Academic journal article Journal of Singing

Anomalies in the Sound Pattern of German

Academic journal article Journal of Singing

Anomalies in the Sound Pattern of German

Article excerpt

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ONE OF THE MOST VEXINGLY INCONSISTENT features ofthe sound pattern of German is the elusive relation between vowel quality and vowel length. The corresponding relation between orthography and vowel quality is equally inconsistent. The one essential rule that sticks with most musicians is that, if a vowel is followed by a single consonant it is close and long, and if followed by two or more consonants it is open and short. The usefulness of this guideline is eroded in part by the large number of instances in which the rule breaks down.

Other problems muddy the waters further. For instance, not all authorities agree on the precise vowel sounds of Hochdeutsch, and how they are to be symbolized. Also, there are ambiguities inherent in the way the rule is presented. For instance, the relation

close vowel - one following consonant

open vowel - more than one following consonant

fails to define exactly what is meant by "consonant." Usually the meaning is orthographic, and a long list of exceptions results (Magd, erst, hoch, Mond, süß). If "consonant" is interpreted as "phonetic consonant," this solves a few of the exceptions, but only introduces a whole new set of exceptions.

The purpose of this article is to review the sound pattern in detail, as it pertains to vowel length and quality, with a view to establishing a set of guidelines that are as close as possible to being reliable. As Patón states, "To give complete rules for recognizing long and short vowels is a task that defies even the most complete German studies. Every such attempt ends with lists of exceptions."1

Lyric diction texts have charts that conveniently pair German vowel sounds, and relate each sound to its usual spellings. The chart, like all inventories of orthographic/phonetic relationship, can be presented in one of two ways. Begin with the vowel phoneme, then show all possible spellings found in the lexicon, as in Table 1. Or begin with the spelling, then show all possible pronunciations of the letter, as in Table 2. Table 1 provides a more comprehensive orthographic inventory, unless Table 2 is extended to include more than just single letters. Table 2 also includes other pronunciations of the letters, in unstressed positions, for later reference.

Table 1 presents the eight long vowel phonemes of German, with all possible spellings, and their pairing with short vowels. Table 2, which starts from the letter vowels, is the type usually encountered in lyric diction texts. Both present a tantalizing prospect of symmetry and predictability. As mentioned, a closer look at the reality brings further anomalies to the surface that cloud the apparent simplicity of this patterning. Seven factors may be cited:

1. The claim is usually made that German long vowels are also close, short vowels are open, but this pattern falls apart with [a] and [a:], which are both equally open, and with [ε:] and [ε] where the situation is more complex. Some linguists prefer the terms high and low, which are synonymous with close and open.2

2. The choice of which pronunciation of each pair to employ is supposedly determined by the spelling of the word, but exceptions to the rule are numerous.

3. Although not always made explicit, the symmetric binary pattern of the chart applies to vowels in stressed syllables only, with a very different sound pattern in place for unstressed syllables.

4. Linguistic authorities have disagreed over time as to which symbol is most appropriate for each vowel sound, and the resultant discrepancy crosses over naturally into the writing on lyric diction. Like English, the quality of most vowels simply do not line up with Jones's cardinal vowel positions, even though one is obliged to choose the one deemed to be the closest symbol.

5. The sound pattern of German varies from region to region, each with its own version of the anomalies-consistent within itself, but different from one another-such that the choice of a standard for Hochdeutsch has not always been straightforward or unanimous. …

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