Tag Archives: pronunciation

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.

Continue reading

The rain in Spain …


I read somewhere recently (but can’t remember where) that one of the most common areas of complaint directed towards the BBC from viewers and listeners around the world is not what you might think it might be. It’s not claims of bias or prejudice, inaccuracy, prurience or falsehood that have people shaking their fists: it’s the far more serious crime of mispronunciation that has people raising their voices in anger — whether the word in question comes out sounding sloppy or just plain wrong. And I’m sure these complaints are the bane of many radio hosts’ professional lives.

Don’t blame the radio guy. There are many everyday words whose pronunciations are almost universally incorrect – or at least sloppy – simply because of the spelling and construction of the words themselves. It often boils down to too many voiced consonants being near or next door to each other in the word, making it difficult for the mouth, tongue, lips and soft palate to wrap themselves around the complex sounds and resulting in lazy annunciation. A second “r” that follows too soon after the first is a good example of this: February more often than not comes out as “Feb-ry” or “Feb-you-ary”; surprise as “suh-prise”; berserk as “buh-serk”; governor as “guv-uh-ner” or “guv-ner”; and library as “libe-ry” or “libe-ery”. Other common consonant clashes that twist the tongue (especially in the middle of words or after particular vowel sounds) are “cl”, “ct”, “dn”, “sthm”, “sk”, “lfth”, and “gn”: see some examples of these below.

nuclear comes out as nyu-cue-ler (well, if you’re George Bush it does)
Antarctic — as Ant-ar-tic
Wednesday — as Wens-day
asthmatic — as as-ma-tic
twelfths — as twelths
recognize — as re-co-nize
ask — as ax
asterisk — as as-ter-ix

But sometimes it’s about more than just lingual laziness. There are several words that are commonly mispronounced because the word simply doesn’t look like the way it should be pronounced, especially when its spelling points the reader towards a more obvious or regular pattern of pronunciation. This is sometimes the case with words that are more often seen in print than heard spoken aloud; highly literate and educated people can go whole lifetimes before realizing that the slightly obscure word they’ve been reading on the page (and imagined articulated a certain way) is actually the same as another unusual word they’ve heard pronounced differently. See if you’re surprised by any of these commonly mispronounced gems:

Hyperbole — often mispronounced “HYper-bowl” — is actually “hy-PER-bol-lee”

Segue — not “seeg” but ‘SEG-way”

Victuals — not “VICK-chewals” but “VITT-uhls”

Epitome — not “EPI-tome” but “eh-PITT-uh-mee”

Omnipotent — not “OM-ni-poh-tent” but “om-NIP-oh-tent”

Superfluous — not “SOUP-er-floo-us” but “soup-ER-floo-us”

Here are a couple of words that seem to have a strange but common American pronunciation — at least they do to my British ear:

mischievous — pronounced with four syllables: “mis-CHEE-vee-us”. Where did that extra “vee” syllable come from?

pianist — pronounced with just two syllables: “PEEN-ist”. A bit too close to another word for comfort; where did that third syllable, that includes the ‘a’, disappear to?

The next post will be about differences between American and British pronunciations of foreign loan words. You say ‘erb and I say herb: Let’s call the thing off…


Wacky English pronunciations


In the first of three posts about tricky pronunciations, let’s look at some proper nouns — mainly of the English or British variety — that don’t sound quite the way they look.

Names of titles:

Boatswain — pronounced BOH-sun

Colonel — KER-nel

Lieutenant — Lef-TEN-ant

Viscount – VIE-count

Names of places (in the UK): 

Beauchamp —  Beechum

Bicester — Bisster

Blenheim — Blennum

Gloucester — Glosster

Greenwich — Grennitch

Leicester — Lester

Leominster — Lemster

Magdalen — Maudlin

Warwick — Worrick

Worcester — Wooster

Weymiss — Weemz


Cholmondeley — Chumley

Featherstonehaugh — Fanshaw

Mainwaring — Mannering

Marjoribanks — Marchbanks

First names: 

Aoife (Irish) — EE-fa

Naomh (Irish) — Neeve

Siobhan (Irish) — Shuh-VAUN

Saoirse (Irish) — SEER-shuh

St John (first name or surname) — SIN-juhn


And here are some weird American place names thrown in for good measure:

Arkansas — AHR-can-saw

Boise, ID — BOY-zee

Cairo, IL — KAY-row (not KIE-row)

Leominster, MA — Le-MON-ster

Ojai, CA — OH-high

Versailles, KY — Vair-SAILS (not Vair-SIGH)


Here’s what the English pamphleteer, farmer and journalist William Cobbett wrote about pronunciation in his grammar treatise of 1818: “Pronunciation is learned as birds learn to chirp and sing. In some counties of England many words are pronounced in a manner different from that in which they are pronounced in other counties; and, between the pronunciation of Scotland and that of Hampshire the difference is very great indeed. But, while all inquiries into the causes of these differences are useless, and all attempts to remove them are vain, the differences are of very little real consequence. For instance, though the Scotch say coorn, the Londoners cawn, and the Hampshire folks carn, we know they all mean to say corn. Children will pronounce as their fathers and mothers pronounce; and if, in common conversation, or in speeches, the matter be good and judiciously arranged, the facts clearly stated, the arguments conclusive, the words well chosen and properly placed, hearers whose approbation is worth having will pay very little attention to the accent. In short, it is sense, and not sound, which is the object of your pursuit.”

