Whether you’re asked to portray an artistic German Expressionist, an inebriated Oktoberfest attendee, or a nefarious James Bond villain, the ability to do a German accent can help you land roles. From pronunciation to grammar, here’s how to speak with a German accent.
“Die Hard” Courtesy 20th Century Fox
The German language is spoken by approximately 130 million people as their native language. German is divided into three major dialects: High German, Central German, and Low German. Standard German uses the Bühnendeutsch (literally, “stage German”) pronunciation style, the most commonly used dialect in film and TV.
“Murder on the Orient Express” Courtesy 20th Century Fox
But what do German accents sound like? To make it sound as though you hail from Deutschland:
- Replace “w” and “wh” with “v”: There is no “w” sound in German, so replace all things wacky and wonderful with the “vacky” and “vonderful.” This applies to all “w” and “wh” sounds, no matter where they land in a word. You “vant to vave at a valrus,” not “want to wave at a walrus.”
- Replace the short “i” with “ee”: Pronounce words using a short “i” (as in “did” or “splinter”) with a long “ee” sound—”deed” and “spleenter.”
- Replace “th” with “s” or “z”: The “th” sound (as in “the”) is difficult for native German speakers to pronounce, since it doesn’t exist in their language. Because of this, the “th” sound is often replaced with an “s” or “z” sound. Instead of saying, “Thank you for this thing,” you might say, “Zank you for zis sing.”
- Replace “s” with “z” if it’s in the middle of a word: For words such as “asset,” “sassy,” and “musty,” replace the “s” sound with a “z” one: “azzet,” “sazzy,” and “muzty.”
To complicate things further, this means that when you replace the “th” sound, if it’s in the middle of a word, you should use a “z” sound and not an “s” one: “heezer and seezer” instead of “hither and thither.”
- Replace “oo” with the short “u”: Say words with a “oo” sound, such as “look” and “could,” with a more nasally “u” sound: “luk” and “culd.”
- Replace “d” at the end of words with “t”: Native German speakers pronounce the letters “d” and “t” the same at the end of words. So, “strand” becomes “strant” and “hand” becomes “hant.”
- Gargle “r” and “h”: Practice making “r” and “h” sounds deeper in your throat as if you’re gargling them. “Rapidly reading” becomes “hrapidly reading” or “ghrapidly ghreading,” and “hirsute horse” becomes “hghirzute hghorse.” Try to match the “r” sound heard in this video:
Harden consonants: Hearken your most strident schoolteacher (or “lehrer”) for words that end in soft consonants such as “b,” “d,” and “g.” Harden the consonant so that it sounds harsher: “lab” becomes “lap,” “end” becomes “ent,” and “bag” becomes “bak.”
“Spectre” Courtesy Sony Pictures Releasings
When native German speakers talk in English, they still sometimes use the grammatical conventions of their mother language. Depending on how long your character has been speaking English, they might:
- Focus on the present: German usually uses the present simple tense instead of the future tense we use in English. Instead of saying “I will go to the store tomorrow,” say “I go to the store tomorrow.” The future tense is indicated by the word that denotes that the event will take place in the future.
- Pronoun nouns: All nouns in German are either masculine, feminine, or neutral, indicated as “der,” “die,” or “das.” It can be difficult for German speakers to make the shift to the neutral “the,” so substitute “der,” “die,” and “das” for “the” a few times for authenticity: “der Mercedes,” “die Boeing,” “das boot.”
- Combine words: The German language is notorious for how it delightfully amalgamates words. “I would do away with those great long compounded words; or require the speaker to deliver them in sections, with intermissions for refreshments,” Mark Twain writes in his satirical take on how he would fix “the awful German language.” Despite his decree, the German language continues to “komposita” by combining discrete words into fully functioning portmanteaus. It’s likely unnecessary that you learn multiple authentic word combinations for your audition or performance; instead, simply combine words to make new ones and sprinkle them into your colloquial German-accent-ed conversation. If you’re talking about a power washer, for example, you might call it a “floor-cleaning-power-washing-machine.” Add in a slightly nasal tone to really sell it.
“Falcon and the Winter Soldier” Credit: Chuck Zlotnick
1. Study the German language: Learn about German phonetics, grammar, and vocabulary to have a holistic understanding of the language. Watch German films, TV shows, and YouTube videos; listen to German radio and podcasts; and talk with people who call German their mother tongue.
2. Study German accents: After gaining a basic foundation of the German language, spend as much time with the German accent as possible. Check out the vast array of German dialects at the International Dialects of English Archive, or turn to actor portrayals of the accent. Marlene Dietrich in “Witness for the Prosecution” and “The Blue Angel,” Jürgen Prochnow in “Das Boot,” and Christoph Waltz in “Inglourious Basterds” have accents to aspire toward. Observe and analyze what makes the accents convincing and use that to your “der nutzen.”
3. Use German phrasing: Since some ideas simply resist translation, people speaking in another language will at times use words and phrases from their native one. Occasionally sprinkle in Germanisms such as:
- “Das ist mir Wurst”: I don’t care
- “Du gehst mir auf den Keks”: you’re bugging me
- “Kummerspeck”: the weight put on by emotional eating
- “Fremdschämen”: to be ashamed because of the behavior of others
- “Luftschloss”: a pipe dream
- “Schadenfreude”: joy at witnessing the failure of another
4. Practice: Practice your German accent as much as possible. The more time you spend refining it, the better you’ll be. While remaining sensitive to issues of diversity and authenticity, take your accent out on the town: alone, with friends, and even with strangers. Read their responses to see where and how you should make improvements. If you really want to perfect your accent, try working with a dialect coach.
5. Test it out: Spend the day of your audition speaking in the German accent. Dialect coach Sammi Grant says that before recording or auditioning, you should “talk in the accent for 20 minutes.” Doing so will warm up your lips, tongue, and articulators in the German accent so it feels second nature when it’s time to perform it.
6. Continuity over perfection: If you accidentally flub a future tense or forget to gargle an “r,” don’t let it trip you up too much. Your ability to keep up the accent will impress casting directors more than it being perfect. As they say in Germany, “Gesundheit!”