Pronunciation False Friends

In the context of languages, the term false friend refers to the incorrect use of a word in one language that is identical or very similar in terms of spelling to a word in another language. Of course, because of the common origin of many languages, there are many true friends, namely words that are spelled very similarly and do have the same meaning in two different languages. For example, the German Hand translates into the English hand. However, the widely used Handy (German for mobile or cell phone) has nothing to do with the English word handy (an adjective that means easy to use or to do). Similarly, the English word actual has nothing to do with the German word aktuell (English: current). The fact that some of these associations are correct (true friends) whereas others are not (false friends) makes it quite difficult to avoid such mistakes. In recent decades, the trend to assimilate English words into other languages has become an important source of false friends. Whereas Browser is used in German with the same meaning as browser in English, Handy does not even exist as a noun in English, and is an example of a so-called pseudo-anglicism. Similarly, a data projector is often called a Beamer in German, but the word beamer has a very different meaning in English, see here. The distinction between a false friend and an incorrect (literal) translation is not so clear. For example, the English term racing line (see this post) translates to the German Ideallinie. However, it is not clear if the expression ideal line (which certainly makes sense in English although it is not used in the context of racing) should be classified as a false friend or as an incorrect translation.

Here, I want to propose a new type of false friend, namely the pronunciation false friend. In the process of collecting material for my blog, I came across a number of examples for pronunciation false friends. The key idea is quite simple: a pronunciation false friend can occur when a word that exists in two different languages (possibly with the same meaning) is pronounced differently. The differences in pronunciation can be substantial (different sounds, silent letters) or minor (stress of syllables). The origin of the incorrect pronunciation is the association with a related word in another language. Let me give you a few examples to illustrate the concept of pronunciation false friends.

The English word psychology is essentially the same as the German Psychologie. However, as pointed out before, the pronunciation is quite different. Most importantly, the letter p is silent in English but not in German. Hence, when somebody pronounces psychology as [psaɪˈkɒlədʒi], I would call that a pronunciation false friend. Another example, previously mentioned here, is physics. In German, the letter y in Physik is pronounced like the letter ü (listen here), whereas in the English word Physics (and in many others) it is pronounced as [ɪ], see here. We can also consider words which are pronunciation false friends and false friends. For example, the German word aktuell is often incorrectly translated as actual. In addition, a German native speaker may also pronounce actual as [ˈæktuəl] instead of [ˈæktʃuəl].

Pronunciation false friends can also be more subtle and hence harder to avoid. In many cases, the pronunciation is correct in terms of the individual sounds, but wrong in terms of stress. For example, the correct pronunciation of register is [ˈredʒɪstə], stressing the first syllable. In contrast, the German word Register is stressed on the second syllable, see here. Consequently, German speakers often pronounce register as [re’dʒɪstə], stressing the wrong syllable. The same is true for operator and Operator (stressed on the 1st syllable in English, on the 3rd in German), as well as for effective and effektiv (stressed on the 2nd syllable in English, and on the 3rd in German).

Remarkably, pronunciation false friends can apparently even occur in cases where there is no obvious similarity between two words that describe the same thing in different languages. An important every-day example is afternoon. In German, the word Nachmittag is stressed on the first letter a (or on the first syllable, for example in Austria). The English word afternoon is pronounced as [ˌɑːftəˈnuːn], with stress on “noon” but not on “after” (as often done by German native speakers). Based on my observations, I suggest that the fact that both words describe the same thing is sufficient for German native speakers to apply some aspects (here: stress) of the German pronunciation when using the English word. A similar case is that of interaction, which is correctly pronounced as [ˌɪntərˈækʃn] (with the stress on -action, not on inter-). The German equivalent, Wechselwirkung, is stressed on the first part, Wechsel-, and I have heard a number of German native speakers apply the same pronunciation to interaction (the same people would, however, pronounce international correctly). Another good example is unclear, which is stressed on the second syllable. However, German speakers, presumably having in mind the German word unklar, often stress the first syllable instead. Although I have no proof, the fact that these false friends seem to occur quite consistently among German speakers who otherwise can be classified as advanced English speakers, seems to support my hypothesis.

In other cases, the situation is even more complicated. For example, the English noun intern is stressed on the first syllable, the verb intern is stressed on the second syllable, and the German word intern is stressed on the second syllable. For my scientific readers, I want to mention the example of magnetism, stressed on the first syllable, as opposed to the German Magnetismus, which is stressed on the third syllable (see here and here).

