Language Matters: Assorted Pronunciation Gripes

For the adult learner, foreign languages aren’t exactly easy to get one’s tongue around. They have sounds that just don’t exist in their native language. I, for one, will forever struggle to produce the trilled Spanish “rr”. I can just about fake a single “r”, but the double one, forget it. Although, some kind Spaniards once complemented me on my “r”s. But they might have said “arse”, I can’t be sure.

Anyway, I have every sympathy for Spanish speakers who cannot produce a German “ü” or “ö”, never mind the many diphthongs that litter the English language, or Brits who can’t quite muster the phlegm-hacking Spanish “j”.

What constantly puzzles me, though, is people’s apparent inability to reproduce the same sounds in a foreign language, which readily exist in their native tongue.

Last week, there was an amusing little discussion happening on Bev’s blog (see this post & comments), about why Germans insist on pronouncing “cat” and “hat” as “cet” and “het”, respectively. There’s also no audible difference when most of them they say “man” vs. “men”. Although it was a long time ago, I do vaguely recall that my (German) English teachers spoke like that. Why on earth, why?!? It’s totally baffling.

English speakers (probably as an act of revenge) will keep pronouncing the German “z” like an English “z”, staring off words like Zeitgeist with a long soft ssss sound, which is equally annoying. English is replete with German “z” sounds (sounds just like the “t’s” in what’s  and that’s), so this problem should not arise in the first place.

OK, let’s pick on Spanish speakers for a bit 😉

I understand why it is difficult for them to produce complex vowel sounds, but it seems that, for no other reason than sheer laziness, they just lop final consonants off English (and also German) words, or take perverse pleasure in maiming them in some other way. So, “thing” atrophies into “thin”, even though they can pronounce the syllable “-ing” just fine, e.g. as in the Spanish slang word “minga”, which means “dick”. “New York” becomes “New Yor”, “Hong Kong” becomes “Honkon”, “bank”  becomes “ban”, etc, and this is only the tip of the iceberg.

Whenever the (German central bank) “Bundesbank” is mentioned on the news (i.e. every day sixty times), for instance, giving the final “k” the chop effectively turns it into the “Bundesbahn”, which is Germany’s National Rail company. Also a big institution, granted, but this is where the similarity ends.

Now, the Spanish word for bank is “banco”, which is virtually identical to the English and German equivalent, save for the vowel at the end, but why the “k” has to die together with the “o” is beyond my comprehension. Surely, if you can say “banco”, you can say “bank”????

Another thing that really grates on me is when words terminating in “m”, are suddenly pronounced as if they ended with an “n”.

OK, to be fair, not every Spanish speaker does this, there’s about a 50/50 split. Up for this type of consonant buggery are, for example, all Latin words ending in -um. (These are part of Spanish vocabulary just as they are part of English and German). So, curriculum and referendum turn into “curriculun” and “referendun“. I’ve even seen them spelt like that by Spanish people.

In the same vein, the .com domain in website addresses morphs into .con. Now, hearing a company advertising itself as “www.usedcars.con” wouldn’t particularly entice me to buy from them, I must say.

Well then, let’s hear it from everybody else – do you have a mental list of particular pronunciation pet peeves for which, in your opinion, there’s just no valid excuse?

While you’re all ruminating over that, I’ll be trying to kick my “r”s into shape… sigh.

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73 thoughts on “Language Matters: Assorted Pronunciation Gripes

  1. bevchen

    http://www.usedcars.con... probably quite appropriate 😉

    I was guilty of pronouncing a German z like in English until a German teacher at uni fiiiiinally told us “Z’s in German are always pronounced like the z in pizza.” Since then, I’ve done it right… much to the astonishment of most Germans. I can do a German ch as well (both kinds) but I will NEVER manage to distinguish u and ü! And I can only manage a German r once in a blue moon… awkward seeing as my surname starts with one :-/

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  2. linnetmoss

    Thanks for enlightening me on the proper pronunciation of German Z! I only had German for reading knowledge, so I missed out on the pronunciation. My students in ancient Greek always have trouble with initial xi (“ks”) and psi (“ps”). As well as names like Ptolemaios where the first two letters are both pronounced. And intervocalic zeta is pronounced “zd.” There’s really no end to the fun!

