me + Richard Armitage + German, because I can’t help it

So, I know no one will care about this but me. Germans already know how to pronounce their language, and hardly anyone else cares. But it’s on my mind, and I’ll probably continue writing about it for a while, because things Richard Armitage does in German illustrate common issues that native speakers of English have with the language. I’ve been interested in the question of how people produce sounds ever since high school, when I was singing a German song for our regional solo and ensemble competition and the teacher pulled out a dictionary of how to pronounce German words when you’re singing. I have had some of the same problems he’s experiencing, so I’m sympathizing with him, not criticizing him. I found the Germans I met incredibly friendly to German-language learners — to the point that they even subsidize it internationally via institutions like the Goethe Institut and the DAAD.

In the following scene from Berlin Station 1.1, Daniel Miller introduces himself to his new boss, Valerie. She remarks that he “learned his German the right way,” i.e., by growing up in Germany. (Other than attending a German school or having native speaker parents, this is the only way most people will ever achieve an accent indistinguishable from a native speaker.) This observation sets the bar somewhat higher for Daniel’s German than for that of the other characters. We can ask, for example, if the scriptwriters should have built some typically American mistakes into the other CIA people’s German for the sake of verisimilitude, but if they did, I didn’t notice them. As the child of a native speaker, however, Daniel’s German should be idiomatic and problem-free in areas where Americans often struggle (mistakes of gender and case are common), and his pronunciation should conceivably be better than other people’s. Additionally, as we know, Armitage has the task of mimicking the American accent in his English lines.

In this clip, Daniel is describing one facet of his childhood in Berlin to his boss: “Frankfurter Würstchen, Kirschtorte, Mom, taking me out to the park to play soccer.”

Darling! The way he says “mom.” My friend and colleague the former Cambridge professor always used to ask me about “your mom” in this slightly pointed fashion, to indicate how adroit he had become with American usage. That was also endearing.

But really, this sentence is filled with traps. If they wanted him not to sound German, this was a great sentence to give him. I’m underlining the problem areas below:

Frankfurter Würstchen, Kirschtorte, Mom, taking me out to the park to play soccer.

There are three levels of issue here.

  1. “Frankfurter.” This is not too severe; Armitage wisely chooses to pronounce this word as an American (as opposed to a German or a Brit) would.
  2. “Würstchen” and “Kirschtorte.” These are German words and he’s using the German pronunciation. Two issues here — an unfamiliar vowel, ü, and the ch / sch problem.
  3. “Soccer” — the American word for football, obviously, but the way Americans pronounce it differs noticeably from the way he would probably pronounce it natively. Aside from the “o” vowel, Armitage sounds most often like a “non-rhotic” speaker, which just means that normally he would never pronounce the “r” consonant after a vowel. Most Americans (outside the South and some northeastern cities) are “rhotic” speakers, which means that they would pronounce the “r” in that case. I may talk about this more later in separate posts, but note how prominent the closing consonant (Auslaut) is: socceR. He growls it to sound American, which nasalizes the vowel in a way I find a bit sexy. This issue is also relevant to German, as the German “r” can sound non-rhotic, but is typically uvular. However, I’ll stick with one consonant at a time. I just wanted to note that the problem is here and complicates the pronunciation of the sentence.

So, I am concentrating on two words, here, Würstchen and Kirschtorte.

First, the ü vowel in Würstchen. It actually can be fun to say, as this video makes clear:

The difficulty here is not necessarily pronouncing the vowel, although we’re not accustomed to hearing it, but what an English speaker expects from the letter “ü,” which we are inclined to think of as a normal English “u.” This is a problem whenever an English speaker learns a language spelled with a Roman alphabet — previous associations with the letters. We saw an example of this during the spring, when Armitage made this joke:

Screen shot 2016-02-28 at 3.13.55 PM

Currywurst (pictured above, with Pommes rot-weiß) is a very popular Berlin (and German) street snack, usually purchased from a kiosk (Imbiß) or food truck. I’ve always thought it was acquired taste and apparently Armitage didn’t acquire it; I also suspect that he probably ran across it in Budapest a decade ago anyway, if not earlier. But Armitage’s joke only works if you assume what an English speaker would about that vowel, so that the pun on “worst” works. “Wurst” (sausage) begins with the English “v” consonant, and the “u” in “Wurst” isn’t pronounced quite that way. Here’s how you say it:

Doesn’t sound much like “worst,” does it? But the approximation is close enough for jazz and will be understood. It gets more complicated when the show dialogue uses the word, Würstchen (“little sausage[s]”), a diminutive of Wurst; to accomplish the diminution the speaker adds the umlaut to the vowel and the suffix –chen. The original “u” moves from the back of the mouth to the front and the resulting sound is shorter. This is an exceptionally hard word to say for a non-native speaker, but I couldn’t find a recording of a German saying it, so I gave it a shot. (Yeah, that’s Family Feud in the background. Dad’s addicted.) Note that the long “u” vowel has moved further forward in my mouth.

