letters in ways different from English (to be fair, no two languages uses the alphabet identically).

Here are a few that will tend to trip up English speakers- let’s look at h today.

German and English both mostly use h the same way, as that puff of air at the start of a word: hello/hallo, here/hier, horn/Horn, mahogany/Mahagoni, Henry/Heinrich , but what about in combinations? ph, th, gh, sh, ch?

Our grandmother and mother kindly volunteer to model the two sounds for us)

Let’s tackle ch first, it’s the main problem. What sound does ch stand for? European languages are all over the map with that. In Spanish, it’s like English ch: oche is pronounced “O-cheh”... but in Italian, it’s the very opposite: ch is always pronounced as a k! No fair. Chiuse is “key-OO-zeh”; Italians spell the ch-sound as just c: ciel is pronounced “chell”. The French instead use it for the sh-sound (nonchalant, machine). Greek and Latin used it for a gargly kh-sound that English just pronounces it k (charisma, ache, choir).

English borrows all these spellings and pronunciations:

cello with a ch-sound

chagrin, champagne, machine with a sh-sound.

chaos, character, architect with a k-sound.

And Anglo-Saxon church, chip, pitch. And chili (thanks, Spanish!)

What a mess.

Eastern European languages often use it for that gargled kh-sound (as does traditional Scots: Loch Lomond is properly pronounced Lokh, not that most of us do, unless we’ve over-indulged in Scots whisky.)

But German- German has two variants for ch, depending on whether the surrounding letters are ‘bright’ or ‘dark’. If you say “ee, ey” versus “o, oo, aa”, you’ll hear the first set sounds bright, and the second one sounds dark.

In German, ch has the hard, dark version that sounds like kh (think of a drunk slurring ‘kick the can’ into 'khikh the khan’), while the bright version sounds like the hy-sound of huge, Hugo, human (not all English speakers merge that hy into that single sound, but this at least gives you a target to aim for).

Germans call the two pronunciations the ach-Laut and ich-Laut (Laut means sound)

To hear the hard ach-sound, click here!

To hear the soft ich-sound, click here.

German sounds like German sounds like

ach “ahkh” ich “ihy”

Bach “bahkh” Viecher “feehyer”

Loch “lawkh” Löcher “lehyer”

Buch “bookh” Bücher “beehyer”

Schlauch “shlaokh” Schläuche “shloihyuh”

Achtung “ahkh-toong” Milch “milhy”

Hochhausen “HOEkh-hao-zen” Eichelberg “I-hyel-bairk”

(more to follow the next blog along...)

(Full disclosure: while Gramma was soft and gentle, we are in No Way implying that Mom was hard or rough! Nein! Though I would love to know what caused her woebegotten look in that photo.)


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