Foreign-related stuff people get wrong

English just might be the $2 hooker of languages. Every language you’ve heard of has done English a few times, so many that English’s Latin and Greek words don’t even stand out except to cognoscenti. That may be why its vocabulary is gargantuan. A lot of more obvious adoptions are frequently misused, mispronounced or misspelled, a thing one only learns when one studies the language of origin. I’ll help.

You are not an alumni. You are an alumnus (male) or alumna (female). Alumni are the masculine or mixed plural, so don’t say you are a Flat Rock State U. alumni unless you’re really huge. More than one alumna are alumnae. If you went to college, it’s pretty embarrassing if you do not know how to refer to that fact, but I accept that lots of people neither took Latin nor absorbed that much by osmosis. No problem; your fellow alumni are here for you.

A male betrothed is a fiancé. A bethrothed female is a fiancée. They are pronounced the same.

The problem with spelling résumé correctly in your cover letter is that in today’s Murrica, it’s likely to get your application tossed as emblematic of too much education and intelligence, both of which are out of fashion. Correct accents look snooty and suggest that you might actually speak French, which could indicate the kind of education that dares question things. Spell it down to the level you think will help you get the job–but hold the truth in your secret heart. Even if you have to get it wrong as resumé.

Scotch is a drink, not a nationality, as any Scottish lad will tell you. Another name for that drink is whisky, which is not whiskey. Don’t ask me why the Scots care so much about how English renders the Gaelic word for ‘water of life.’ They just do.

Coup de grace is not pronounced koo day GRAW. Never do this again. If you want to use it, say ‘koo duh grawss’ (last word rhymes with ‘floss’). Bonus: when you say it like my D&D groups all have, you’re actually referring to the ‘stroke of flab.’ Player: “Okay, my paladin is going to coup de gras the ogre.” DM: “How can he do that? Your paladin is totally ripped. He has no fat to hit the ogre with.”

If there are twö döts over a vowel in German, it’s an umlaut. Non-Germanic languages do not have umlauts, so please stop referring to Noël as having an umlaut. It has a trema. To think otherwise is naïf (or naïve, if the thinker is female). The trema tells you to pronounce two vowels separately, which is why we say no ELL rather than nole, and na YEEV instead of nyve or nave.

When you see an Å in a Swedish word, pronounce the little ring, not the A. It’s a long O sound. Your True Blood stud, Alexander Skarsgård, pronounces his last name SCARS gourd. The Ångström unit in atomic physics is ohng struhm. I can live with it if you get the ö wrong (kind of rhymes with ‘book’), but if you make the first part sound like ‘angst,’ I suffer pain which you could have so easily avoided.

If you know just enough Spanish to be dangerous, you have wondered why it’s Buenos días, with what looks like a masculine adjective on a feminine noun. On about your second day of Spanish class, you learn that the last letter is not 100% reliable at indicating gender in Spanish. The true marker is the article: el día, masculine, thus ‘buenos’ is correct. However, it is la tarde and la noche, thus buenas tardes and buenas noches.

French accents are pronunciation, not stress. French has no stressed syllables, and you won’t believe how difficult that is until you try adjusting to it. Live there a decade, it’s the last vestige of your native accent you defeat (if ever). Spanish accents are stress. Why bother, then, to have an accent on a one-syllable word like ? To distinguish it from si, which means ‘if.’

It’s time to stop abusing Cyrillic. Let’s start with Я, which is pronounced ‘ya’ just like German ja. When you write Яussia, we who read Cyrillic throw up in our mouths, because the country is not called Yaussia. Г is the Russian G. Н is the Russian N. П is the Russian P. Р is the Russian R. С is the Russian S. This is how USSR could be СССР on Soviet Olympic hockey jerseys: Soyuz (Union) Sovietski (Soviet) Sosyalistcheski (Socialist) Respubliki (Republics), SSSR in the Latin characters, СССР in Cyrillic.

Since French accents do not mean stress, everyone is screwing up mêlée. D&D players have been destroying it since Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson started the thing (I blame them). It is not mealy nor is it ma-LEE. Say meh-lay, trying like hell to have equal stress on both syllables. There is no hope of straightening out the gamers, a highly literate but notoriously careless band, but others of you may yet be saved from barbarism.

César Chávez‘s name probably gets pronounced correctly by a non-Spanish speaker once a decade. Let this be the decade. It’s not SEE-zer sha-VEZ. Say it with me: SAY-zar CHA-vez. Yes. People botch both the consonants and the accent on his last name, even as they rename streets after the guy.

Yom Kippur is not yawm KIPP-er. That makes it sound like a pickled herring, which can be kosher food but isn’t kosher pronunciation. It rhymes with ‘home for sure.’ Rosh Hashanah is not rawsh ha SHA na, but roash ha sha NAH. (Last syllable rhymes with ‘blah.’ In fact, the last three syllables do.)