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  3. El Inmigrante

    Why do Spanish speakers not pronounce the ‘k’ at the end of -bank or the ‘t’ at the end of compliment?..Laziness!!!. I sometimes hear myself pronouncing words half way, and I wonder why I do that. We speak and want to speak as fast as we can, so we can interrupt others’ ideas and speeches ;).
    When it comes to English, my biggest challenge is the S at the beginning of a word. You should see my partner laughing nonstop every time I say Bruce (E)Springsteen or (E)Spanish…I can’t help it. It’s just impossible not to have an E before S…that’s just not right!.
    The Dutchies have the same problem as Germans: hat vs. het…same thing. It is so bad that there is even an Internet provider called XS4ALL (They meant Access for all, but the A has become an E)…hilarious!. A telephone provider has a whole concept about offering the cheapest prices. They use a SHEEP in their commercials. Why?? because it is CHEAP…hahahaa

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      1. bevchen

        Oh yes… I have one German friend who makes just about every possible mistake a German speaker can make, and he’s constantly going on about how “sheep” things are. It’s either a pronunciation issue or he has a thing for sheep 😉

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  4. Anna

    Russians have a hard time with Ws (What, Where etc are turned into Vot, Verre), and thetas (Th) – that becomes a Z.

    As for Americans speaking Russian, dont even get me started. I refuse to go by Anya (which would be my proper Russian informal) bc it’s turned into Ann’yah. That is NOT my name. For the record, it’s also not Anna as is AH-nah. It’s Anna as in EEH-na.

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    1. ladyofthecakes Post author

      Germans have infamous problems with Vs and Ws. The latter doesn’t exist in German. They can actually do it, but then they overcompensate by turning Vs in into Ws indiscriminately. Actually, I sometimes have trouble with sequences featuring alternating words starting with Ws and Vs.
      EEH-na. Who knew?!

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    2. catalinadelbosque

      Americans speaking anything other than English annoys me. When I was erasmus there was this girl from the US, and looking back we were being a bit horrible, but we really used to laugh behind her back about her “lack of effort” on pronunciation!

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  5. Ashley

    Maybe I can give some insight about the mispronunciation of the word “thing” by Spanish speakers-
    In my Spanish phonetics class in college, we had to separate Spanish words by their syllables, and we learned that Spanish words are separated by syllables much differently than English words. The word “minga” would be separated into two syllables: min-ga (not ming-a). Since the N and the G are separated, this might be why it is easy for them to pronounce “thing” like “thin” – it’s just not common in Spanish to end a word (or syllable) with the “ng” sound.

    By the way, I’m totally with you on the trilled “rr” sound – I’ve never been able to do it and I’ve tried for years. I think (for some people) if you grow up pronouncing that sound, it’s next to impossible to learn as an adult!

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    1. ladyofthecakes Post author

      Thanks for this! I’m sure there are good reasons why these pronunciation fallacies occur, at least initially, if you’re either totally unfamiliar with a language and/or you’re a beginner. But I’m always surprised when people, who’ve reached advanced level, haven’t ironed these (easy-to-fix) things out.
      As for the two of us, we’ll probably die trying to trill, sigh.

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  6. eminthecaucasus

    I did reasonably OK with phonics in Spanish and Russian. And then I started learning Georgian, where there are three or four sounds that I would call “k”. The worst of them is “ყ”–it’s described in linguistics as “a uvular ejective, also pronounced as a voiceless uvular stop”. What I gather from my Georgian teachers’ descriptions is that you try to swallow your tongue and make a sound, and that’s correct. Then you have to try to pronounce it in the middle of a consonant cluster. ვაი მე!

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      1. eminthecaucasus

        I do still have my tongue, but in class we had to learn a tongue twister using that sound repeatedly, and it genuinely gave me a sore throat. I’ve decided I’d rather have an accent.

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  7. Jess

    The only way I have managed to get the French husband to pronounce ‘shit’ and ‘sheet’, ‘beach’, ‘bitch’, and ‘batch’ correctly is get him to close his eyes before repeating after me. No idea why that works. He cannot do it with eyes open.
    That said, my father-in-law regularly teases me about my terrible mispronounciation of ‘ou’ and ‘u’ sounds – I often say ‘en rut’ instead of ‘en route’ (‘in heat’ instead of ‘on the way’ – although depending on who I am talking about that may explain why they are running late…). I am, however, lucky enough to have in laws who chuckle when I respond to their well-meaning corrections with ‘je m’en fous de tout, le trou de cul est dans la rue’ (I don’t give a f**k at all, the bumhole is in the street’. Or perhaps they just don’t understand and think I am making a polite comment about the weather…

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    1. ladyofthecakes Post author

      ROFL! Aw, Jess, that was priceless 😉
      I must try the closing-the-eyes thing with the Spanish people. Sheet and shit poses a major problem for them, too.
      Done with the PhD yet? Last year…?

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    2. TheLastWord

      Nice in laws? Or just very polite? That was funny.

      BTW: this problem exists elsewhere in the world too. For instance, in one of India’s 14 official languages, Bengali, speakers habitually swap “ah” and “uh”, for example ‘My hurt is harting” for “My heart is hurting”. “Gray’s Elegy in a country Charchyurd”.

      Also, there are many languages where certain sounds don’t exist. The Hindi “kh” becomes a “k” when English speakers pronounce it. Also, the Hindi “the” becomes “du” in English.

      And why sounds are not reproduced in a different language even though the speaker is well capable of making that sound, I don’t know. Maybe someday some will conduct a study and tell us why.

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      1. ladyofthecakes Post author

        These studies are already there… I was just too lazy to look. I prefer to get irritated and rant 😉
        Funny examples! I knew a Lithuanian lady who did something similar… “her hair is here” would turn into “here her is hair”.

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    1. Debbie

      Seriously though, I have the same problem with trilling rrs. I have decided that it’s just impossible. With many foreign sounds it is possible if you are taught how, and remember what to do when flustered. For example the Russian L which needs a different tongue position to a British L. But the Spanish trill is a physical thing and I just can’t do it!
      Great post. And don’t get me started on spelling. Especially apostrophe’s (yeah, yeah, only joking!)

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      1. Debbie

        I think the “het” / “hat” problem originates from English teachers who have a plum in their mouth. A quaint English saying for very posh people, but you get the idea. They wear hets all the time!

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      2. ladyofthecakes Post author

        Yes, often it’s perfectly possible to produce a new sound. Like with the Catalan “L”, which is just like the Portuguese “L” – slightly different to and English or a Spanish L, but perfectly achievable. Also, in Portuguese, the final “L” (at the end of a word) is pronounced like some Londoners mispronounce the “L” in “milk” (“miuwk”). That totally amuses me 😉

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  8. Daniela

    Haha yes! The Seitgeist always makes me laugh. And also Gesündheit, I mean why?! But you know what drives me really up the wall? When I see a billboard ad with words like Autobähn and Lederhösen. Come on! The umlaut is not there to indicate that it is a German word!

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  9. June

    I was chatting with a Lithuanian friend the other day who told me that her English teacher in school told them to pronounce “th” as “z”, as in “zis” and “zat”. According to this teacher, the pronunciation of the “th” with the tongue against the back of the teeth was “old-fashioned” and the “z” was in vogue. The teacher was obviously not a native English teacher! If the teachers are getting it wrong, what hope have the students?!
    And on that point 🙂 it’s “should have” and “could have”, not “should of” and “could of”. The latter misspelling comes from the pronunciation of the shortened form, “should’ve” and “could’ve”.
    Ws and Vs are also a problem here in Lithuania, probably for the same reason as in Germany – only the V exists in Lithuanian and I think they get confused when they encounter a language with both. Even my husband does it, and his surname begins with a V!
    Really poor English translations on products don’t help either. I see things like “Lemon taste” all the time. It’s “Lemon flavour”, folks!
    I’m sure my Lithuanian pronunciation is not great and I know I butcher my French in places so I can’t really talk. It’s fun, though!

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    1. ladyofthecakes Post author

      The Germans do the “z” thing, too, as the “th” doesn’t exist. There’s also a psychological component to it, I feel. The “th” is associated with someone having a lisp, which is embarrassing, and so they feel slightly silly pronouncing a “th”.
      The should/could/would/ of thing – I’ve only seen native English speakers do this, never a foreigner. Foreigners understand the difference between an auxiliary verb and a preposition. Native English speakers are the only people I’ve ever come across in my life time who didn’t know what a verb or a noun was.

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  10. catalinadelbosque

    I can forgive any non-native of English for their pronunciation errors, I think so long as I understand, I don’t worry about that. What peeves me more is English people pronouncing things wrong : “pacific” instead of “specific” is the biggest one! Some of it stems from childhood though, kids say things wrong, like “bokkle” instead of “bottle” etc., I understand it’s about speech development to interchange certain sounds until they get it right, but their parents think it’s cute and never correct them until they grow up to piss off people like me!
    As for me speaking other languages, I can do the “rr”, and the jota in Spanish, and in French it’s more about working out the vowel order, like the town Nouilly is pronounced like Noo-iy-ee. The only way I’ve done it is to practice, practice, practice – watch movies and repeat. Jess is right, close your eyes 🙂

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  11. TBM

    In high school I took Spanish. I still remember the day I had to stand in front of the class and make the double rr sound. I couldn’t do it, no matter how many times the teacher tried to “teach” me in front of 30 of my peers. Then she threw up her arms and said I was hopeless. To this day, two decades later, I still can’t. Guess she was right. By the way, have I ever mentioned that I didn’t like that Spanish teacher.

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      1. TBM

        I played the violin for a year. What did you play? And don’t worry. I still stroll up to every bartender I see and order a beer!

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      2. TBM

        I tried out for the choir in elementary school. Everyone made the cut except for three out of sixty. I was one of the three. During choir practice I had “art” class.

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      3. TBM

        Are we related? dude, I can’t dance. Not one bit. Took tap and ballet when I was a kid. Lasted one day. But I loved walking around in my tap shoes.

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  12. Giovannoni Claudine

    It’s always funny how I can still “decipher” the mother tongue of those who express themselves in another language. I started in 1985, when I had to accompany a multitude of “genius on two legs” between a continent and the other…
    Working for an airline, it was a kind of bet (since passengers walked down the jetty) to identify their nationality! I guarantee that was to die laughing… always trying not to show it otherwise “customers” could also be offended. The funniest are the Chinese trying to speak Italian… They can not pronounce the “r” 🙂
    As for me, I love the “human touch” (I find it hard to cope with this virtuality, but it’s better than nothing). A bit ’cause of my previous job, a little out of curiosity, I learned seven languages. I don’t speak them perfectly, I make many mistakes in pronunciation and syntax… But I can explain myself! This is wonderful…

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    1. ladyofthecakes Post author

      Yes it is 🙂
      Hmmm… people from Beijing do a pretty mean “r”… maybe it’s the Cantonese speakers that can’t. It’s hard for the Japanese, they don’t have a proper “r”. Instead, they have a sound that’s somewhere between a really soft “r” and and “L”.

