E-I-E-I…Oh.

When I started at the local U.S. subsidiary HQ of a big German electronics conglomerate, I was amazed at how many local native English speakers could say the name of our company without flinching (hint: rhymes with “Beemans”), but were always unsure how to pronounce transplanted-from-Germany names if they contained an EI or IE vowel combination.

It’s really not hard in German. But given the

I before E, except under plenty of totally arbitrary circumstances

maxim many of us learned while trying to master the English spelling of achieve and receive and believe and onomatopoeia, perhaps you can’t blame the native anglophones for being a little wackelig about the sounds E and I make when used together in other languages, too.

It breaks down like this: for any EI or IE or AI combination, as in

    EI

  • Ei
  • Reis
  • Gleis
  • Preis
  • Maisel’s Weiße
    IE

  • Diebstahl
  • Miete
  • Prien am Chiemsee
  • wieder
  • zufrieden
    AI

  • Kaiser
  • Main
  • Maisel’s Weiße
  • Waisenkind

All you have to do is say the English name of the second vowel.

Wait… What?

It’s true. For any German word, this rule holds true. All bets are off on imported words, or words like Familie, where the I and the E are forming different syllables.

OK, but what about the Y combinations, smart guy?

Please recall that in many languages (at least two come to mind), a Y is nothing but a Greek I (por ejemplo, “i griega” en el español). So that’s why all the many ways to write the name

  • Maier
  • Mayer
  • Meier
  • Meyer

result in the same pronunciation. Treat those Y’s like I’s, and the rule holds true again — as well as the caveats. Pronounce the AY in Haarspray like the English word spray (but not the Haar, natch!). Oddly enough, we have heard “okay” pronounced in German by Germans in informal situations as “okai” (rhymes with “eye”) when indicating a resolution to an open question or acknowledging that a process has reached its logical conclusion (at least for the present). Not sure what that’s about.

What’s the big deal if you get IE and EI mixed up in practice? Probably nothing. But if you don’t know the difference between Spieß and Speis, schießen und scheißen, then you’ll sound pretty silly. Especially if you goof up scheißen.

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