Again, most English speakers here would reproduce the vowel from “worst” and be understood. The point here, as you can hear a bit from my recording, is that the mispronunciation of “ü” screams “non-native speaker.” We’ll come back to the other problems with this word in a moment when we talk about “ch.”

In order to avoid visual confusion about spelling, for someone in Armitage’s position it would be potentially useful to listen to the pronunciation of these words and sentences several times before he sees how they are written, and a few things about his German dialogue as we’ve seen him perform it so far suggest that he’s doing that. However, his execution of the sentence above suggests that he is also looking at the written text.

Frankfurter Würstchen. Eat them with mustard and a roll or potato salad.

Frankfurter Würstchen. Warm them up by immersing in hot water, but don’t cook them, as they burst really easily. Eat them with mustard and a roll or potato salad. Yum. Or make a potato soup and sink one of these in it. Little German kids really do like this kind of sausage, so it’s an appropriate childhood memory.

On to the bigger problem in this sentence, which is the “ch” consonant.

Guylty noted a while back that she thinks the pronunciation of “ch” is the biggest problem for non-native speakers of German. I have worse problems with producing “r,” myself, but there is no question that “ch” is a big issue. I think the central problem is not the production of the sound itself, but rather the fact that “ch” represents several different sounds depending on its location within the word, or the etymology of the word it’s in, and it can be stressful to juggle the rules if you don’t already know how the words are supposed to sound. Here’s an accurate statement of the rules, but no one is going to dive into something that complicated in the first week of language learning. Visually, someone who reads English might be inclined to assume that “ch,” “stch” and “sch” are the same sound — but they are actually different. And the typical English “ch” sound doesn’t occur in German; the closest consonant to that is sound is usually written “tj” in German, as in the interjection, “Tja!”


This diagram might make the following easier to understand. When we say “frontal” we mean “toward the teeth” and when we say “toward the back of the mouth,” we mean “toward the uvula.”

Some background on “ch”: Typically, English-speaking learners of German are told that the consonant “ch” is pronounced around the uvula (7 above), or “gutturally.” This label it makes clear that it’s a sound that doesn’t frequently occur in most English dialects and so when you see it, you have to pay attention and move your throat, as that spelling has a completely different sound in English. However, calling “ch” guttural means that while the learner is definitely paying attention, she is also more likely to learn it wrong, developing an inflexible pronunciation for the consonant before they realize that its pronunciation depends on context. This is one of my pet peeves about German instruction in the U.S., because it can mess up pronunciation at a crucial early stage of learning and thus necessitate relearning later. Armitage’s pronunciation (mostly) sounds like his coach did NOT make this mistake with him, but even so, “ch” is a hurdle for almost every English speaker to jump over.

This is a Zuger Kirschtorte, or a cake in the style of the Swiss city of Zug. It's soaked with cherry brandy, so possibly not what Daniel ate as a child.

This is a Zuger Kirschtorte, or a torte in the style of the Swiss city of Zug. It’s soaked with cherry brandy, so possibly not what Daniel ate as a child.

For those who didn’t want to digest that link: Roughly speaking, there are two ways to pronounce “ch” in Germanic-origin German words: One way when it follows a vowel in the back of the mouth (if you think of how a German says “ach,” that’s what we’re talking about), and another way in all other situations, including after a consonant or at the beginning of a word or syllable. In High German, anyway, even the version pronounced in the back of the mouth is not completely guttural, with the sound coming more from the air stream than from the percussion of the uvula — this is a common beginner’s mistake — but more importantly, the “other situation pronunciation,” in words like “ich” (English “I”) is velar rather than guttural. That means the consonant is produced at the soft palate (6 above) rather than in the throat and the part of the sound that appears guttural is actually produced by forcing air against the hard palate (5 above) and out through the mouth. In practice, this particular consonant does vary strongly by region and dialect. For “ich,” a native Berliner might say “ick” or “ickeh,” a speaker of Yiddish would say “ikh” (precisely the “guttural” pronunciation that High German says is wrong), someone from western Germany, around Hannover, would use the High German velar pronunciation (this is what I use, as exSO and his family came from the region between Hannover and Bremen), a Hessian would say “izh,” and someone in the Rhineland would probably say “ish.” The point as a language learner, though, is to achieve a consistent pronunciation. It seems conceivable that Daniel Miller’s mother would have been a northern German, so High German pronunciation or Berlin dialect are plausible standards.


