Ve haff vays!
June 9, 2006 12:24 PM   Subscribe

Help me with a German accent.

I'm playing a 19th century Bavarian Jew in an upcoming play, and while I'm normally pretty good with dialect work, this accent's giving me a little trouble. I'm finding it hard to do without straying into comic-opera territory. Any advice?
posted by EarBucket to Society & Culture (17 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
See if you can locate a copy of the German tutorial of David Allan Stern's "Acting With an Accent." It does stray slightly into exaggeration, but when I was dialect coaching in college, it was a very good starting point.

Also, watch as many movies with German actors as you can. Find travelogues from Germany. Get some feel for the sound as spoken by primary sources.
posted by StrangeTikiGod at 12:46 PM on June 9, 2006

As a supplement:

After the NBA play off games, watch the post-game press conferences with Dirk Nowitzki.

He seems to be reading from notes, and his accent is obviously not 19th-century and a bit Americanized, but it gives you a good idea of how to not sound affected in the flow and timbre of your speech. Also he has the unassuming basso profundo you only get from being 7' 250#. I love listening to him talk.
posted by Marnie at 1:04 PM on June 9, 2006

Although substituing 'v' for every 'w' is in fact the way German is spoken, I don't think an intermediate German speaker of English has much trouble with the w. It's the 'th' that drives 'em batty. Practice substituting 'dare' for every 'there' und so weiter.
posted by Rash at 2:09 PM on June 9, 2006

A few random things that come to mind:

- the v and w thing; I've had several German friends who actually hypercompensated and would pronounce the word "verb" as "werb" and so on.
- to the English-speaking ear Germans pronounce "b" as "p", "d" as "t", and so on. They sound as though they are confusing voiced and unvoiced consonants (It's more complicated than that but it will do for you).
- there is no single German accent, just as there is no single American and no single English accent. The artificial, standard pronunciation is akin to the speech of Hanover, but most people speak with at least a tinge of the speech of their own region. This was even more true in the 19th century of course. Bavarian is quite distinctive! So if realism is important to you, find a Bavarian model, not just any German.
- when you listen to German-language media, take note of the intonation, the pitch-contour of sentences. If you can mimic that then you can ease up on the comic articulation and probably sound more convincing.
- is your Bavarian Jew intended to be native-born or not? If not, a Yiddish-tinged accent from further east might be more appropriate.
- a few consistent tics are more convincing than trying too hard.

"Ve haff vays?" So lame. Try over-pronouncing the doubleyou as though it were unnatural for you, articulate "have" and "ways" very clearly, over-precisely, and concentrate on German-style vowels: pure short i in "we", something like a short e in "hev", something like a pure long e in "ways".

When you get depressed, you can watch this (played to me with glee by my German colleagues a couple of weeks ago).

Disclaimer: not a native speaker, but reasonably fluent.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 2:37 PM on June 9, 2006

PS: you could do worse than try and dig up some recordings of Berthold Brecht. Marked Bavarian accent.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 2:42 PM on June 9, 2006

And an easy way to over-pronounce the /w/ in a way that sounds German is to aspirate it.
posted by klangklangston at 3:23 PM on June 9, 2006

Oh yeah, thought of some more things in the shower.

Don't bother listening to Deutsche Welle, unless you can catch an interview with a German. The announcers have virtually eliminated all trace of German from their English.

That confusion of p and b I alluded to earlier - it's really owing to the fact that most German speakers don't produce the same puff of air that English speakers do. Hold your palm in front of your mouth when you say "boat" and feel the puff. If you were a German speaker there would be little or no puff. To an Anglophone ear, that German "b" can sound a lot like "p", even though the consonant is voiced and distinct from German "p".

German "t" has the tongue tip further from the teeth and closer to the hard palate. German "l" and "r" are also quite different - see here. If you could bring these sounds into your English that would convey a distinct foreign flavour without being too obtrusive.

