German alphabet

German alphabet

The German alphabet consists of the same 26 letters as the modern Roman alphabet:

: a, b, c, d, e, f, g, h, i, j, k, l, m, n, o, p, q, r, s, t, u, v, w, x, y, z: A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H, I, J, K, L, M, N, O, P, Q, R, S, T, U, V, W, X, Y, Z: Listen|filename=German alphabet.ogg|title=German alphabet|description=(Listen to a German speaker recite the alphabet in German)|format=Ogg

Rare letters

* Except for the common sequences "sch" (IPA|/ʃ/), "ch" (allophone: IPA|/x/ or IPA|/ç/) and "ck" (IPA|/k/) the letter "c" appears only in loanwords.
* The letter "q" in German only ever appears in the sequence "qu" (IPA|/kv/). In loanwords some exceptions occur, e.g. "Coq au vin" or "Qigong" (which is also written "Chigong").
* The letter "x" ("Ix", IPA|/ɪks/) occurs almost exclusivey in loanwords. Natively German words that are now pronounced with a IPA|/ks/ sound are usually written using "chs" or "cks". Some exceptions do occur, though, like in "Hexe" (witch), "Nixe" (mermaid) and "Axt" (axe).
* The letter "y" ("Ypsilon", IPA|/'ʏpsilɔn/) occurs almost exclusively in loanwords, especially words of Greek origin, although some such words (e.g. "Typ") have become so common that they are no longer perceived as foreign. It used to be more common in German orthography in earlier centuries, and traces of this earlier usage persist in proper names. It is used either as an alternative letter for i, for instance in "Meyer" (a common family name that occurs also in the spelling "Meier"), or – especially in the Southwest – as a representation of IPA| [iː] that goes back to an old IJ (digraph), for instance in "Schwyz" or "Schnyder" (an Alemannic German variant of the name "Schneider").

Extra letters

The German language additionally uses three letters with diacritics and one ligature:

: ä, ö, ü / Ä, Ö, Ü: ß (called "es-zett" or "scharfes S" (sharp s) ): Listen|filename=German extra letters.ogg|title=German extra letters|description=(Listen to a German speaker naming these letters)|format=Ogg


Although the diacritic letters represent distinct sounds in German phonology, they are almost universally not considered part of the alphabet. Almost all German speakers consider the alphabet to have the 26 cardinal letters above and will name only those when asked to say the alphabet.Fact|date=June 2007

The diacritic letters "ä, ö" and "ü" are used to indicate umlauts. They originated as "a", "o", "u" with a superscripted "e", which in German Kurrent writing was written as two vertical dashes. These two dashes have degenerated to dots, and look like, but are not a trema.

When it is not possible to use the umlauts, for example, when using a restricted character set, the umlauts "Ä, Ö, Ü, ä, ö" and "ü" should be transcribed as "Ae, Oe, Ue, ae, oe" and "ue", respectively; simply using the base vowel (e.g. "u" instead of "ü") would be considered erroneous by German speakers and is prone to producing ambiguities.

Nevertheless, any such transcription should be avoided when possible, especially with names. The reason for this is that names often exist in a variant which uses this style, e.g. "Müller" and "Mueller". In a text which uses this transcription system, it would be obvious that if a person's occupation is given as "Mueller" (a miller), that should actually be spelt "Müller", but for a person whose name is given as "Mueller", there would be no way to tell if the name needs to be back-transcribed or not.

Automatic back-transcribing is not only harmful for names. Consider for example "das neue Buch" (the new book). This should never be changed into "das neü Buch". Technically, the second "e" has no connection with the "u" at all: "neue" is "neu" (the root for new) followed by an "e". The word "neü" does not exist in German.

Furthermore, in northern Germany, there are family names and place names where "e" lengthens the preceding vovel, as in "Laermann", which is pronounced with a long "a", not an "ä".

In proper names there rarely may also appear an "ë", which is not an umlaut, but a trema to distinguish what could be a digraph as in French, like "oe" in Bernhard Hoëcker (although in this case the trema was added by that person).

Swiss typewriters and computer keyboards do not allow easy input of uppercase umlauts (nor "ß") for their positions are taken by the most frequent French diacritics. The decision to drop the uppercase umlauts is due to the fact that uppercase umlauts are less common than lowercase ones (especially in Switzerland). Geographical names in particular are often written with "A, O, U" plus "e" — despite "Österreich" (Austria). This can cause some inconvenience since the first letter of every noun is capitalized in German.

Unlike other languages (e. g. Hungarian), the actual form of the umlaut diacritics, especially when handwritten, is not all that important, because they are the only ones of the language (including the dot on "i" and "j"). They might look like dots ( ¨ ), acute accents ( ̋ ), vertical bars ( ̎), one horizontal bar/macron ( ¯ ), a brevis ( ˘ ) (which was also used to distinguish a "u" from an "n" in some Kurrent-derived handwritings), a tiny N or a tilde ( ˜ ) etc.

Sharp s

Also, the "es-zett" or "scharfes S" (ß) is used. It exists only in a lowercase version since it can never occur at the beginning of a word (there are a few loan words starting with an "s" followed by a "z" (e.g. "Szegediner Krautfleisch" but that is not the same as the "es-zett" which counts as one letter).

In all caps it is converted to "SS", while in Switzerland "ß" is not used at all, but "ss" instead. This gives rise to ambiguities, albeit extremely rarely; the most commonly cited such case is that of "in Maßen" (in moderation) vs. "in Massen" (en masse). For all caps usage, an uppercase "ß" had been postulated since 1879 and was officially introduced in 2008 into Unicode 5.1 as U+1E9E (HTML: ), although a definite form hasn't been found yet.

Regulations introduced as part of the German spelling reform of 1996 reduced usage of this letter for Germany and Austria ("see ß"). Although nowadays substituted correctly only by "ss", the letter actually originates from two distinct ligatures (depending on word and spelling rules): "long s" with "round s" ("ſs") and "long s" with "(round) z" ("ſz"/Unicode|"ſʒ"). Some people therefore prefer to substitute "ß" by "sz". By official rules this is incorrect.

Long s

In Fraktur typeface and similar scripts a long s (ſ ) is used except for syllable endings (cf. Greek sigma) and sometimes this has been historically used in antiqua fonts as well, but in general it went out of use in the early 1940s along with Fraktur typeface. An example where this convention would help disambiguation is “Wachstube”, which was either written “Wachſtube” = “Wach-Stube” (mil. "guard-house") or “Wachstube” = “Wachs-Tube” ("tube of wax").


In loan words from the French language spelling and diacritics are usually preserved (e.g., "café" in the meaning of coffeehouse). For this reason German typewriters and computer keyboards offer two dead keys, one for "accent grave" and "acute" and one for "circumflex" (`, ´ and ^).


There are three ways to deal with the umlauts in alphabetic sorting.
# Treat them like their base characters, as if the dots were not present (DIN 5007-1, section This is the preferred method for dictionaries, where umlauted words ("Füße", feet) should appear near their origin words ("Fuß", foot). In words which are the same except for one having an umlaut and one its base character (e.g. "Müll" vs. "Mull"), the word with the base character gets precedence.
# Decompose them (invisibly) to vowel plus "e" (DIN 5007-2, section This is often preferred for personal and geographical names, wherein the characters are used unsystematically, as in German telephone directories ("Müller, A.; Mueller, B.; Müller, C.").
# They are treated like extra letters either placed
## after their base letters (Austrian phone books have "ä" between "az" and "b" etc.) or
## at the end of the alphabet (as in Swedish or in extended ASCII).
Microsoft Windows in German versions offers the choice between the first two variants in its internationalisation settings.

"Eszett" is sorted as though it were "ss". Occasionally it is treated as "s", but this is generally considered incorrect. It is not used at all in Switzerland.

Accents in French loan words are always ignored in collation.

In rare contexts (e. g. in older indices) "sch" (equal to English "sh") and likewise "st" and "ch" are treated as single letters, but the vocalic digraphs "ai, ei" (historically "ay, ey"), "au, äu, eu" and the historic "ui" and "oi" never are.

Spelling alphabet

There is a German spelling alphabet similar to the so-called NATO phonetic alphabet. The official version, laid down in DIN 5009, is as follows:: Anton, Berta, Cäsar, Dora, Emil, Friedrich, Gustav, Heinrich, Ida, Julius, Kaufmann, Ludwig, Martha, Nordpol, Otto, Paula, Quelle, Richard, Samuel, Theodor, Ulrich, Viktor, Wilhelm, Xanthippe, Ypsilon, Zacharias; Ärger, Ökonom, Übermut, CHarlotte, SCHule, Eszett.

The official Austrian and Swiss versions are somewhat different. The German alphabet was changed several times during the 20th century, in some cases for political reasons: In 1934, supposedly "Jewish" names were replaced. Thus, David, Jakob, Nathan, Samuel and Zacharias became Dora, Jot, Nordpol, Siegfried and Zeppelin. The 1948 and 1950 versions reverted to some of the old versions but introduced additional changes. Many of the older, officially obsolete forms are still found in popular use, in particular Siegfried. Konrad is also used very often, although this was apparently never official in Germany (it is the official version in Austria).

ee also

* German orthography

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