Here’s another style of Kirschtorte you run into a lot — vanilla cake base, a creamy or puddingy layer, and then cooked charries on top with a clear gelatin topping. Also probably not what Daniel meant.

For whatever reason this point is very hard for speakers of American English to grasp — that there’s a guttural “ch” consonant (as in “ach”) that comes from the uvula, and an alveolar consonant “sch” that comes from the front of the mouth (produced at 4, above, like the “sh” in “ship”), and also a third consonant that’s sort of in the middle of the mouth (at 6, above), which is what we’re talking about with the velar pronunication “ich.” All of these are represented in German spelling with “ch,” but they are three distinct sounds — and the difference between “ch” in the uvula (at 7) or middle of the mouth (at 6) and “sch” (produced at 4) is really important if you want to sound like the son of a native speaker.

Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte -- probably what Daniel meant.

Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte — probably what Daniel meant.

The distinction is particularly important in the word “Kirschtorte.” Kirsch means “cherry.” Incidentally, this is also a fairly common Jewish first name and surname. You’ll note Leland Orser’s character is “Robert Kirsch,” which suggests that his ancestors came from western Europe and were more likely to be eating tzimmes than falafel with tahini, but that’s a separate story. Due to the legal tradition in western Europe, a lot of Jewish families function just fine with patronymics and only got western-style family names rather late (in some cases, as late as Napoleon), so there are a number of rather fanciful Jewish names, and this is one. Although there are many kinds of Kirschtorte, Daniel’s mostly likely to be referring to what English speakers call “Black Forest Cake” — a creation with alternating layers of chocolate cake, whipped cream, and a cherry filling. (It’s not really a Berlin food, but you can certainly find it there if you look.)

To make clear the distinction: Germans pronounce “Kirsch” with the “sch” sound, which is produced against the alveolar ridge (front of the mouth). Here’s how it sounds. If I were transliterating it into English, I would write “keersh.”

In contrast, however, “Kirche” means church. In this case, the “ch” follows a consonant, so it’s pronounced in the middle of mouth, initiated at the soft palate. If I were translitering into English, it would be hard, because we don’t use that velar “ch,” but it would be something like “kir-[ch]eh.” In production, it sounds a bit like a hissing noise. Here’s a German saying it.

A Kirschtorte is delightful. Let’s have one. But if a German heard you saying you ate “Kirchtorte,” he would know what you mean, but smile a little.

And here’s Armitage:

To me, it sounds like he’s saying “Kirchtorte.” (However, my sound quality is not great so perhaps I’m wrong.) “Church cake.” It could be good. I’d rather have the cherry cake, though.

This same issue with “ch” recurs with Würstchen, of course. Here I am, again:

In this situation, an English speaker might be inclined to look at the word and assume that all of those middle consonants can be slurred together into something like “virshen.” Armitage does a little better; I hear him saying “virstshen.” However, the “ch” has to be fully rearticulated at the beginning of the syllable, and in this context, it’s the velar (soft palate) version of the consonant that he needs to produce, the “hissing noise” from above, not the sound produced at the alveolar ridge at the front of the mouth. We need to hear the “t” fully, but then a new syllable that begins with the velar “ch.” (This question of when you have to be sure to pronounce consonants in order to distinguish syllables in German is another issue he struggles with elsewhere.)

So after that minefield — I’m kind of surprised he even remembers how Americans produce “soccer” at the end of the sentence.

I just wrote 2500 words about the pronunciation of a single sentence. Tja. And it won’t be the last time, lol.

~ by Servetus on September 11, 2016.

72 Responses to “me + Richard Armitage + German, because I can’t help it”

  1. You should be a dialect coach! What a wealth of knowledge you could offer to people trying to speak German authentically, but your teaching background would be great for people trying to speak any European language. Just an observation from a virtual distance 🙂


    • Thanks; that’s a kind thing to say. Had I know when I was 22 and deciding on grad school that “dialect coach’ was a job people did, I would have been seriously tempted!


  2. “Separate the iiii from the üüüüüuuuu”
    Bin fix und fertig 😂


    • It’s not easy pronouncing consonants. And if it is, I can always find a way to make it harder 🙂


      • Das war jetzt auch mein Erkenntnisgewinn zu dieser hier unwürdigen Uhrzeit! Mir ist immer noch leicht schwindelig von deinen Ausführungen.
        Naja, ehrlich gesagt spricht hier keiner von “Kirschtorte”. Das Ding ist eine Schwarzwälder Kirsch. Ich habe das im ersten Moment garnicht übereinandergebracht und dachte, hä, Kirschtorte????


