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.
- “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.
- “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.
- “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:
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.
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!”
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.
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.
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.
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.