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Ack! Pronouncing German ei vs. ie

English can be all over the map in how you’re supposed to pronounce any given set of letters: you polish the Polish silverware, you wait for the weight, you.. you always wonder, is Nielstein supposed to be nile-stine or neel-steen or what? In English, you kind of have to memorize which of the options applies to any one word.


It’s so much easier in German.

There are a few exceptions, mostly in foreign words, but in general, if you see it, you know how to say it, and vice-versa.

Let’s look at the common pair ei versus ie.

In German,

ei is pronounced like English ‘eye’

and ie is pronounced like English ‘ee’.

A simple trick to keep them straight is to just pronounce their second letter the English way:

ei like “I” like in Einstein

ie like ‘ee” like in English field or German Philosophie or Bier, pronounced like English beer

Or, what the heck... Einsteinbier?

Einstein is a good way to remember, since everyone keeps the German vowels (unlike what happens to most -stein names in English).

If you want an easy way to remember how to pronounce ie, just remember that word Bier.

Of course, you likely have heard of a ‘stein of beer’, for instance...

Strange to tell, but Germans don’t call a beer vessel a stein. They call it a Maß or Krug. Or Bierbempel or Henkel (in Berlin) or Schnelle, among others. If it’s stoneware, it is sometimes called a Steinkrug (as opposed to a Bierglas, say). If you’re in Central Europe, just ask “Bier, bitte!” and you will be well served.

It’s only fair- German invents English words, too: a tuxedo in German is a Smoking, and a cellphone is a Handy.

A minor exception with -ie is words that had ended in -ia in Latin or Greek. The German pronunciation in that case is often

-ie “ee-uh”

-ien “ee-uhn”

for example the words ‘family’ and ‘Italy’, plus similar examples:

Familie “faa MEE lee-uh” Magnolie , Bakterie, Tragödie und Komödie

Italien “ee TAA lee uhn” Spanien, Belgien, Serbien, Australien

You don’t generally have to worry about this exception for family names or even town names. Dutch is thoughtful enough to put diëresis- there's one now- to put two dots that mean pronounce the letter separately, like in noël. German just expects you to memorize the exceptions.

One parting nod to German drinking traditions with an ie: der Stiefel.

There are endless variations of drinking containers- one you may be introduced to is the Stiefel (‘the boot’, “SHTEE-fl”), a glass mug in the shape of a boot, holding a half-liter. Or liter. Or up to five liters. It’s so much beer, the custom is to hand it around, and everyone takes a chug. There are various customs of who buys the next round depending on who finishes it, or forgets to not set it on the table and more.

The trick is, you are to drink it with the toe pointing upward. And if you so careless as to let air suddenly rush up into the toe,

...the toe-full of beer will suddenly come rushing down to wash your face.

A quick search for videos of Stiefel Trinken will get you plenty of examples of how to do it.

And how not.

Bottoms ups!

photo credits: photos are from Wikicommons; specifically* the Steinie photo]

This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license. The only change made was to crop the photo.


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