        • I think the comment is in itself a problem. I don’t think of Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte as something that’s especially prominent in Berlin. (I am willing to be corrected on this point). Actually, Berlin isn’t so much a cake kind of city but I think of Mohnkuchen or Quarkkuchen, or maybe Baumkuchen if you go to a Konditorei. Or an apple cake of some kind in a Polish style?

          Now, if he had referred to Spaghetti Eis … ?


        • I’ve also been wondering about the timing of Daniel’s current backstory. His mother was killed by someone in the RAF — If he’s 35 in 2016, then he was born in 1981, which means his mother was killed in 1988. That’s almost the end of the RAF, really. (Still, better than the backstory Steinhauer gave Milo Weaver in the Tourist novels — his mother was supposed ot have been a terrorist).


          • Er ist 35???? Nääää, nieee! Das Zahlenspiel klappt besser, wenn er Anfang 40 ist 😉
            Genau, Spaghetti-Eis! Das ist universal-deutsch. Aber die Verkürzung auf “Kirschtorte” ist schon verständlich: bei dem Wort “Schwarzwälder” hätte er sich zu 100% das Zungenbein gebrochen 😂


        • correction — he was born in 1976. So he’s supposed to be 40 in this show? That would make his mother die in 1984, which would be more plausible for the RAF.


  3. I could really go for some sort of wurst and torte right now lol.


  4. This is pretty much all over my head, but can you comment on whether the German used on the show is normal-speak German? A German native on another site said they found that uncommon words were used and the phrases were more poetic than common.


    • One thing to keep in mind is that regionalism is a much more important factor in spoken German than it is in spoken English in the U.S. So a Rhinelander (for instance) is probably going to see the verisimilitude of any German dialogue quite differently than a Bavarian or a Berliner (for instance). Everyone learns High German in school, but that’s not the language as it’s spoken anywhere except a small region of the country.

      But the answer also depends on which scene you’re talking about. E.g., in the scene where Daniel is talking to the BWG worker, the worker is speaking colloquial German with a hint toward Berlin dialect (“oderwat?”), and Daniel is not. I wouldn’t call Daniel’s language poetic, though. I didn’t recognize any words as unusual, either, although one could ask questions about context (see discussion above about what Germans actually call a Black Forest cake). Daniel speaks pretty standard, very grammatical High German, but I think that is consistent with his character’s backstory (born in Germany, lived there at least till he was 8 with his mother). And for anyone who started learning their German outside of Germany, High German is going to be the standard.

      I think one thing that’s interesting about the show is how few of the German/German dialogues are colloquial or held in dialect. For instance, Ingrid and Claudia speak very correctly to each other, and they use practically no slang, which is a bit surprising. But I wouldn’t call their vocabulary uncommon or poetic. In the prayer room scene, the German is very correct, probably more grammatically correct than would usually be the case in situation like that; most first-generation German speakers don’t achieve that level of facility unless they work in educational settings.

      Did the person have a specific example in mind?


      • In bigger towns, hardly anyone can speak dialect any longer. Germans, if not sure about the other speakers background, always use High German and also in business environment, if you even have a hint of a dialect, you would be seen as unemployable or get a lower position than you would like.
        So wherever people try to apply for higher paying positions, you would hear no dialect in Germany at all. (To speak dialect, people need to warm up to their surrounding, to feel comfortable to use it and reveal their knowledge about it. – Some exceptions to this rule are there, e.g. in some political environment, but in general they are few and then there mostly is a hidden agenda intended with it.)
        At least this part in the film is depicted quite correctly and there are some native speakers, who give the location authenticity. [Sorry, did not warm up to the series yet. Certainly my fault.]
        Though the German-language-snippets of RA irritated me, as they made obvious that he certainly did not have a background growing up with a native speaking mother. For a spy series, I just was not sure if that was meant as a hint or something else, as the background of his mother did not add up for me anyway, in more points than just the timeline. Not even the red BMW was a thing that makes sense for me. An AlfaRomeo, Jaguar or most likely a Porsche, o.k. ;o)
        I cringed at his Frankfurter Würstchen (did not know that in Berlin they call them that as well. I thought they went with the rest of Germany and called them Wiener and only Austrians called them Frankfurter Würstchen. Frankfurter in my region are some other sausages) and Kirschtorte and so very much enjoyed your dissection of his language difficulties from an English speaking perspective.
        (If you need German samples, sometimes perhaps I can help you, but your own recordings are excellent ! It is very nice to hear your voice!!!)
        Thank you for this wonderful post !

