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The German Alphabet

While some German texts survive from the 8th century, these were written in local dialects and there was no standard alphabet in use. Latin was used primarily during the 10th and 11th century. Despite an minimal attempt at standardization of Middle High German in 1200 in epic poetry and lyric and songs written in the courtly love tradition, it would not be until the advent of the printing press and Martin Luther’s vernacular translation of the Bible in the 16th century that a common German language was once again actively promoted.

The modern German alphabet consists of the basic Latin upper and lowercase alphabet of 26 letters, plus three umlaut vowels (ä , ö and ü) and the symbol "ß" (known as "eszett"), which replaces "ss" after long vowels and diphthongs:

A Ä B C D E F G H I J K L M N O Ö P Q R S T U Ü V W X Y Z
A ä b c d e f g h i j k l m n o ö p q r s ß t u ü v w x y z

The character "ß" is only used in lower case. If capitalization is required, "SS" is substituted in its stead. Switzerland does not use the "ß".

The term "umlaut" was invented for study of Germanic languages. Umlaut vowels can be transcribed as "ae", "oe" and "ue" if necessary, but this is not considered a proper method of transcription and is avoided if possible. Umlauts vowels are located in dictionaries after the base vowel. There is no such standard treatment of umlaut vowels for other publications, such as directories.

Each of the vowels, a, e, i, o and u have long and short pronunciations. In general, a vowel is long if it is the final letter of a syllable or a single consonant follows it. The vowel is short if followed by a doubled consonant (i.e. "tt") or two different consonants (i.e. "st"). Although "y" does not appear in Germanic words, it is traditionally a vowel in loanwords. There are, however, some exceptions to these rules.

The consonant "c" never stands alone in a Germanic derived word. Words of Germanic origin never begin with "Ch". "Q" is always followed by a "u". "R" is voiced as a guttural sound, "s" is pronounced "zee", "w" is said "vee" and "z" pronounced as "ts".

Voiced and unvoiced dental fricatives (such as "th") are obsolete in modern German, although they existed up until the High German Consonant Shift in the 7th century.

The official German phonetic alphabet, revised several times during the 1900’s for various reasons, including political, is:

Anton, Berta, C äsar, Dora, Emil, Friedrich, Gustav, Heinrich, Ida, Julius, Kaufmann, Ludwig, Martha, Nordpol, Otto, Paula, Quelle, Richard, Samuel, Theodor, Ulrich, Victor, Wilhelm, Zanthippe, Ipsilon, Zacharias, Ärger, Ökonom, Übermut, Charlotte, SCHule, Eszett.

German is unique in that it capitalizes all proper and common nouns. As well, pronunciation of German vocabulary is most often discernible from its spelling.