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How to Pronounce German "ch"

Copyright 2014 © Ulrich Flemming.

"ch" poses problems for people trying to learn German. For starters, its pronunciation changes depending on the preceding letter or, if it appears at the beginning of a word, on the following letter or other circumstances (see the explanations below). To make things worse for English speakers, the resulting sound has, in the most common cases, no English equivalent.

After "i," "e," "ä," "ü," "ö," "ei," "ai," "eu," and "äu" (called the "light vowels" in German), "ch" (as it appears in ich—"I") is pronounced like a very soft English "sh." In fact, Germans will understand you if you pronounce it like "sh"—they will simply assume you learned your German in the Rhineland, where people pronounce the soft "ch" like English "sh."

Listen:

ich ("I")

weich ("soft")

euch ("you")
Note that euch is the plural object case of "you."

After consonants other than "s," "ch" (as it appears in durch—"through") is pronounced the same way; i.e., as a soft "ch."

Listen:

durch ("through")

Milch ("milk")

If "ch" appears after "s," one has to distinguish between two cases:

  1. The sequence "sch" is part of the same syllable (as it is in Mensch—"human being"). In this case, "sch" is a trigraph (a triplet of letters representing a single sound) and pronounced exactly like English "sh."
  2. The "s" ends one syllable and the "ch" starts the next. This happens, for example, when the diminutive "chen" is added to a word ending in "s" (as in Näschen—"little nose"). In this case, the "s" and "ch" are pronounced separately, and the "ch" is again soft as in ich: NÄS • chen. Note also that this is always the case when "ch" follows "ß" (as in Füßchen—"little foot").

Listen:

Mensch ("human being")

Näschen ("little nose")

After "a," "o," "u," and "au" (called the "dark vowels" in German), "ch" (as it appears in Bach—"brook" or the guy with the wig) is pronounced like the "ch" in Scottish loch, a sound that's sometimes compared to the noise made by people when they clear their throat. There is no equivalent for this in English at all.

Listen:

Bach ("brook")

noch ("yet")

Buch ("book")

Here's a whole sentence:

Listen:

Ich hab' an euch und mich gedacht.
("I thought of you [plural!] and me.")

A "ch" followed by an "s" presents a special case: It's always pronounced like English (and German) "k" no matter what vowel precedes it. Or, to put is differently, the sequence of letters "chs" always sounds like English and German "x." Examples are Fuchs ("fox"), sechs ("six"), or wechseln ("to change, exchange").

Listen:

Fuchs ("fox")

wechseln ("to change")

Here's a joke (courtesy of Andrea Carla Michaels): What comes between fear and sex in German? Answer: fünf!

Finally, let's talk about "ch" at the beginning of a word, where the situation gets really muddled. That's because words in which this occurs tend to have their origin in a foreign language, and this origin influences their pronunciation to varying degrees.

There are, first of all, words that have remained foreign and are pronounced as in their original language. Examples are French Chance, which is pronounced with a sound like English "sh" at the beginning and a nasal "n" (to the degree that the speaker is able to do this); Spanish Chinchilla, where both occurrences of "ch" are pronounced like "tsh;" or Yiddish Chutzpe (that's how it's spelled in German), which starts with a "ch" as in Scottish loch.

For words that have been germanized to a degree, one has to distinguish between these cases:

  1. "ch" is followed by "r," "l," "a," or "o": It's pronounced like English (or German) "k."
    Examples: Christ ("Christian"—the noun); Chlor ("chlorine"); Chaos ("chaos"); Cholera ("cholera").
  2. "ch" is followed by an "e" or "i": It's generally pronounced like the soft "ch" we know from ich; see, for example, Chemie ("chemistry"). But in some regions, the "ch" is pronounced like "k." This becomes particularly obvious in the case of geographical names, whose pronunciation may vary from region to region. An example is Chiemsee, the name of a lake in Bavaria. The Bavarians like to start that name with a "k" and other Germans with a soft "ch."

Listen:

Chance ("chance")

Christ ("Christian")

Chemie ("chemistry")

And then there is Orchester ("orchestra"), which defies the rules: The "ch" is pronounced like "k."

The upshot: In case of doubt about this cursed digraph, ask a fluent German speaker!


Last update of this page: Jan. 29, 2018