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  13. Veronica

    This isn’t a peeve, I’m just charmed by the way Spanish people can’t pronounce words beginning with s+consonant, so they have to put an e on the beginning. So English “stress” becomes Spanish “estres” and my husband’s name becomes Esteve.

    I can do the jota no problem but Spanish (and French) r’s? No way!

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  14. everywherebuthome

    Does word-final [ŋ] exist in Spanish? L1 interference isn’t just about whether a sound is present in the first language; rules of syllabic structure and consonant clustering carry over as well. Thus Esteve.

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  15. Mali

    Wow, I’ve loved this post and this discussion. I’ve just spent three months trying to teach myself Italian (in Italy), and struggled with the rr sounds there too.

    I had to laugh at the reference to het and cet. The Australians would say that’s exactly how New Zealanders pronounce hat and cat. We of course would beg to differ.

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  16. Rachel

    Well, yes, I always wondered whether the Germans learnt to speak English from the Kiwis…

    I can sometimes hear the difference between “u” and “ü”, but I’m not entirely certain if I can pronounce it. It gets tricky in words like wurde and würde, musste and müsste. I haven’t been corrected on it in at least six months, which hopefully means I haven’t been pronouncing it wrong.

    One thing that really confuses me about German accents is the “v” and “w” thing. I mean, I can totally understand if a German-speaker is pronouncing “vhere” and “ve” for “where” and “w”, but… “wery”? “Woice”? Really, why? I’ve had some teachers who completely swap it over – words with a “w”, they still pronounce with a “v”, and words with a “v” somehow become a “w”. (“Ve von’t go outside today, it’s wery vet.”)

    This year, after visiting the US, I did my Intensivstudie on a comparison between the Amish and a group of German-speaking settlers near where I live. (It’s a South Australian high school thing. Don’t question it.) And my teacher spent the entire year pronouncing it “Ay-mish”. I was just thinking, “You speak German! They speak German! How do you pronounce ‘Amisch’ in German? Why can’t you say it like that?!”

    My other pet peeve is people who see a word that’s spelt the same as another word in their language, and pronounce it like that. I had a boy in my Year 9 French class who kept talking about the “guide touristic” rather than the “geed tourisTEEK” (guide touristique). I don’t know how many times in my first year or two of German I heard the teacher saying, “We don’t die in German! It’s ‘dee’!”

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    1. ladyofthecakes Post author

      Plenty of material there, you should turn this into a post!
      Pronunciation of foreign words is really bad here in Spain, and I’m not surprised as to why – they hear it wrong on radio and TV, even on national Spanish radio, so you can’t really blame the general populace.

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    2. solberg73

      A quick field note: (I grew up in Lancaster Co, PA) If they say AY-mish (long ‘A’ they read the word somewhere, or simply heard it mispronounced. AH-mish is the standard US Eng vocalization, but we ourselves mostly say ‘Uh-mish’. PA German was my first language, but I haven’t been back home to use it much in decades.

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      1. ladyofthecakes Post author

        I’ve read up a bit about Amish culture and that particular “version” of German – very interesting. I don’t think I’d understand much more of the spoken version than a few words here and there. Probably more if I saw it written down.

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  17. solberg73

    Oh I’m pretty sure you’d crack the code quickly.Lots of feature from the parent Deutsch have simply been discarded, and the dialect is perilously close to just a way to tell your dad which cows you’ve milked, and your mom what you think of her cooking. My grt-uncle was one of the only literati, translating Shakespeare and Milton. (to mild audience reaction). I left the party quite early, switched to Hebrew full time, but also raised (am raising?) probably the world’s only two Amish Yemenites here.
    Oh, and if i started commenting on the fascinating point of this post, I’d be typing for a week. I do most of my very similar ranting on my own site, ha. …and so I’ll save you from the joy of hearing about ‘pope’ music, as opposed to ‘roke’ (like you said, “when the speakers own language has the very sounds the locals refuse to use”). Don’t they have ears? I’ll check and get back to you.

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