You are probably saying Qabalah wrong. Nearly everyone in the U.S. is, at least, including a fair number of people with names like Goldberg. In a spiritual practice where letters are important, it seems sloppy to butcher articulation, eh? It is kah-bah-LAH, Madonna. If you say it as CAB-uh-luh, you are being positively qlipotic, leaving the listener’s mind a shell. (Qabalah joke.) Do not say kuh BAWL uh, either. That was a hokey occult game from the 1960s. Oh, and if you play one of those console games that uses a character called Sephiroth, know that this is the gross mutilation of a word for the spheres of the Qabalah: sfirot, uttered sfeer-OAT. If you say SEFF ur ROTH in Hebrew, it means nothing at all. Ah, but you heard it from someone you just know is well learned in CAB uh luh? My sources are my collegiate professor of Hebrew and a retired Israeli colonel, native born. Either neither of them actually knows Hebrew, or they are correct. Your move.

Don’t even try to pronounce a Chinese word unless you have heard a fluent speaker and emulated his or her tonal until s/he told you it was correct. Otherwise, you might accidentally confess a sexual longing for brick mortar (or something worse). True for some other Asian languages as well.

If using the word año in Spanish, do yourself a favor and make sure to articulate the Y sound produced by the virgulilla, called a tilde in English. Thus, ON yo. If you say ON oh, you just referred to the anus. To say one’s age in Spanish, one says that one ‘has’ however many years. I had great merriment in college Spanish when an attractive young lady answered the professor by declaring that she had nineteen anal openings.

Tijuana, Mexico is not pronounced TEE-a WA-nah. The nearest translation of that pronunciation is ‘Aunt Jackie.’ I have an Aunt Jaque and have been calling her this since junior high school. As for the city, it’s tee HWA nah.

Some non-Murrican English bits: Greenwich is really, truly GREN itch. Norwich works likewise, and probably all the other -wiches do too, though I’m not sure what happens if you order a ‘sanitch.’ Anything ending in -cester gets the middle mooshed up. Leicester = LESS ter. Worcester = WOOSS ter. Gloucester = GLOSS ter, etc.

The media are getting most of the Russian names wrong. It is brutal. Example: Gorbachev is actually GAR ba chyov. Ivan is ee VAWN. Just believe me that, half the time, what you hear from newsies is wrong. It’s not your imagination; they really just don’t care, because they have a low opinion of their audience and a casual relationship to accuracy anyway. It’s much worse with Arabic names, complicated by regional dialects which make the correct pronunciation a matter of valid difference. Most everyone outside the Islamic world is saying Allah wrong: it’s all LAH. Pronounce the L both times. During both Gulf Wars, our beloved newscasters made the city names look like a bombed-out area of Fallujah.

Good examples of botched Russian are czar and czarina. Tsar only takes three letters in Cyrillic, which has a letter TS. Why the serial botch? It has caesar as its root, like kaiser: the name that became Latin for ’emperor.’ It’s not too late to save the words, provided we stop appointing czars in government, and provided we learn that it is tsaritsa, not tsarina. Oh, and there actually is no N in Kreml’, Moscow’s great fortress and sometime seat of government.

And lastly: no matter how you try, you’ll never pronounce Polish correctly by looking at the letters and imagining them to relate to English. These are not the Latin characters you want. Move along.


3 thoughts on “Foreign-related stuff people get wrong”

  1. Actually, Polish pronunciation is fairly simple once you get the basics. 🙂 Unlike many languages out there (poking English right now), what you see is what you get. Always. Our a stands more or less for your ‘a in Bart’, no matter what consonants surround it. Same for all the other vowels. And consonants for that matter. Our g stands for English “g in ‘gore'”, no matter how many vowels you attach to it. What usually makes English speakers cry are our digraphs and diacritic marks: sz stands for ‘sh’, ż and rz both stand for “s in ‘leisure’ and so on. But here as well, they always have the same phonetic value.

    I understand that a name as complicated as Walczykiewicz (our sprint canoer, gold at 2012 London olympics) might seem intimidating at first. But come on, it’s [val-chee-kye-vich], four syllables, it’s not that hard.

    Oh, and some nit-picking: Soyuz (you got that right) Sovietski (should be Sovietskikh – there’s a kh sound at the end, cyrillic х) Sosyalistcheskikh (again, х at the end, transliterated to kh in English) Respublik (no i at the end. Respubliki is plural nominative, Respublik is plural genitive).


    1. Thanks, Krzysztof. I will be honest: I was half hoping a Polish speaker would see this and correct/amend my statements, so this is great and adds to readers’ understanding. I’m not surprised I made some mistakes in the Russian, since I went from memory, which goes back to 1980. That of course is no excuse for getting it wrong, so thanks also for correcting those details, and welcome to the blog.


    2. Also (this is what I get for doing replies first thing in the morning), I understand what you mean about English phonetics. The rules are so often broken that many pronunciations have to be memorized. More irregularities = harder learning.


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