        Liked by 1 person

        • I would differentiate between Hochdeutsch (standard German), Umgangssprache (colloquial German) and Dialekt (dialect). Actual dialects are becoming increasingly rarer under the influence of schools and modern media. There are places and / or jobs where speaking in dialect wouldn’t hurt your chances of employment, but in other cases you’re much better off speaking standard German.

          Speaking as someone from the south, almost none of the locals here speak standard German. We speak colloquial German, which contains elements of the local dialect and the typical abridging etc. you find in colloquial languages, or in some cases we speak dialect. But as a rule, the dialect isn’t as intense as it used to be. It’s being toned down a bit.

          There’s even a saying that made it into advertising by the state government that goes: Wir können alles außer Hochdeutsch. / We can do anything except for speaking standard German. It’s a humorous way of looking at the fact that we rarely speak standard German. We irritate people from further north with that, but to a lot of us, standard German sounds artificial and in some cases outright unfriendly or even arrogant.

          So in contrast to what cdoart describes, I wouldn’t automatically speak standard German to a stranger, but I would try to tone down my colloquial southern German, especially when speaking to a foreigner. I would expect a foreigner to use standard German unless they have grown up or learned their German from natives and not from school. Local immigrants, for example, are often influenced by local colloquial German / dialect and don’t speak standard German neither.

          To take this back to Daniel Miller and co., it makes sense to me that they would speak standard German since their speaking the local dialect would sound rather peculiar. The sentences I’ve read and heard here (I haven’t watched the episodes yet) don’t sound unnatural to me. There are always different ways of saying things after all and these are quite alright. To me the mistakes lie in the pronunciation / on the sound level, but considering that he doesn’t speak German and learned this for his role I’m really impressed. He speaks quite well in that he can easily be understood and even manages sounds that foreigners don’t always bother with (e. g. the German r in Freygeist). I know films / series with German passages where I need subtitles to find out what they’re supposed to be saying.


          • Ich komme auch aus Süddeutschland und stimme dir vollkommen zu. Besser hätte man das nicht beschreiben können. 🙂
            Wenn man Daniels Geschichte bedenkt, dann hat er seine Mutter als Sprachvorbild mir acht Jahren verloren. Es ist gut vorstellbar, dass sein Deutsch nach dieser traumatischen Erfahrung in Vergessenheit geriet. Er wird es nicht mehr (oft) gesprochen haben und so ist sein Wortschatz eingeschränkt und die Aussprache ist von seinem amerikanischen Akzent geprägt.


          • Someone tweeted me today a video of an American teenager who’s obviously grown up in Germany speaking German tongue-twisters and said, this is how Daniel should have spoken. Laying aside that you can even hear problems in this American teenager’s speech (esp with “z”), even if I agree that might be a good example of how someone with Daniel’s backstory should sound, Armitage went there as an adult and had six months. So I think he’s doing pretty well. In my first years in Germany I ran into a lot of Americans who were there for a year (DAAD, Fulbright, etc.) — they had been learning German in the US for several years. In comparison to their accents, Armitage is a marvel. Then again, he’s speaking lines here, not composing text as he speaks. He’s a lot freer to concentrate on the correct pronunication.


          • oh, re: Umgangssprache — I always used to get thoughtful after I would overhear a conversation with my exSO on the phone with one of his friends from Gymnasium. I’d understand the words he was saying, but not usually what it meant. Which, I think, points out that there is a whole level of conversation that relates to time / history / where you were when. This is a level of colloquialism that is really hard for anyone to recreate; I notice this sometimes when I read fanfic written by an American that takes place in English and they’ve obviously googled for colloquialisms that have turned out to be out of date.


        • I agree with you in general that full dialect is inappropriate for formal situations, but I was present in German research groups at universities for a decade, and most Germans that I have met, regardless of their educational level, have noticeable signs of regional speech even in their professional discourse. There are vocabulary changes from Berlin to Munich that are only explicable in this way (and I don’t just mean things like greetings).

          I was thinking this recently when I was listening to the live news conference from Munich after the shooting incident there. That evening there was a press conference and there were three people — the Polizepräsident (who was definitely a Bavarian, but I couldn’t have told you from where), his Pressesprecher (who spoke a very generic Hochdeutsch with no sign of accent), and a third person (who didn’t answer questions). It was clear that the Polizeipräsident was speaking High German (or, as my cattier north German friends might have said, trying to speak High German) but it was equally clear that he was Bavarian, both from pronunciation (“isch”) and from expressions and idioms he used. This level of German speech is notably absent from Berlin Station. It sounds like Ingrid isn’t from Berlin, for example, but you can’t really tell where she’s from, and this is unusual. I can usual tell within about fifteen minutes of talking to someone at least roughly where they are from.