Pronunciation false friends also exist between other languages. A particularly interesting example is the pair of words no (English) and non (French). Whereas the meaning is identical, the no is pronounced quite differently than the non, and it can be quite difficult for native French speakers to pronounce no correctly in English.

Of course, pronunciation false friends also work the other way around. An extensive list of such false friends for the Dutch language (which has many words that are spelled in the same way as in English) can be found here.


How to pronounce homogenous & homogeneity

Whereas the German word homogen is rather straight forward to pronounce, the English equivalent, homogeneous, is slightly trickier. Oxford English suggests [ˌhɒməˈdʒiːniəs] (British English) and [ˌhoʊməˈdʒiːniəs] (American English), see and listen here. On the other hand, the Longman Pronunciation Dictionary includes the following possibilities:

British English:
[ˌhɒməʊˈdʒiːniəs] (used by 75% of the speakers)
[ˌhoʊməʊˈdʒiːniəs] (used by 25% of the speakers)

American English:

Hence, while the pronunciation of homo- is not unique, all these possibilities are identical regarding the pronunciation of -eous. (If you are unsure about the subtle difference between [əʊ] and [oʊ] listen to the pronunciation of flow.

A common mistake, possibly related to the alternative but outdated spelling homogenous, is to miss the second letter e and pronounce “-eous” as [əs], as for example in the word dangerous. German speakers in particular should try to avoid the false friend homogen (rather common in written English, not so common in spoken English).

Even if you know how to pronounce homogeneous, the pronunciation of homogeneity can be rather difficult (the German word Homogenität is not simple either but at least the spelling is phonetic). According to Oxford English, the correct pronunciation is [ˌhɒmədʒəˈniːəti] (British) and [ˌhɑːmədʒəˈniːəti] (American), listen here. According to Longman’s Pronunciation Dictionary, the same variations of homo- occur as in the case of homogeneous. Moreover, it is not common practise but acceptable to pronounce “-eity” either as [eɪti] or simply as [iti].

Finally, let me mention that the above also applies to the words inhomogeneous and inhomogeneity, as well as heterogeneous and heterogeneity.

How to pronounce Dirac, honeycomb, and ribbon

Use of the name Dirac and the words honeycomb and ribbon has grown almost exponentially since the experimental realization of graphene (stressed on the second syllable) in 2004. Because of its shape, the hexagonal pattern in which carbon atoms are arranged in graphene is called a honeycomb lattice. On such a lattice, electrons near the so-called Dirac points have a linear relation between energy and momentum, as described by the Dirac equation. A graphene ribbon is a typically narrow (compared to its extent in the other direction) sheet of graphene, reminiscent of the shape of a ribbon.

Despite their popularity, the words Dirac, honeycomb, and ribbon are often mispronounced by scientists.

For Dirac, the Longman Pronunciation Dictionary gives the following possible pronunciations:


The first two variants only differ in terms of stress. The rather common incorrect pronunciation is [daɪˈræk], possibly related to the most common pronunciation of direct, [daɪˈrekt]. However, the word direct can also be pronounced in three different ways, namely (listen here) [daɪˈrekt], [dɪˈrekt], and [dəˈrekt].

The word honeycomb is a rather rare case of a compound English word that is pronounced just as its components, namely honey and comb. The mistake many non-native speakers make is to ignore the fact that the letter b in comb is silent, see here. The correct pronunciation of honeycomb therefore is


You can listen to it here.

Finally, the correct pronunciation of ribbon is given by


listen here, with frequently heard incorrect pronunciations being [ˈrɪbɒn] (sounding like rib-on) and [ˈrɪbn] (dropping the Schwa sound, see here).


How to pronounce w in wrong, write, wrap

I have previously mentioned that the letter p is often silent in English, see here. Today, I want to discuss the letter w. For example, w is not pronounced in the words (click to listen to the pronunciation)

wrong, wrinkle, wry, wreck, wrench, wrist, wreath, write, wrestling,

even though many nonnative speakers have a hard time sticking to this rule. In fact, I do not remember being taught in school that the w is silent in these words. When you compare both pronunciations (with and without w), you will probably notice that the silent-w version is simpler. (A possible explanation for this common mistake is that pronouncing the w sounds more English to the nonnative ear.) For instance, because the w is silent, the pronunciation of the words write and right is identical, and the same is true for wrap and rap! A great example for an incorrect pronunciation of “wrestling” can be heard in the video below:

A silent w also appears in several brand names, including Wrangler and Wrigley’s (for the pronunciation of “ey” see this post).

