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Kapitel 6: Auslautverhärtung & a helpful guide to recognizing German/English Cognates


Now that you're familiar with the sounds and letters of the German alphabet, let's see how they can change in different environments. One perfect example is the phonological process known as Auslautverhärtung (the hardening of the final consonant in word).

Through this process, the voiced consonants, for example b, d, and g, are transformed into their voiceless counterparts p, t, and k at the end of syllables or words. The term voiced describes sounds that make your vocal cords vibrate when you pronounce them, while the term voiceless describes sounds that do not make them vibrate. Put your hand on your throat while you say b and p and you should be able to feel the difference!

The consonants b and p are really the same sound (same place and manner of articulation) with the only difference that b is voiced and p is voiceless. For that matter, so are the consonant pairs k and g as well as d and t.

(pronounced with both of your lips)
(pronounced with your tongue pressed against that ticklish ridge behind your upper teeth)
(pronounced with the back of your tongue pressed against the soft upper part of the roof of your mouth)
voiceless voiced voiceless voiced voiceless voiced
stops p b t d k g

In German, the voiced consonants b, d, and g are pronounced "normally" as b, d, and g if they begin a word or are in between other sounds (i.e., not at the end of the word), as the following examples show:

At the beginning or in the middle of words:

der Bericht das Angebot (letter b sounds like German b)
der Dom im Süden (letter d sounds like German d)
das Gepäck die Züge (letter g sounds like German g)

Now compare these to what these consonants sound like at the end of word:

b   p (b gets devoiced)
die Urlaube der Urlaub
geben gab
die Liebe lieb
d   t (d gets devoiced)
die Strände der Strand
sandig der Sand
einladen einlud
g   k (g gets devoiced)
billiger billig
fliegen der Flug
die Berge der Berg
The same phenomenon occurs with the fricatives s and v. z and s are really voiced and unvoiced counterparts, as are v and f.
s as [z]   s as [s] (s is pronounced unvoiced at the end)
lesen las
die Preise der Preis
die Häuser das Haus
v   f (v is pronounced unvoiced at the end)
brave brav
The Second German Consonant Shift: Your friendly guide to German-English cognates

In the early 19th century, scholars were busy deciphering the differences between various Indo-European languages (the language family to which both English and German belong) and noticed a variety of patterned changes from Sanskrit, Latin and Greek to the Germanic branch of this language family. In addition to Friedrich Schlegel and Rasmus Rask, Jakob Grimm of Grimm Grammar fame was quite fascinated and developed a set of statements that described most of the patterns of interest. His descriptions are summarized under Grimm's Law, and describe the First Germanic Sound Shift (accounting for changes that occurred during the centuries around 1000 BC). These changes included, for example, shifting from the p in pater (father; Latin) to f/v in (father/vater; Germanic languages).

Later in the life of Germanic languages, a second sound shift (over the course of several centuries, starting probably around the 3rd century and before the 9th century) occurred, which accounts for many of the differences that can be seen today between Standard German and English words. Knowing these changes will help you recognize cognates and decipher the meaning of German texts much more efficiently!

So, how does the High German Sound Shift (the Second Germanic Consonant Shift) tell us? In a nutshell, it tells us that

  1. some fricatives in German (ch, f, s) are voiceless stops (k, p, t) in English
  2. some German affricates (made up of a stop and a fricative: e.g., pf) are voiceless stops (e.g., p) in English
  3. some voiceless stops (k, p, t) in German are voiced stops in English

The following chart highlights the differences between German and English consonants, which are a result of the High German Sound Shift.

sound pairs German English
ff - p das Schiff, scharf ship, sharp
pf - p das Pfad, das Pfund path, pound
v - f vier, die Vorväter four, forefathers
ss - t groß, die Straße great, street
sch [∫] - sh/s scheinen, der Schnee to shine, snow
z/tz [tz] - t das Zelt, die Zeit, die Hitze tent, time, heat
z/tz - c [s] der Platz, die Gewürze place, spices
ch [ç / χ] - k machen, suchen to make, to seek
ch [ç / χ] - gh acht, lachen eight, to laugh
k - ch [t∫] die Kirche, das Kind church, child
k - c [k die Küste, die Karte coast, card
b - v geben, sieben to give, seven
t - d gut, der Tag good, day
d - δ / θ der Süden, der Bruder South, brother
t - δ / θ das Wetter, der Vater weather, father
g - y gestern, gelb, segeln yesterday, yellow, sail
mm - mb das Lamm, der Kamm lamb, comb

Knowing these changes can help you decipher German-English cognates. Below are some sentences in German. Do you recognize the highlighted words? What are their English equivalents?

  1. Schneewitchen nimmt ein warmes Bad, macht das Licht aus und legt sich in das weiche Bett.
  2. An einem schönen Tag nehmen die Mutter und der Vater Hänsel und Gretel tief in den Wald.
  3. Als der Räuber durch die Tür ins Haus will, springt die Katze ihm ins Gesicht und haut ihre Klauen in sein Fleisch.
  4. Die Köningin befielt dem Wirte Wasser aus dem Keller zu hohlen, weil das für den König viel besser ist als Wein.
  5. Sein Wunsch wird ihm gewährt und bei jedem Wort dass er spricht fällt ihm ein goldener Taler aus dem Munde.
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You can listen to the Auslautverhärtung in this poem by Christian Morgenstern, a German poet who wrote many nonsensical poems (1871-1914):