Spell it Well: German Words Starting with s/sch Posted by Sten on May 6, 2021 in Grammar, Language, Vocabulary
English spelling is a mess. I don’t think that anybody would argue with that. German spelling, on the other hand, is pretty straightforward! Simply pronounce every single letter, and you’re already halfway there. However, German is not free from some confusing spelling itself. Let’s take a look at some of that. For example, the s/sch. Why do they sometimes sound the same? And how do you know which one to use?
s/sch at the beginning of a word
In this post, I’ll only discuss s/sch at the beginning of a word. Things are different with s/sch in the middle of a word. That’s for another post!
There are many German words that begin with a s or sch. For example:
die Schlange (snake)
der Stein (stone)
der Spiegel (mirror)
die Schwangerschaft (pregnancy)
der Schlag (blow)
der Schuh (shoe)
As you can hear above, they all have a sch sound.
der See (lake)
der Saal (hall)
das Salz (salt)
die Sojamilch (soy milk)
der Sohn (son)
der Scan (scan)
das Skelett (skeleton)
So the first thing we can say here is that the sch will never sound like a normal s. However, the s can become an sch. When is this the case?
You may notice how the s is a normal s if it is followed by a vowel. It is indeed the case that vowels that are the second letter of a word, except the u, are most often preceded by a normal s. When a consonant comes in second place, they’re more often preceded by a sch. Except the k, p and t. However, you might now say, the sk sound is a normal sound, while sp and st sound like schp and scht, respectively.
Here’s the general rule!
When a word starts with st-, it’s pronounced scht-
When a word starts with sp-, it’s pronounced schp-
When a word starts with sh-, it’s pronounced sch- (this is almost exclusively foreign words, such as der Shake, das Shopping)
In all other cases when a word starts with s-, it’s pronounced as a normal s.
You can use this rule to figure out whether to write a word with s or sch – just think about what letter comes right after.
So that’s pretty straightforward! Oh, no wait, there are exceptions.
Of course. I am sad as well. But where’s the fun in language if you can’t ever make an exception, right?
There are always exceptions, aren’t there?
A common exception with language stuff generally are Fremdwörter (n, foreign words).
Apart from the sh-rule that we saw above, the st and sp can sometimes also sound like a normal s. For example, der Star (star) or das Speed (speed) come from the English words, and are pronounced like that in German.
The second exception is Dialekte (m, dialects). For example, in the north, the sp and st are often just pronounced as a normal s. A great children’s show where you can hear this is Käpt’n Blaubär (Captain Bluebear):
At 1:42, you can hear how Käpt’n Blaubär says spürbar with a normal s! Even though that would be pronounced schpürbar elsewhere. Note that he is the only character in the show that uses this accent.
And of course, you might find a word now and then where the general rule doesn’t apply.
What about my name?
All my life, I’ve had to deal with this conundrum. My name is Sten, which, with this new knowledge, you’d pronounce Schten!
And some people do, like my dad, for example.
However, most Germans say it with a normal S. This is mostly because it’s not a very German name, so it sounds foreign to people already. The closest thing people know is the American Stan, and so it sometimes gets “americanized”:
But the name is Scandinavian. And there, it’s pronounced with a normal S, too. I prefer that pronunciation, so it’s simply:
And that’s all for now, folks!
Has this s/sch situation confused you? Are there examples you’d give that you found difficult? Let me know in the comments below!
Build vocabulary, practice pronunciation, and more with Transparent Language Online. Available anytime, anywhere, on any device.