You say erb, I say herb: American vs. British pronunciation of loan words

You say ‘erb (using the silent French ‘h’), I say herb (the way it’s spelt). Here’s a good example of the difference between the American pronunciation (usually referred to as General American, or GA) and the Received Pronunciation (British English, RP) of foreign loan words — ie. words that have been adopted into standard English from other languages, many from centuries ago. Many will argue that RP has tended more to assimilate these words and pronounce them according to English spelling-pronunciation rules rather than to the way the original word sounds. So fillet (or filet), meaning a small boneless cut of meat (derived from the French word filet), is pronounced by the Brits as “FILL-uht”, in the way that its English spelling prescribes. Americans prefer to approximate the French accent with their more exotic rendering, “fi-LAY”. However, there are many exceptions to this rule, as illustrated in some of the examples below.

Especially when it comes to words of French derivation, the distinction between GA and RP is governed largely by stress, with the Americans sticking more faithfully to the French tendency to emphasize the last syllable of the word, whatever the spelling (as in fillet above). Hence baton, beret, ballet and debris are all voiced differently on opposite sides of the Atlantic, with RP placing emphasis on the first half of the word and GA on the second; attaché and fiancé follow suit, with the second and final syllables stressed respectively by the Brits and the Americans. (There are exceptions; see below.) Croissant is another curious example: Americans order a “kruh-SAHNT”, where Brits prefer a KWAH-sonn. But this is a great example of just how these rules of thumb don’t really hold up: whereas GA follows the French rule of emphasis here by stressing the second syllable, RP probably does a better job of imitating the French vibe by approximating both the vowel and consonant sounds of the original word (“kw” for “cr”, “ah” for “oi”, the silent “nt” following the nasal-sounding “o”). So at the end of the day, there’s really no hard-and-fast rule about whether GA or RP more closely follows the original pronunciation of the word in its native language, and indeed this seems to vary according to the original language in question. The wonderful blog Separated by a Common Language looks more specifically at Spanish loan words and how and why they’re pronounced in GA & RP, and there’s a discussion about how German words are handled on the Word Reference Forum.

Here are a few examples of RP and GA pronunciations, with the one I feel more closely approximates the original word bolded.

herb: RP: herb; GA: erb

croissant: RP: KWAH-sonn; GA: kruh-SAHNT

valet: RP: VAL-lett; GA: val-LAY

fillet: RP: FILL-ett; GA: fi-LAY

address (as noun in postal sense): RP: a-DRESS; GA: ADD-ress

cigarette: RP: si-guh-RET; GA: SI-guh-ret

Van Gogh: RP: either Van-GOKH (rhyming with the “loch” of the Lochness Monster) or Van-GOFF; GA: Van-GO

schedule: RP: SHED-yule; GA: SKED-yule (Greek “sch” words are generally pronounced with the hard ‘k’, eg. school)

Risotto: RP: ri-ZOT-toe; GA: ri-ZOH-toe

Pasta: RP: PAS-tuh (first syllable rhyming with “lass”); GA: “PAH-stuh”

27 thoughts on “You say erb, I say herb: American vs. British pronunciation of loan words

  1. Jeff Spurgeon

    Your citation of “herb” vs. “erb” brings to mind Eddie Izzard’s remark in his show “Dress to Kill”:
    “It’s pronounced ‘herb’ because it has a fuckin’ ‘h’ in it.”
    It doesn’t read funny at all here, but in the context of the show it works very well.

    1. Mike

      Although in British English we pronounce ‘honesty’ with a silent ‘h’. So the joke, although funny, doesn’t give a true picture.

    2. J Manning

      Good article. Although have to say, brits do not pronounce croissant with a G on the end. However it is true we don’t pronounce the T, whereas Americans do. So it’s closer to kruh-son.

    3. Rab

      Herb is Herb, the Americans think they are being ‘Cultured’ but instead simply being stupid

      A Hotel is commonly correct, but An ‘Ohel is also correct in English

      And as to thought that Aluminium and Laboratory can be Aluminum and Labratory is simply ‘Peasant Speech’

      1. Heath

        We don’t think we are being cultured when we say herb without the ‘h’ it’s simply that the ‘h’ wasn’t pronounced at the time of colonization. That’s right, that the ‘h’ is pronounced in British English is a relatively recent phenomenon. Once our countries parted ways, the language largely did too. Further, French is spoken on this continent in close proximity to the original colonies, so the silent ‘h’ would be consistently reinforced. To mimic how the British pronounce things when we have our own pronunciation would be considered an affectation. Why? Because we no longer answer to the British crown and Britain is no longer the center of the English-speaking world.

  2. Jeff Spurgeon

    You may add to your list, (courtesy of our mutual friend G. Parker):
    RP: CON-tribute; GA: con-TRIB-ute
    Mr. Parker’s and my frequent use of that word in our vocation brought it to my attention as an example for your list.
    The ADD-ress/a-DRESS combination offers a chance to look at something pronunciation maven Charles Harrington Elster, in his, “The Big Book of Beastly Mispronunciations,” refers to as Phyfe’s Rule, from a 1926 writing by W.H.P. Phyfe, author of such gripping tomes as “18,000 Words Often Mispronounced.” (Really, Mr. Phyfe? Why bother trying to speak at all?) Phyfe describes a general rule, with exceptions to prove it, that two-syllable words that are both verbs and nouns are pronounced with first-syllable emphasis as nouns, and second-syllable emphasis as verbs. Among the examples are combat, commune, compound, protest, and refuse. He cites address as one of the exceptions, to which I take exception. (He writes for American readers/speakers.) It’s interesting to note when and how the rule is observed, but otherwise I don’t think it really helps a bit. Address the matter as you will (stress on “Address” not implied).

