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H- huh? Making Sense of German

Updated: Mar 9

What’s that h doing in the middle of a name?

German and English both mostly use h the same, as that puff of air at the start of a word:

hello/hallo, here/hier, horn/Horn, mahogany/Mahagoni, Henry/Heinrich

H and h printed in the Germanic Fraktur font

But what’s that h doing in the middle of the word?

Stahl (“shtaal”) steel

stehlen (“shteyl’n”) to steal

Mühle (“müü-luh”) a mill

Bohne (“bo-nuh”) bean

ihn (“een”) him

That’s just German adding a silent h, sometimes, to tell you that the vowel is definitely long. That’s the Dehungs-h or ‘lengthening-h’.

Stahl vs. Stall “shtaaal” vs. “shtall” ‘steel’ vs. stable stall

fühlen vs. füllen “füüü-luhn” vs. “füll-uhn” ‘to feel’ vs. ‘to fill’

Sometimes German uses silent h to differentiate words that are pronounced the same:

H and h written in another Germanic Fraktur font

mehr Meer (“mair”) ‘more sea’

die Wahl vom Wal (“vaal”) ‘the choice of the whale’

eine wahre Ware (“vaa-ruh vaa-ruh”) ‘a true ware’

leerer Lehrer (“leyrer”) ‘empty teacher’

Let’s look at a few names

You’ll find it in plenty of German names, and in German it just means that the vowel is long.

Roald Dahl wrote Charlie and the Chocolate Factory- wait, his parents were Norwegian, and Norwegian doesn’t use the lengthening-h, what gives?

In the Middle Ages into the Renaissance, a lot of Germans moved to Scandinavia as specialists, as miners, astronomers, potato farmers, doctors.

They assimilated centuries ago, but the names are still there.

Europeans have always moved about some- a relative in the Niels line in southern Germany informed my uncle ‘we’re Swedish, of course’- a Swede had settled there in the 30 Years War, in the early 1600’s. They were of course German, but that one f-f-f-f-f-father’s father had been Swedish.

Berlin has lots of French family names, from French Huegenot immigrants. Napoleon and the Tsar had German generals. A German with a Dutch name is no real surprise (van Beethoven) nor Scandinavians with German names - von Thurn, von Köningsmarck, von Dobrokowsky, or von Björnbourg. ! That last one has a German von, a Swedish Björn and a French spelling of the German -burg! That’s getting pretty international.

Karl Böhm, the Austrian conductor, gets his name from Böhmen of medieval Latin Bohemia (and going way back to a Celtic tribe the Boii, before German tribes took over the area and the name in Late Roman times.)

One of the family names in my family is North German Bruhn (meaning ‘brown’, High German Braun), rhymes with soon.

Another relative is a von Behren (in German it would sound like Bay-ruhn, in English it came out the same as ‘baron’)

Another relative was a Stahl.

Jessica Biel could have been Biehl.

Johannes Brahms has that h.

The electricity unit the ohm is named for the scientist Ohm.

There are plenty of them- here are some more well-known names- and Americans are all over the map on how much they Americanize the name or don’t:

Muhlenberg, Charles Brehm, Hilary Hahn , Lehman Brothers (ugh), Frederik Pohl, Köhler (Americanized as Kohler or maybe Koehler), Kühn (usually Kuehn or Kuhn, or Coon)

Don’t be surprised if the English pronunciation is a lot different than the German. Americans tend to impose their own pronunciation on foreign words and names- cultures generally do.

Sometimes it’s based on what the immigrants were saying: ah Ahrens, oo Bruhn, ey Amelia Earhart (pronounced like Ehrhardt), ey Boehner (rhymes with strainer, based on colloqual German).

Sometimes it’s based on how the written name ‘ought to be pronounced’

in English: Amy Poehler like ‘polar’ or Poehlke as ‘Polk’ or rarely as ‘Polka’

Huh. So that’s what that h is doing there.

Florid-style H and h written in Germanic Fraktur font

(Whew! Those florid old-style Fraktur h's!)


P.S. If you’re still wondering how all this is pronounced in German, click on these below to hear examples.

eh however is like English ey (except English typically is more of an ‘eyyy’

ih and ieh sound like ee

öh sounds like ey with your lips rounded

(and colloquially it often sounds the same as German eh, English ey)

üh sounds like ee with your lips rounded

äh sounds like German eh, English ey, except in the far south of Germany, where it is closer to English a in am.

(and colloquially it often sounds the same as German ie, English ee)


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