W for v substitution when some Germans speak English
August 8, 2006 6:29 AM   Subscribe

Why do many German speakers pronounce the v sound in English as a w?

It's not that every German I know does this, but this is pretty common. From the languages that I speak to a greater or lesser degree (Spanish, Dutch, French) I know that there are inherant things in those languages which greatly affect the way that a native speaker pronounces English, but I can't quite see this in German. I mean there is a strong v sound in German. I've spoken about this with friends who speak German and no one has an answer.
posted by ob to Writing & Language (24 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I have never once observed this. If anything they subsitute a V sound where there are W's.
posted by phrontist at 6:35 AM on August 8, 2006

It's true for Danes too (at least the one I dated).

In German the symbol "W" is pronounced as the English "V", and the symbol "V" as the English "F".

Sop I think the German speaking English has some representation of the way the English word is written in his head, has the idea that she must remember the funny different English pronunciation, overrides his German way of interpreting that (which would be to pronounce it like a German "V", that is, an English "F"), and overrides "too much", coming up with the English "W" sound which (so far as I know) doesn't exist in German.
posted by orthogonality at 6:37 AM on August 8, 2006

I have observed this also in my Romanian-speaking and Russian-speaking friends. I know at least that in Romanian there are several borrowed words from German, including "un vagon."
posted by vkxmai at 6:43 AM on August 8, 2006

Yes, they do that all the time, but I've heard it the other way round. Actually what prompted asking the question at this time (apart from having a conversation about this this weekend) was watching the new DaimlerChrysler commercials with Dr Z and him saying "enwironment" instead of environment.
posted by ob at 6:43 AM on August 8, 2006

Sorry I spent too long typing that, I should have previewed!
posted by ob at 6:44 AM on August 8, 2006

Japanese people do the same with R and L. That one really confuses me, as they often seem to switch the two.
posted by wackybrit at 6:51 AM on August 8, 2006

I work with a German who lives in a "willage" and likes to play "wolleyball". I'm not a German speaker but perhaps the "v" sound in German is pronounced more like an English "f" like in the word "Vater", but it's just a guess.
posted by jontyjago at 6:55 AM on August 8, 2006

Wackybrit - Japanese has a sound that's kind of midway between an R and an L, which leads to all kinds of confusion when a native Japanese speaker speaks languages that have a distinction between the two sounds.
posted by bshort at 6:56 AM on August 8, 2006

but perhaps the "v" sound in German is pronounced more like an English "f" like in the word "Vater", but it's just a guess.

Exactly. "Volkswagen" is pronounced, in German, "Folks-vagen".
posted by The Michael The at 7:03 AM on August 8, 2006

I have observed this with some German speakers, I presumed it was just the speaker remembering that in English we pronouce the W sound differently than they do in Germany (w in English, V in German as in Was) and then applying it backward, pronouncing an English V as an English W.
posted by biffa at 7:04 AM on August 8, 2006

FWIW When I was teaching my mother-in-law English (She speaks Romanian and Russian), I used the Romanian approximation for the "w" sound in English to teach her how to pronounce it properly. She still gets it wrong though, not because she can't remember, but because it's more natural for that to be a "v" sound. So for phonetically spelling the word "water" in Rom. I do this: "uatăr"
posted by vkxmai at 7:04 AM on August 8, 2006

I once knew a Latvian woman who had lived in Vaverly, Eeova (Waverly, Iowa). Orthogonality spelled it out best.
posted by mimi at 7:10 AM on August 8, 2006

The problem is that the sound doesn't exist in German and categorial perception makes it hard to just acquire it.
I'm German and I know there is a difference but I can't really hear it.
This paper [pdf] discusses the absence of that sound in German. It's about German and Dutch but I think it's the same for German and English (at least that's what I've been told, I can't tell obiviously).
posted by snownoid at 7:10 AM on August 8, 2006

You see I would expect German speakers to pronounce it like enfironment (to use my previous example) but not as enwironment. Is it the way that English is/was taught in schools in German speaking countries? I mean maybe there was so much emphasis put on not pronouncing v's as f's that started some of the confusion?
posted by ob at 7:13 AM on August 8, 2006

Well, W is a weird letter to begin with. According to Wikipedia:
The Latin [w] sound developed into Romance [v]; therefore V no longer adequately represented Germanic [w]. In German — as in Romance — the phoneme [w] was lost; this is why German W represents [v] rather than [w]. In Dutch, W is a labiodental approximant (with the exception of words with EEUW, which have /eːw/), or other diphthongs containing -UW.

There are only five major European languages that use W in native words: English, German, Polish, Dutch, and Welsh. Only English uses it to represent a voiced labial-velar approximant though, German and Polish uses it for a voiced labiodental fricative (with Polish using Ł for the labial-velar approximant), while Dutch uses it for a labiodental approximant.
posted by magodesky at 7:14 AM on August 8, 2006

That's an interesting paper snownoid. I can see how it works even though the w sound is much more marked in English (as magodesky has pointed out) than in Dutch. This makes me realize that the Germans that I know who don't do this seem to have been speaking English for quite a long time (some since early childhood) so this may be something that can be unlearned...
posted by ob at 7:23 AM on August 8, 2006

I've heard german people talk about "vater wapour", so it's clearly not because they lack the ability to pronounce something. My (slightly-educated with 1 class in linguistics) guess is that it's because rather than changing two sounds (v to w and w to v), they only need to change one sound (v to w, while w stays the same (pronounced as "v" to english-speaking ears)).

Brains are lazy and like to keep things as simple as possible, and provided they don't run into too much confusion this way, there is no real pressure for the person to correct the rule in their head.
posted by cardboard at 7:24 AM on August 8, 2006

Thanks for the great answers folks. This has got quite fascinating (in a geeky way...)
posted by ob at 7:38 AM on August 8, 2006

I always enjoyed watching the German broadcasts of NFL games, especially when the Minnesota played. I always laughed when they mentioned the Wikings.
posted by vagabond at 8:13 AM on August 8, 2006

[I'm German] On a somewhat related sidenote, I've always pronounced Auden's initials as "vee aitch" in my head (and still do), even though I know it's a "double-you". Something about the German letter W (pronounced "veh") combined with an automatic attempt to make it sound more English, I guess.

Not sure about the V vs. W issue as it applies to the pronunciation of actual words, though. I have more problems with the English R, personally.
posted by mumble at 8:55 AM on August 8, 2006 [1 favorite]

Isn't the letter "w" pronounced "double-V" in German? Makes more sense to me than calling it a double "U" (since IMO only young girls draw the character in that curvy way).
posted by Rash at 9:21 AM on August 8, 2006

I'm an American living in Wienna, Austria, and I hear this all the time.

I'm with the confusion crowd - German-speakers recall that V and W are pronounced differently in English, but many simply mix up the replacement sounds.

On a related note, two things that took me a long time to get used to hearing were Fow Veh (VW / Volkswagen) and Beh Em Veh (BMW).
posted by syzygy at 9:21 AM on August 8, 2006

Isn't the letter "w" pronounced "double-V" in German?

I believe that's French [.wav file].
posted by mumble at 9:44 AM on August 8, 2006

I had a Turkish acquaintance who used to do this. Once I saw him playing Soul Calibur 2, and inquiring as to the whereabouts of the character Voldo, he asked: "Where's Waldo?"
posted by ludwig_van at 11:26 AM on August 8, 2006

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