          • In Deutschland ist es nicht unüblich, dass in Filmen ein Hochdeutsch gesprochen wird, dem man nicht mehr anhört, von wo der Sprechende kommt. Schauspieler trainieren das während ihrer Ausbildung.


            • Yes, I know. I’ve spent years watching German film. But this show is being sold as connected to the specific location. And if you compare a show like “Tatort,” which is also regionally or locationally specific — a Tatort episode always has regional speakers. It’s part of why I watch it.


              • Das stimmt. Gerade beim “Tatort” sind die regionalen Bezüge sehr stark und die einzelnen Städte sind stolz auf “ihr” Ermittlerteam. Vielleicht hat man diesen Aspekt bei “Berlin Station” weniger beachtet, weil die Serie nicht speziell für Deutschland gedreht wurde (wo man Berlin sehr mit einer bestimmten Sprechweise und einem eher ruppigen Tonfall verbindet) Man glaubte wohl nicht, dass das bei einem internationalen Publikum eine Rolle spielen würde. Vielleicht hatten sie aber auch einfach nur niemanden, der darauf geachtet hätte oder dem der Unterschied aufgefallen wäre.
                Ich denke übrigens auch, dass RA das sehr gut macht. Man versteht sein Deutsch ohne auf die englischen Untertitel achten zu müssen 😉
                Ich finde das überaus goldig und bin merkwürdig berührt davon… “seufz” Er sollte dringend öfter mit Maximum Deutsch sprechen.


                • Someone told me once that anglo-American accents are positively connoted in Germany (who also told me I shouldn’t work too hard on getting rid of mine — it made me seem sweeter), so he gets plus point for trying German and for his accent and because he’s our sweetheart 🙂


      • Thanks as always for the detailed comment.

        No, that person didn’t have a specific example of what irritated them. But maybe from your explanation, they might have been irritated at the lack of colloquialism or slang in the German/German dialogue.

        So, if I understand – there’s High German and dialect, and Daniel speaks in High German.


        • I think what the discussion above reveals is that people have slightly different ideas about what dialect is. I agree with cdoart that if we’re talking about highly urban areas, few people speak in complete dialect regularly anymore (although Berlin still has a lot of dialect speakers and I bet Munich does too); then again if you go to somewhere like East Frisia you may happen on situations where everyone is speaking dialect, even in places like a bank (although plattdeutsch –Low German– isn’t really a dialect, it’s more like a separate language). But I think there is still a lot of regionalism in German (taurus’ comment points this out) that isn’t really visible here.


    • I agree that some of the German dialogue sounds a bit wrong. That is, more like written German than spoken German.

      Instead of Claudia Gärtner’s line “Er hat schon wieder Kontakt aufgenommen” I would probably say “Er hat sich schon wieder gemeldet”.
      When Daniel asks if he could have a look at the security camera recordings the worker asks “Um welchen Tag handelt es sich?” The way the worker speaks before that line makes this line sound overblown. “Wann war das denn?” would be more likely I think.
      When Hans is visiting the captured Dieter, Hans says “Ich wollte dir nur nochmal in die Augen sehen” which is a line that sounds completely off in my ears. Poetic maybe.

      Daniel’s German lines are fine so far I think. Nothing uncommon.
      Oh, and it’s fun to hear him say “Arsch”. 😀


      • I agree with your first two examples, although I don’t think the first one is that far off, as “Kontakt aufnehmen” is something you hear people say all the time. It’s not unusual. i also think there’s a difference between “sich melden” (get in touch) and “Kontakt aufnehmen” (make contact) in this setting, because the implication is that Shaw isn’t a casual interloctuor. You’re probably right about the second one, insofar as the BWG worker is speaking colloquially. With the third example, however, I think that’s what Hans was trying to say. “I wanted to look you in the eye one more time” (man to man, to try to understand what motivated you, to shame you, etc.). He isn’t saying, “Ich wollte Dich nochmal sehen” or “ich wollte Dich ein letztes Mal sehen.” He’s trying to communicate something different about morality / emotion.