There are many other examples of English words with a silent w. Do you remember the film Swordfish? At least among my friends, almost everybody mispronounced swordfish by not noticing that the w is silent. The same applies to the word sword itself. Interestingly, the German trailer below includes a completely wrong pronunciation of “swordfish” (roughly given by [sɜːdfɪʃ]) around the 0:45 mark, listen yourself:

Other examples include answer, whole, two, and owing. Note that in German, the letter w is not silent in words such as Wrack or wringen, and it might be difficult to get used to silent w’s when learning English.

How to pronounce Lincoln

With the movie about Abraham Lincoln out on DVD now, let me discuss the pronunciation of the name Lincoln. In contrast to the incorrect pronunciation often used by nonnative speakers, the second l in Lincoln is silent. The phonetic spelling is hence [ˈlɪŋkən], and you can listen to it here. A quick search on youtube brought up a number of videos (documentaries and film reviews) in which German native speakers pronounce Lincoln incorrectly, namely as [ˈlɪŋkəln]. Here are some examples:

While the name Lincoln could in principle be to pronounced differently in German, the Duden suggests to use the original, English pronunciation, see here. Finally, the same pronunciation is used for the car company Lincoln.

How to pronounce et al.

The phrase et al. is often used when referring to scientific papers by a group of authors, and means “and others”. Instead of naming all the authors (the average number of authors on scientific papers has been increasing for many decades, see here, here, and here for interesting discussions of this phenomenon), it is common practise to mention only name the first author followed by et al. For example, instead of referring to the work of Einstein, Podolsky, and Rosen, you can instead refer to the work of Einstein et al. While this use of et al. is common both in written and spoken scientific English, there are two common pitfalls.

First, et is just the Latin word for “and”, whereas al. is an abbreviation for different forms of the Latin word alii (“others”). Therefore, there should be no full stop after et, whereas a full stop is required after al. It is also common practise in English to use italic letters for Latin expressions or words.

Second, because et al. is often used in scientific talks, it is interesting to consider its pronunciation. (Some people circumvent this questions by replacing et al. with expressions such as “and others” or “and coworkers”, even if their slides say et al.). The first part is simple, because et is pronounced as [et]. The second part, al. can be pronounced in three different ways:

1. As [æl], identical to the name “Al”, listen here.

2. As [ɔːl], just like the word “all”, listen here.

3. As [ɑːl], with the letter a pronounced as in “art”, listen here.

The Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary includes only the first variant, to which you can listen here, while the other variants can be found in Longman’s Pronunciation Dictionary. Note that, quite generally, Latin words used in English are pronounced in a way that resembles how a native English speaker would pronounce them, rather than with the correct Latin pronunciation. Given the substantial freedom in how to pronounce et al., I don’t think there is a reason to avoid this phrase in scientific presentations.

Finally, especially German native speakers should be advised that the letter l in al. is pronounced as a so-called dark l, as opposed to a clear l. [In German, al. is pronounced exactly like Aal (eel), and many German speakers use the same pronunciation also in English]. For a clear l, the tip of the tongue touches the upper incisors (Schneidezähne), whereas for a dark l it does not. Moreover, both the clear l and the dark l involve pushing down the middle part of your tongue, but for a dark l you additionally push the back of the tongue up (try it a couple of times, it is quite instructive). See here for pictures and more details. Here are some examples:

clear l: love, limit, low, leave

dark l: call, solve, false, fail

The clear l differs from the German pronunciation of the letter l by the fact that in German, the tip of the tongue touches the palate (Gaumen) rather than the upper incisors.

How to pronounce surface

The word surface is often mispronounced as [ˈsɜfeɪs], that is, with the second syllable, -face, pronounced just like the word face itself. Recently, this mistake has become much more frequent in Germany owing to the increasing popularity of Microsoft’s Surface tablet. The correct pronunciation in both British and American English is [ˈsɜːfɪs] (American English also offers the alternative [ˈsɜːfəs], according to the Longman Pronunciation Dictionary). Listen to the pronunciation of surface here, and compare it to that of face.