Motivation behind spellings in German

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Motivation behind spellings in German

Postby Fantsuworkshard » Thu May 16, 2019 3:16 am

I read an article in which it was stated that German spellings had three kind of motivators - phonological, morphological and etymological. I wonder whether a motivator of arbitrariness also exists.

In the standard dialect the 《er》 in "lieder" sounds like a close a instead of an open e + r such as in "daher". Would this be a case where arbitrariness is the motivator?
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Re: Motivation behind spellings in German

Postby Deinonysus » Thu May 16, 2019 1:14 pm

I think you can generally assume that a final "-er" will sound like /ɐ/. The word "her" (also its compounds like daher or woher) is an exception. Here is a list of other words that rhyme with "daher", from Wiktionary:

Pronunciation
/-eːɐ̯/

One syllable
  • der
  • Ehr
  • er
  • Heer
  • hehr
  • her
  • leer
  • Meer
  • mehr
  • Per
  • quer
  • schwer
  • sehr
  • Speer
  • Teer
  • Wehr
  • wer

Two syllables
  • Gewehr
  • umher
  • Verkehr
  • Verzehr
https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/Rhymes:G ... 9%90%CC%AF


Most of these words have a spelling hint that they are not pronounced /ɐ/, such as an added <h> or a doubled <e>. The rest of them are common words that you just kind of need to know. But again, if you see an unknown word ending in "-er", you can usually assume it's pronounced /ɐ/.

I suppose you could call the motivation "common word irregularity". Very common words are less likely to have their spelling change to match pronunciation changes because people just know them by sight and don't need phonological hints. Nobody pronounces the English word "one" phonetically (at least nobody this century, unless maybe some dialects preserve it) because it's one of the first English words you learn to write. It's an irregular spelling that you just learn. Some languages *cough English cough* are worse with this than others.

Edit: On second thought, I don't think it's irregular at all, it's a rule. "-er" is pronounced /-eːɐ̯/ at the end of one-syllable words alone or in compounds, and /ɐ/ at the end of other words. I can't think of any counterexamples.
Last edited by Deinonysus on Thu May 16, 2019 3:07 pm, edited 3 times in total.
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Re: Motivation behind spellings in German

Postby Ser » Thu May 16, 2019 2:13 pm

Fantsuworkshard wrote:I read an article in which it was stated that German spellings had three kind of motivators - phonological, morphological and etymological. I wonder whether a motivator of arbitrariness also exists.

In the standard dialect the 《er》 in "lieder" sounds like a close a instead of an open e + r such as in "daher". Would this be a case where arbitrariness is the motivator?

Daher is a compound, da-her, so the distinction from the plural -er of Lieder is morphological.

This is not to say there isn't an element of arbitrariness in German spellings. Why is the aa sound variously spelled in Staat, Rat and Draht? They come from Old French éstat/Latin stātus, Old High German rāt, and OHG drāt. Rat even used to be spelled Raht before.
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Re: Motivation behind spellings in German

Postby jeff_lindqvist » Thu May 16, 2019 5:44 pm

Deinonysus wrote:On second thought, I don't think it's irregular at all, it's a rule. "-er" is pronounced /-eːɐ̯/ at the end of one-syllable words alone or in compounds, and /ɐ/ at the end of other words. I can't think of any counterexamples.


I see it more as a question of stressed vs. unstressed syllable (e.g. the morphological marker -er), or for that matter long vs short vowel.
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Re: Motivation behind spellings in German

Postby Kraut » Fri May 17, 2019 1:30 am

There are regional differences:

One syllable

der
Ehr
er
Heer
hehr
her
leer
Meer
mehr
Per
quer
schwer
sehr
Speer
Teer
Wehr
wer


I don't rhyme them all the same way but have two groups:

1. der, er, her, leer, Per, schwer, wer
2. Ehr, Heer, hehr, Meer, mehr, quer, sehr, Speer, Teer, wehr

I can pronounce "Lehrer" in two ways 1. is broad Swabian 2. is Standard
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Re: Motivation behind spellings in German

Postby Fantsuworkshard » Fri May 17, 2019 11:59 am

Ser wrote:
Fantsuworkshard wrote:I read an article in which it was stated that German spellings had three kind of motivators - phonological, morphological and etymological. I wonder whether a motivator of arbitrariness also exists.

In the standard dialect the 《er》 in "lieder" sounds like a close a instead of an open e + r such as in "daher". Would this be a case where arbitrariness is the motivator?

Daher is a compound, da-her, so the distinction from the plural -er of Lieder is morphological.

This is not to say there isn't an element of arbitrariness in German spellings. Why is the aa sound variously spelled in Staat, Rat and Draht? They come from Old French éstat/Latin stātus, Old High German rāt, and OHG drāt. Rat even used to be spelled Raht before.


I didn't understand why the spelling motivator is morphological in Lieder and of what order it is in daher.
Last edited by Fantsuworkshard on Fri May 17, 2019 12:15 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: Motivation behind spellings in German

Postby Fantsuworkshard » Fri May 17, 2019 12:15 pm

Deinonysus wrote:I think you can generally assume that a final "-er" will sound like /ɐ/. The word "her" (also its compounds like daher or woher) is an exception. Here is a list of other words that rhyme with "daher", from Wiktionary:

Pronunciation
/-eːɐ̯/

One syllable
  • der
  • Ehr
  • er
  • Heer
  • hehr
  • her
  • leer
  • Meer
  • mehr
  • Per
  • quer
  • schwer
  • sehr
  • Speer
  • Teer
  • Wehr
  • wer

Two syllables
  • Gewehr
  • umher
  • Verkehr
  • Verzehr
https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/Rhymes:G ... 9%90%CC%AF


Most of these words have a spelling hint that they are not pronounced /ɐ/, such as an added <h> or a doubled <e>. The rest of them are common words that you just kind of need to know. But again, if you see an unknown word ending in "-er", you can usually assume it's pronounced /ɐ/.

I suppose you could call the motivation "common word irregularity". Very common words are less likely to have their spelling change to match pronunciation changes because people just know them by sight and don't need phonological hints. Nobody pronounces the English word "one" phonetically (at least nobody this century, unless maybe some dialects preserve it) because it's one of the first English words you learn to write. It's an irregular spelling that you just learn. Some languages *cough English cough* are worse with this than others.

Edit: On second thought, I don't think it's irregular at all, it's a rule. "-er" is pronounced /-eːɐ̯/ at the end of one-syllable words alone or in compounds, and /ɐ/ at the end of other words. I can't think of any counterexamples.


Would you say that Werde is an exception? It has two syllables and is not a compound but is pronounced as [v3rdɐ] instead of [vɐdɐ] or [ve:ɐdɐ]. Also, any idea which books I can read to learn the intricacies of German text-to-speech and speech-to-text correspondences?
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Re: Motivation behind spellings in German

Postby Deinonysus » Fri May 17, 2019 1:32 pm

Fantsuworkshard wrote:Would you say that Werde is an exception? It has two syllables and is not a compound but is pronounced as [v3rdɐ] instead of [vɐdɐ]. Also, any idea which books I can read to learn the intricacies of German text-to-speech and speech-to-text correspondences?

No, I was only talking about "-er" at the end of a word. The "er" in Werde is not at the end of the word so the "er" would not be pronounced ɐ.

You could also frame it in terms of stress, as jeff_lindqvist mentioned. The "-er" at the end of a word is usually unstressed, and an unstressed final "-er" is pronounced /ɐ/ (but this doesn't apply to the prefix "er-", which is unstressed but comes at the beginning of a word and is not pronounced /ɐ/). But if a word is only one syllable long, there is no room for an unstressed syllable, so again, one-syllable words like "der" and "er" are not pronounced /dɐ/ or /ɐ/.

Also keep in mind that in compound words, stress is generally preserved from the root words. So the "er" in Wanderlust is pronounced /ɐ/ because it's at the end of the component word "Wander".

There are books on German phonology and orthography (I have a short one at home but I don't remember what it's called), but honestly it's very regular and you probably don't need a whole book. As you continue to learn German you will internalize the rules.

Wikipedia is probably good place to start.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Standard_German_phonology
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/German_orthography
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