        • Ich denke, dass Hans damit klarstellen will, dass er sich persönlich verraten und betragen fühlt. Deshalb wählt er diesen etwas dramatisch anmutenden Ausdruck. Er ist sicherlich ein gebildeter Mann und kann sich solch einer Sprache bedienen. Claudia hat sich womöglich etwas in das Spionagegefühl hinein gesteigert und “Kontakt aufnehmen”, das machen Spione halt so. 😉


    • I think you can tell that he didn’t grow up bilingual. Have have two friends who grew up in different German areas. One with a native British mother and German Dad, another with a Native American father and a German Mum. They are flawless in both languages. With RA you can tell he didn’t grow up in Germany to one Getman speaking parent.


  5. As a native German speaker I found this post extremely interesting to read. I knew about the “issues” with “ü” and “ch/sch” but never got such an insight about the reasons why it is so difficult for not native speakers to pronounce them. And the entire r-thing was new to me.
    Thank you this blog entry. I learnt something new. 😀


    • Glad you liked it. I imagine we will be coming back to “r” as it really a problem. And yeah, English speakers just don’t have the velar “ch” in their arsenal. I was trying to think of a word yesterday that might require that sound and i couldn’t.


  6. I found this very interesting from the point of view of a native German speaker (and language teacher). Thank you! This was quite obviously a lot of work and made the problems he had to face here a lot clearer to me.


    • Do you teach English speakers? You have my total respect — we are a hard nut to crack, not because the sounds are so hard, but because I think we are not trained to be good listeners.


  7. Danish an German are fairly similar, fairly, ahem. Intonation-wise, anyway.
    You pinpoint exactly where also most Danes face difficulty in enunciating certain German sounds.
    The ‘stch’ is simply the worst. When I attempt ‘Wurstchen’ (sorry, my phone can’t make the umlaut), it becomes “vyrstsien”. A slightly “lazy” pronunciation. The ‘ch’ disappears. It’s really difficult to incorporate that sound for a non-native German speaker. Very interesting read. Thanks😊


    • I have a good Danish friend and she really struggles in German. Also with “zw.”

      And Würstchen. Man. There are so many other words they could have substituted for that word that would have said the same thing or something similar and not been an obvious trap. I felt bad for him.


    • Yup, [nodding in agreement]. ‘Zwei’ (two) becomes ‘svei’. Danes haven’t got the voiced /z/. However, if a Dane is fairly proficient in English verbal language, it shouldn’t pose a challenge. It’s the same same /z/ as in zealous or Zanzibar.


      • Interesting. I would say it isn’t the same sound. In English it’s /z/ and in German it’s /tz/. Saying “zum” like English “zoom,” as I was taught to pronounce German, would be saying it wrong (it should be “tzum”).


  8. I find these kinds of posts extremely interesting, since I always learn something.

    I’m not surprised you were fascinated with sounds at a young age.

    And for those who don’t know it, Susan has a beautiful speaking voice. What some may call a radio voice.


    • Thanks — that’s very kind. I don’t think anyone’s ever said that to me.

      re: sounds/language, I think my mother instilled that preoccupation. But it also intrigued me that someone would write a whole huge dictionary that was just about how to pronounce words in other languages while singing them. Then, when I moved to Germany and went to church off and on with exSO, I got it. There are elisions you would make while singing in English that you’d never make in German, and that would completely expose you as a non-German. If you were singing German on an opera stage, you’d probably want to avoid that.


  9. I’ve lost track of this but to the person who said, it would be odd for Daniel to speak Berlin dialect — I agree. It sounds weird and condescending when non-Germans do this. Nowadays everyone at least understands High German.


  10. Very interesting! Thank you for that!

    I was wondering, whether his German sounds German to non German speakers. I mean it’s an American show targeting an English speaking audience, so I guess it’s enough to convince them. Because although Armitage did very well, he could not fool me (a German) into believing his character spent his childhood in Germany. I would imagine them to be more on a level like e.g. Sandra Bullock – pronunciation wise:
    OT: Love her little error in the beginning, confusing “speech” (“Rede”) with “language/ speech” (“Sprache”). Probably had to look up that word while writing her acceptance speech and chose the wrong one.


    • She has a German grandmother and spent a lot of time with grandparents, though, no? I think that might be different — it depends on what happens after Daniel Miller’s mother died, if his father stayed in Germany or left. I agree, she sounds fantastic (and she can do the “r” right, which I can’t — jealous!).

      re: what Americans find convincing as a German pronunication? I don’t think the average viewer has enough knowledge to make an evaluation of normal German speech. Due to the prevalence of WWII era movies, we’re most accustomed to hearing Germans (who we know are “evil”) shouting. I remember my German teacher in college saying that “Achtung” shows up way more in American movies than it does in German speech, and me thinking that was odd, until I lived in Germany. There is this prejudice that German sounds “guttural,” but I don’t know that that’s an expectation the viewer places on a show in evaluating verisimilitude. I’m probably the wrong person to ask, though. I “know too much”.