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  4. Sinclair Russell

    How about…….
    Often and Offen?
    (No one says lisTen, sofTen, etc.)
    I once had an old fashioned school teacher who said” People who say OfTen probaly also pronounce the L in Salmon”….lately I have heard that people say ofTen to prove that they can spell. I have always said Offen.
    Cummerbund and Cumberbun…or even worse Cumberband?
    Clapboard and Claberd (like cupboard)
    Foyer (FOYER) and Foyeah…Like Charles Boyeah.

    1. Malcolm

      A lot of Americans say SaLmon. Although the more interesting is Vee-Hick-ul rather than Vear-Cull for vehicle.

  5. Hayley

    I kinda enjoy the way Americans say “turbot”(the delicious fish), like “TURBO” 😀 While we Brits pronounce it like “turr-but”.

  6. Alanis

    I was watching pokemon and ash, brock, and someone else were saying they needed to find a revival herb but I heard them (brock especially) saying revivalerb and I thought
    ‘what are you doing? there’s a h in herb you know!’
    and I googled it and got here


    DEAR EVERYONE, I have a phunny pheeling the americans try to impress us all with their Erb instead of Herb. i understand it is a greek word, anyway, not a french word so … who are they kidding? That said, a lot of the british pronunciation is not british … it is english speech. even the rest of england does not pronounce it theway the londoners do. i mean, in liverpool, murder is merder!! and the scots and welsh and cornish … all older than the state of england … have their own phunny ways of saying words. My late dad used to say … it is not how you say it that counts. it is what you have to say that counts!! my main point is … i hate the way the english pronounce cinema as … sin-mar or sinna- mar!! and i am neither english not american. In fact, i am not even british/briddish!!


    P.S. … why do americans say For Free instead of For Nothing of Free or Free of charge?
    or Is he for real instead of Is he real?
    that said, thank you again for your time.


    1. Elizabeth

      I say often and do not pronounce the L in salmon. The US is a large Nation and we have many differences of opinion on how to properly pronounce things just amongst ourselves. I grew up in several different places and will pronounce the same word different ways in the same conversation, I just flow with it. We say For Free because it is for free and we expect you to use your common sense to figure out the rest, of course now days we are all so dumb we may just have to start spelling it all out clearly as in “This item has no price it is free of charge.”

    2. Tessa

      Well for the first part it’s because Americans are very indolent people who like to use as few words as possible that’s why we say “for free”. As for the second part it’s because saying “is he real” sounds like we’re questioning if that person does exists or just a figment of our imagination, whereas saying “is he for real” is meant to question the seriousness of what that person is saying or doing.

    3. Kathryne

      Free of charge has been conveniently reduced to “FOC” in American speak and is quite common, especially in online commerce.

      As an American, “for nothing of free” makes no sense to me. I’m not putting it down, I just don’t understand it, and that’s ok.

      “For free” feels like a substitute for a price. For example, “I will sell you this hat for $10.” vs. “I will give you this hat for free.” What is the price? It is free. I would not say “It is for free”.

      American English is messy. Its use and pronunciation changes from region to region and state to state, etc. Our country may have been the first extensive “melting pot” of many cultures, and as such has perhaps adapted English in a unique way that reflects our blended population. Add to that the urban dialects and the creation of new words and you have some very unique ways to communicate. I would guess other countries will experience the same as populations diversify.

      Since English is currently the most common global business language, I’m just happy I’m a native speaker, right or wrong : )

  9. Sheila

    Aussie here – “erb” drives me nuts!

    If they’re trying so hard to be French, what about their pronunciation of Notre Dame. Good grief – makes me cringe every time I hear it. Noter-dame. Argggh!

    Along with a myriad of other pronunciations of food that Americans have americanised….

    Cilantro (coriander), coos coos, carmelised (what happened to the A?), GRAM crackers (what happened to the HA?) ri-ZO-to (ri-zott-o), arugula (rocket), jelly (jam), jello (jelly), etc, etc.

    You practically need a dictionary to work out what on earth they’re saying.

    1. S baker

      Why are you all so hostile. I’m American and I love watching The Great American Baking Show. I love how everyone is so nice to each other. I had never heard o Reh ga no pronounced o reh GAH no before. It’s sounds a little weird to me, but I don’t feel hostile about the way you pronounce it. The English language has a lot bizarre about it already (enough, although, etc), we don’t need to be hostile about the way we pronounce words! It’s what your raised with.

  10. Stunt Panda

    If you pronounce the ‘h’ in “herb” you’re doing it wrong. An easy way to remember it is, “Herb grows ‘erbs.”

  11. Melanie

    Here’s one to add… Americans put the emphasis on weed and brits on end in the word weekend.

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