Pronunciation of unstressed vowels

James Bates

I know the vowel in "viel" is long, but it seems to me that it becomes short in "vielleicht". Similarly, it seems to me that although the vowels in "Buchstabe" are long, the second one becomes short in "buchstabieren". Is there some kind of rule for this? Are unstressed vowels always pronounced short, even if they were long to begin with? Could a native help me out?
  • Suilan

    Senior Member
    Germany (NRW)
    Are unstressed vowels always pronounced short, even if they were long to begin with?
    Yes. In German, a syllable is stressed by lengthening the vowel.

    That's a phonetic fact, easily proved by analyzing acoustic data (spectograms) of a statistically relevant number of native speakers.

    'viel vs. viel'leicht: ['fi:l] vs. [fi'laICt] (I use SAMPA notation, see link below)

    Your Buchstaben example is a bit trickier, because it is a compound word. Main stress of the compound is on Buch but a (very slight) secondary stress would be on stab, the second stem of the compound. In buchsta'bieren, the main stress is on 'bier (thanks to the French), and the secondary stress on buch. There's no such thing as a "tertiary" stress in one word, so the ´a´ in stab is a little bit shorter then in Buchstabe, but not very perceptibly so. I don't think it is something you need to worry about. As long as you know the stress is on 'bier, you will get the length of both the a and the ie right.

    This explains only vowel length, that is the difference between and [u:], [o] and [o:], etc.

    As for difference in vowel quality (tense vs. lax), that is the difference between u - and [U} (see SAMPA link), i - and [I}, o - [o] and [O], e - [e] and [E], ü - [y] and [Y], ö - [2] and [9], ä - [E: or e:] and [E], a - [a] and [a:] (a has only one quality; there is no distinction tense or lax with respect to a) the rules are as follows:

    Long + tense

    1) double vowel = long (Maat, Boot, Beet)
    2) vowel + h = long (Hahn, Bohne, Sehne, Buhmann, Sühne, Kähne, Söhne)
    3) ie = long (Liebe, siehe)
    4) vowel followed by single consonant + vowel (Jute, Bote, Thema, Hüte, später, Bares, Muße, Flößer)

    short + lax

    1) vowel followed by double consonant (satt, Bottich, Bett, Butter, Sütterlin, Kämme, können, backen, Tasse, Guss)
    2) vowel followed by 2 or more consonants (Tisch, Fenster, fester, Äste, Satz, Hilfe)
    3) x counts as two consonants phonetically (Hexe, Flachs)

    schwa: e in unstressed syllable is pronounced as schwa. (beweisen, finden)

    Tricky cases:

    1) -ich and -ach:

    long + tense: u or ü followed by -ach sound: word final or another vowel following (Buch, Buche, suchen, Tuch, Fluch, Bücher).

    short + lax: any other vowel followed by -ch: (ich, Bach, lachen, Sicht, Loch, lochen, Technik); also, if another consonant follows (Bucht, Sucht, Büchse, Luchs)

    2) Articles + Pronouns

    long + tense: dem, den

    short + lax: das, des, der, es

    3) other words with vowel followed by single, word-final consonant

    almost always long + tense (Tag, Sog, Trug, Tat, rot, Gen, tun, Brut, Floß, Fuß, süß)

    except: one-syllable prepositions are usually short (mit, um, an) as are contractions of prepositions and dative article (im, am, zum)

    4) compound words: each word is pronounced as it would be separately: Bargeld -- long a; Buchstabe: long, tense u. (Buchstabe, Suchmaschine, Tuchmacher, Trugbild, Tatsache)

    5) vowel followed by r+consonant (Sorge, Sarg, Burg, Birke, Barke, Zwirn) -- not really an exception because the vowels are shortish, but their quality is heavily influenced by the following r.

    6) There are very few exceptions:
    Lache (puddle) -- long a (to distinguish from lachen, Lache -- a person's way of laughing).
    Flak (anti-aircraft gun) -- short a (the a in Flugabwehrkanone is short after all)


    Senior Member
    Germany (NRW)
    P.S. Something strange kept happening: the capital U and I always reverted to u and i if I put them in square brackets, so I used curly ones as closing brackets.
    < Previous | Next >