Ay-ay-ay; i.e., “ie” or “ei”?

It bugs me when English speakers get the German pronunciation of sounds made by the vowel combinations “ie” and “ei” wrong — especially those English speakers who have lots of interaction with Germans and by extension lots of opportunities to practice reading these sounds. My much more tolerant wife explained to me why this happens so often:

  1. Those sounds are not represented consistently in English (think “receive” versus “achieve”).
  2. Not everyone knows the simple rule English speakers can use to pronounce “ie” or “ei” correctly everytime.

I can’t do anything about #1, but I can help you with #2, so here goes:

The sound that the combination “ie” or “ei” will make is always the same of the English name of the 2nd letter.

Thus, the electronics conglomerate is pronounced “see-mens” and not “sigh-mens” and the intellectual, moral, and cultural climate of an era is prounounced “zyte-guy-st” and not “zeet geest”. Likewise, it really is “franken-styne” and not “franken-steen,” despite what Gene Wilder’s character proclaims.

5 thoughts on “Ay-ay-ay; i.e., “ie” or “ei”?”

  1. Carrie

    It bugs me more when English speakers cannot pronounce English sounds correctly (unless on purpose, of course or… I would be very guilty). Do you want to drink some MELK, sleep on a PELLOW, eat a BEGGLE, et cetera, to name three off the top of my head.


  2. Cliff

    Uh-oh, I think I hear the Kimsalian discussion of new-q-ler q-pons coming back around.

  3. Nargan

    Not to sound naive, but are their words that native Germans slaughter often (like MELK, PELLOW, WARSH, etc)? I figure that the problem exists in any language, but might just be easier for us (Carrie and I) to scrutinize English, since it’s our native tongue. What say you, bilingual friends???

    By the way, thanks so much for recommending The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay–I’m through the first 90-odd pages and thoroughly enjoy it. Chabon is a master of diction, and the language is so rich that I feel like I have a whole new arsenal of Scrabble words from reading this book. Watch out, MAB and Lee, I am going to triple-word score your behinds with words like ‘inchoate’ and ‘cenotaph’!


  4. Cliff

    Germans have pronunciation variations, but it’s more dialectical (is that a word?) – meaning they “beef” the whole language. Think Bavarian versus Swiss German versus Prussian versus Black Forest, etc. They don’t seem to screw up just a handfull of words like Melk and Pellow, etc. – they do it with gusto.

  5. Hyder

    Could someone please phonetically spell “Leitchfield” for me?!!

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