    • Oh, the other thing, too — I know a fair number of Americans who grew up on US military bases in Germany and most of them speak very poor German. The bases are very much enclaves with their own radio stations and such — for people who didn’t want to leave, it was easy to stay insulated.


    • Just had to add: Of course it would be insane to expect Armitage to speak German like someone who actually grew up here. Maybe the writer could have chosen a different background story. But that’s just me…


      • I was pondering that last night, because it’s very similar to the backstory that Milo gets in The Tourist (Milo’s mother IS an RAF terrorist and kills herself in prison; I forget if Steinhauer says Stammheim but he certainly implies it — which detail really strains credibility if you know anything at all about the history of the RAF). Milo has a really complicated backstory and dissolving his “legend” and revealing the real Milo is part of the plot of the Tourist novels. And those novels have really complicated plots, the reader is always guessing and unsettled.

        So i could see this just being laziness (George Clooney owns or owned the rights to make The Tourist into a movie, but changing the story slightly to re-use bits of those plots and save time), OR I could see it as an intentional deception (everyone thinks Daniel is telling the truth about his background, but he isn’t, and what Valerie has in his CIA file is intentionally wrong). In either case, Armitage has to speak really credible German.

        IF I hadn’t read those Steinhauer novels, I’d probably be more content to accept the story the show seems to be telling us at present, but I’m reserving judgment and really using actively using my “we don’t have enough information to draw any conclusions yet” filter.


  11. Thanks, Serv, for this fascinating post and to everyone for such an interesting discussion. I felt like a bit of an idiot today, sitting at a table in a community hockey rink saying “Ich” “ach” “kirsch” etc under my breath! I no longer have much facility with or vocabulary in German, but I took it in high school for 4 years, mainly from a native German speaker. We learned high German pronunciation. (I wish I could remember how they managed to teach us the differences between the various “ch” sounds!) I was noticing my pronunciation of “Ich” and I believe it is velar, but there is no hard “k” sound at all, only the air passing through near that back of the hard pallet. Is that velar? Or would there always be a hard “k” sound? Not having heard the linguistic terms before, I’m trying to gain an understanding.
    I find that the “u” sound in French, depending on the word, is similar to the “u” vs “ü” in German. People often have trouble with “tu” (vs “tout” for example) or “du” (vs “de”), which are more like the German “ü” and for which there is not really an equivalent in English. The French I learned in school was also Parisian French, which was more like “high French”. In my late teens, when I visited my cousins in Quebec, they giggled at my prim and proper accent and vocabulary. (Teenagers!) Probably in part why I didn’t keep speaking it regularly!


    • LOL, Armitage fandom really gets one into doing the most incongruous this 🙂

      You wouldn’t ever hear a hard “k” with the velar “ch.” You might close your uvula briefly but most of the sound comes from the movement of the restricted air. With the uvular “ch” (“ach”) you also wouldn’t hear a hard “k,” but if you were trying very hard it might sound like you were clearing your throat 🙂 But most Germans pronounce the consonant so quickly that it doesn’t roll around down there (as opposed to “r”).

      The French lessons I took unfortunately didn’t spend much time on speech (we were trying to learn how to read it so we could read scholarly articles), so I don’t know about the correspondence, but it sounds reasonable to me. Sorry about your cousins!!! I know Quebecois French is really different.


  12. Thanks for that. I was puzzling over “velar” based on a definition I’d found. Much clearer now.


  13. […] Continued from here. […]


  14. Lovely to hear your voice. 🙂
    Yes, I heard church-cake as well. Luckily he didn’t have to say “Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte”… Maybe he should have mentioned “Käsekuchen” instead, for me that is one of the most typical German cakes (but that can also be my very subjective view). I thought the “Würstchen” sounded OK, despite it sounding more like “Würstschen”. I thought he got the ü quite well.


  15. Ich habe versucht arabisch zu lernen aber ich kann das harte “ch” einfach nicht aussprechen, tausendmal versucht 😦 meine Kollegin heisst Khadija und so wie ich es ausspreche heißt es “kleiner Esel” und meine Flüchtlinge lachen sich schepps wenn ich es versuche…. ich kann den Laut hinten in der Kehle einfach nicht hervorbringen 😦
    Hut ab vor jedem der sich an einer neuen Sprache versucht, es ist soooo schwer 🙂


  16. Perhaps a bit late, but it might help with the pronounciation, one of Germanys finest artist wrote a very popular song about currywurst. Herbert Grönemeyer, also a fine actor (Das Boot”)


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