I think you really have to decide what you're going for here. Is your character actually speaking German, and you're just trying to hint at this for the audience? In this case less is more, unless you are in an episode of 'Allo 'Allo. Or is your character speak ing English as a second language? And if so, what degree of mastery is appropriate?
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 3:25 PM on June 9, 2006

You're acting, not impersonating. Grab the spirit of the accent and keep it consistent. The audience will not care if it's perfect, just that it doesn't break character.
posted by frogan at 3:38 PM on June 9, 2006

He's definitely speaking English, yes. He's native-born Bavarian (his last name's Erlanger, actually), immigrated to the U.S. It's a comic character, but he's based on a real person, so I don't want it to be a goofy accent. Tell you what--here's a sample line. Maybe you can give me some pointers on specific words. I think that'd help me get my tongue around it.

"The cemetery wasn't chartered until February of that year, so this land was not yet officially Oakwood. Within the eyes of the law, then, within the records, the first burial in Oakwood Cemetery was in August, 1869, to one Max Erlanger.

Andrews, history isn't determined by what really happened. It's what people believe happened. The past only exists, we only exist, as others believe we did."

posted by EarBucket at 3:44 PM on June 9, 2006

gargle with rocks. Seriously the Bavarian German is so utterly gutteral that people from other parts of Germany can barely understand it. See if you can find a Munich internet radio station. at
posted by Gungho at 4:02 PM on June 9, 2006

I freak my wife and kids out with my accents, and I get it from listening- alot.

For German I think my first influence was Gen. Bulkarter (sp) from Hogan's Heroes. His acted accent was both crisp and gutteral. In fact I think that was a result of his constricting the top of his throat just a little bit, right behind and below the tonsils. I hope this helps. Accents are a blast.
posted by snsranch at 5:05 PM on June 9, 2006

A character named Erlanger, would logically be from Erlangen. The regional dialect of that area is Frankish. This much I know, however, the only German I spoke a vast amount of English with from there learned in Ireland, and thus had this very strange Irish-German accent thing happening, so sadly I can offer no help as to executing an authentic Frankish accent. A quick google search has come up with nil.

A qwick stab at my wersion ov zee line abofe. (with improvised phonetic spellings (consonants doubled means emphasis))

"The CEMeterrYE wasn't CHAHRterdt until FEB-rooarrye of that yyear, so this lland was not yet offiahllye Oakwoodt. Within the eyes of the laww, then, within the REH-korrds, the fihrst BUhr-ial in Oakwoodt Cemeterrye was in OOW-goost, 1869, to one Mahchs EHR-lahngr."

The important words for authenticity without being campy:

Law: pronounced as if you were overpronouncing "log" and emphasizing the "w".

Burial: Most of the germans I know pronouce the 'u' sound instead of pronouncing it closer to "bearial," as we Anglophiles do: Hence, "buhr-ial."

Max Erlanger. These are words he would have spoken in German, and would thus pronounce them as a German would. An English speaker would say "Maaks Air-laang-err." In german it would come out "Mahchs Ehr-lahngr"
posted by fantastic at 6:31 PM on June 9, 2006

A good resource for studying accents, complete with audio samples of each accent on file (though you might want something more in-depth), is the Speech Accent Archive at
posted by lunchbox at 7:04 PM on June 9, 2006

fantastics pronounciation was pretty good, although i would pronounce "within" as vithinn and "wasn't" as vasn't. As long as you try to stay consistent and don't put overwhelming emphasis on the german accent, i think your audience will get the point. good luck!
posted by gilsonal at 9:34 PM on June 9, 2006

The accent above was buffoonish and inaccurate, at least to my eyes.

Things to clarify— The "th" isn't a /d/, it's an aspirated /th/. The "w" should also be aspirated /wh/, like some New Englanders say "what." The p's and b's should be unaspirated (something that's really hard to do consistently, especially with words like "pot" (try saying "pot" like "spot"). Move all of your vowels further back in your mouth, and practice the consonant-free "ch." Listen to Germans saying "ich," it's a pretty distinct sound made with a consonation that exists like vermouth in a very dry martini— just a hint.

And though it wasn't in that line, remember that there's no "j" sound (or hard "g") in German, which is a pretty good argument against calling themselves Germans, actually. The sound of a "j" is the "y" in English.
posted by klangklangston at 7:29 AM on June 10, 2006

Thanks for the help, everybody. We've started rehearsal and open on Monday.

After discussion with the director and playwright, I went with sort of a hybrid German-Yiddish accent that I think sounds pretty convincing. Your suggestions here have been invaluable.
posted by EarBucket at 5:19 AM on June 18, 2006

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