William Cobbett, A Grammar of the English Language in a Series of Letters: Intended for the Use of Schools and of Young Persons in General, but More Especially for the Use of Soldiers, Sailors, Apprentices, and Plough-Boys, 1818

Homophones, and similar words that confound us


Homonyms are the identical twins of language: words that share the same spelling and the same pronunciation but have different meanings – so you can’t tell them apart just by looking at them. Only context can define or identify them. Here, spelling is a doss: you can’t go wrong.

Homophones, on the other hand, are like linguistic fraternal twins: even though they’re very similar and they sound almost identical, and they might even dress alike and hang out in the same places, they are spelled differently: they look different. So they’re the ones that give us all headaches when it comes to writing and spelling. In real life, identical twins generally provide us with the greater challenge and fraternal twins tend to cause less embarrassment and confusion. It’s the opposite when it comes to language – at least when we’re spelling and composing.

Take a look at the list of homophones (or near-homophones) below, and ask yourself truthfully: how many of these words do you have to look up in a dictionary to make sure you’re using the right one? At least two of these pairings get me every time. (Basic definitions provided below, courtesy Merriam-Webster.)

accede / exceed

aural / oral

affect / effect

assent / ascent

bear / bare  (used as a verb)

complement / compliment

council / counsel (and councilor / counselor)

defuse / diffuse

discreet / discrete

elusive / allusive / illusive

elicit / illicit

hordes / hoards (see an earlier Glossophilia post: https://glossophilia.org/?p=873 )

imminent / immanent / eminent

populace / populous

premier / premiere (see an earlier Glossophilia post: https://glossophilia.org/?p=1105 )

prescribe / proscribe

principle / principal

prospective / perspective [not real homophones, but often confused]



accede: to become a party (as to an agreement); to express approval or give consent; to give in to a request or demand; to enter upon an office or position

exceed: to extend outside of; to be greater than or superior to; to go beyond a limit set by


aural: of or relating to the ear or sense of hearing

oral: uttered by the mouth or in words; of, given through or involving the mouth


affect: the conscious subjective aspect of an emotion considered apart from bodily changes; a set of observable manifestations of a subjectively experienced emotion

effect: something that inevitably follows an antecedent (as a cause or agent); an outward sign; power to bring about a result; a distinctive impression


assent: to agree to something especially after thoughtful consideration

ascent: the act of rising or mounting upward; an upward slope or rising grade; the degree of elevation


bear (vb.): to move while holding and supporting; to be equipped or furnished with; to support the weight of; to accept or allow oneself to be subjected to especially without giving way

bare (vb): to make or lay (something) bare (adj. lacking a natural, usual or appropriate covering)


complement: something that fills up, completes,  or makes perfect; to complete or enhance by providing something additional

compliment: an expression of esteem, respect, affection, or admiration; to express esteem, respect, affection, or admiration to


council: an assembly or meeting for consultation, advice, or discussion; a group elected or appointed as an advisory or legislative body (a councilor is a member of a council)

counsel: advice given especially as a result of consultation (a counselor is a person who gives advice or counseling)


defuse: to make a situation less tense

diffuse: to spread widely or freely


discreet: unobtrusive; having or showing discernment or good judgement

discrete: separate, distinct


elusive: tending to evade grasp or pursuit; hard to comprehend or define; hard to isolate or identify

allusive: containing or characterized by indirect references; containing an allusion

illusive: based on or having the nature of an illusion


elicit: to draw forth or bring out

illicit: not permitted, unlawful


hordes/hoards (see an earlier Glossophila post: https://glossophilia.org/?p=873)


imminent: ready to take place

immanent: indwelling, inherent; being within the limits of possible experience or knowledge

eminent: standing out so as to be readily perceived  or noted; exhibiting eminence especially in standing above others in some quality or position: prominent 


populace (n.): the common people; masses; population

populous (adj): densely populated; having a large population


prescribe: to lay down a rule; to write or give medical prescriptions

proscribe: to condemn or forbid as harmful or unlawful


principle: a comprehensive and fundamental law, doctrine, or assumption; a primary source

principal: (adj): most important, consequential or influential; (n.) person who has controlling authority or is in a leading position


prospective: relating to or effective in the future

perspective: the capacity to view things in their true relations or relative importance; a mental view or prospect; the appearance to the eye of objects in respect to their relative distance and positions

premier / premiere: (see an earlier Glossophilia post: https://glossophilia.org/?p=1105 )