Tag Archives: loanwords pronunciation

Who pronounces foreign words more correctly: Yanks or Brits?


Nowadays it seems to be good etiquette to pronounce loanwords as closely to their native pronunciation as possible. So how do the Yanks and Brits fare comparatively in the face of this challenge? Brits are known to lean more  towards pronouncing words literally/phonetically as their English spellings prescribe, whatever their origins; Americans, on the other hand, are more bravely inclined to try and approximate the original pronunciation — even if the attempt is ultimately misguided. (The subject of “hyperforeignisms is tackled further down — and Eddie Izzard puts in his two cents too.) As well as the particular sound of the word’s vowels and consonants, it’s also a matter of syllable emphasis that helps determine how much a word sounds like its foreign forebears. 

Although Americans and Brits tend to agree on the pronunciation of most of their linguistic immigrants, there are a number of words that we approach differently depending on which side of the Atlantic we’re from. Here’s a selection of those words, and I’ve denoted with a larger flag the nation that seems to come closer to the original pronunciation (based on both sounds and syllable emphasis). Strangely enough, despite the theory above about Brits sticking to their own phonetic rules, 9 of the 16 words below are pronounced more “authentically” by the Brits, at least by my reckoning. Go figure.

herb:    unionjack HERB        usflag  ERB


croissant:   unionjack  KWAH-song        usflag kruh-SAHNT


valet:    unionjack  VAL-lett        usflag  val-LAY 


fillet:   unionjack  FILL-uht         usflag  fi-LAY


mauve:  unionjack  MOHV (rhymes with drove)       usflag  MOV


crepe:  unionjack  CREP          usflag  CRAYP


address (noun, postal sense):  unionjack  a-DRESS       usflag  ADD-ress


cigarette:   unionjack  si-guh-RET       usflag  SI-guh-ret


paella:    unionjack  pah-YEAH-luh       usflag   pah-YAY-yuh


basil:   unionjack  BAZ-il         usflag BAY-zil


lieutenant:  unionjack  lef-TEN-uhnt       usflag  loo-TEN-uhnt 


humo(u)r:  unionjack   HYOO-muh         usflag   YOO-murr


Van Gogh:  unionjack  van-GOKH (like “loch”, Lochness) or van-GOFF    usflag  van-GO


schedule:    unionjack  SHED-yool       usflag  SKED-yool


Risotto:    unionjack  rih-ZOT-toe       usflag  rih-ZOH-toe


Pasta:   unionjack  PASS-tuh (“pass” like “lass”)      usflag  PAH-stuh


Please add other words to the comments section below.

Now we come to “hyperforeignisms”: this is where English-speakers try unsuccessfully to emulate the pronunciation of the word’s original language — by getting either the country of origin or the native pronunciation wrong.

Take the word parmesan. Although it names an Italian cheese, it actually derives its spelling from French and therefore should sound like PARM-uh-zan (and that’s how Brits verbalize the stuff they sprinkle on their spaghetti). However, it is often mispronounced as parm-uh-ZHAHN by Americans, who are presumably trying to approximate the Italian name for the cheese — parmigiano, which is pronounced parm-uh-ZHAHN-o in Italian). Sorry guys: it’s a French word.

Lingerie is another one. Americans often call their intimate clothing luhn-juh-RAY — making the final syllable sound like the many French loanwords that end in -é, -er, -et and -ez  and are pronounced “-AY”. Yes, lingerie is a French word. But it ends in ‘ie’ – and that sounds like ‘ee’, not ‘ay’. Oy. Repartee also falls into this category: even though it’s from the French word repartie (which sounds like party with a “re” in front), it’s often pronounced by Americans as reparTAY.

Here’s an interesting one. Forte — when referring to a personal strength, something you’re especially good at (or, in fencing, the strongest part of a sword) — comes from the French word, meaning “strong”, and therefore the final ‘e’ should be silent: “FORT”. This shouldn’t be confused with the Italian word forte, which means loud, whose final ‘e’ is pronounced “AY”. But we all say FORT-ay when we’re talking about our personal strengths — just proving that pronunciation isn’t necessarily one of them. Hey — it sounds foreign, so surely we must be saying it correctly.

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Let’s give Eddie Izzard the last word on this subject of pronunciation. Take it away, Eddie: