This week’s seminar speaker (German, but currently working in the US) made several interesting pronunciation mistakes. Most notably, he kept pronouncing the verb interpret so incorrectly that I did not even recognize it immediately.
To understand what went wrong, we best look at the phonetic spelling. The are actually several pronunciations of interpret that are considered to be correct. The OED gives [ɪnˈtɜː(r)prət], where the r in parentheses is included only in American English. However, other sources (e.g., Longman) in particular include [ɪnˈtɜːprɪt], which will play an important role in the context of the aforementioned seminar speaker.
The phonetic spelling [ɪnˈtɜːprɪt] reveals several important details regarding the pronunciation of interpret. First, the stress (indicated by ‘) is on the second syllable. Second, the first e in interpret is pronounced as a long sound (ɜː), whereas the second e is pronounced as a short sound (ɪ). In strong contrast, the seminar speaker consistently pronounced interpret as [‘ɪntəprɪ:t], stressing the first syllable, pronouncing the first e short and the second e long. These three mistakes combined make it very hard to understand the word, so people had to rely on context. A possible origin of this mispronunciation is that the prefix inter- is pronounced very differently in words such as international [ˌɪntəˈnæʃnəl]. However, pronunciation rules in English are not entirely systematic, so that you should not extrapolate from one word to another.
As always, let me strongly suggest to follow the principle that your English is never too good to look up pronunciations in a dictionary. Doing so very often leads to interesting discoveries, even for native speakers.
At a physics conference I attended last week in Berlin, I came across yet another example of tricky distinctions to master. Several speakers confused the words monotonic or monotone with monotonous. While these words can be used interchangeably in some situations, only monotonic and monotone are correct in a mathematical context.
You can check the exact meaning using, for example, the Oxford online dictionary. For monotonous, you’ll find:
“never changing and therefore boring”
as well the ssynonyms dull and repetitious. Although you may also consider a monotonic function
to be boring, this is not what you usually want to express in discussing your results. Instead, monotonic has a specific mathematical meaning. For example, the picture below shows a function that is monotonic (non-decreasing in this case).
The fact that monotonic/monotone and monotonous translate to the same German word (monoton) does not exactly help. This is why we were taught in school that you cannot just take any possible translation from the dictionary but have to consider context. For example, entering monoton into the popular online dictionary leo.org produces monotonous, monotone, and monotonic (among other choices), with monotone and monotonic being clearly marked as mathematical expressions.
A python is not just a rather dangerous looking animal. It also gave the name to a very powerful and popular programming language — Python. Having heard different people pronounce Python in different ways, I decided to look up its pronunciation. This is what I found.
In British English, Python is pronounced as [ˈpaɪθən], whereas in American English it is pronounced as [ˈpaɪθɑːn]. Clearly, the o is pronounced very differently, and explains what I had been hearing. You can listen to both variants here.
If English is not your native language, make sure you pronounce the th correctly (at least when speaking English), as explained previously.
I find the incorrect pronunciation of the word parameter in English (and of Parameter in German) both annoying and fascinating. Remarkably, the mistake is made both by professionals who use it almost every day, and people who haven’t used the word parameter since they distanced themselves from mathematics after high school.
The OED gives the following pronunciations (listen here)
[pəˈræmɪtə(r)] (BrE), [pəˈræmɪtər] (AmE)
Are you an engineer? Even if not, you may want to find out about the correct pronunciation of the word engineer, because many people are not aware of it. The pronunciation is tricky because it differs from that of the word engine in terms of stress. While engine is usually pronounced correctly, namely as [ˈendʒɪn] (note the stress on the first syllable), the correct pronunciation of engineer (verb or noun) is [ˌendʒɪˈnɪə(r)] (BrE) or [ˌendʒɪˈnɪr] (AmE). The word is hence stressed on the last syllable. Similarly, engineering is pronounced as [ˌendʒɪˈnɪərɪŋ] (BrE) or [ˌendʒɪˈnɪrɪŋ] (AmE). Click on the links to listen to these words. The next time you hear somebody stress engineer or engineering on the first syllable, you know better! (Among German native speakers, this mistake is quite common but surprising, since the German word Ingenieur is also stressed on the last syllable, just like engineer.)
I recently came across a scientific paper in which the authors (who struggled with the English language quite a bit throughout the text) used “to testify” instead of “to test”. However, the meaning of these two verbs is very different. According to the OED, to testify means either
1. to make a statement that something happened or that something is true, especially as a witness in court
2. to say that you believe something is true because you have evidence of it
3. to express your belief in God publicly.
If you are interested, I previously discussed a different example for the (often unnecessary) use of fancy words in academic writing here.
Below you can find a list of the most important chemical elements and their correct pronunciation. Elements which are often pronounced incorrectly are highlighted in red. I have previously written about iron and copper. Let me also remind you that in English, the letter y (which appears in elements such as Beryllium or Yttrium) is not pronounced like the German ü, see here. If different, the first line for each element corresponds to the British pronunciation, and the second line to the American pronunciation. (Sources: Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, Longman Pronunciation Dictionary).
Apart from the pronunciation, confusion often arises in the cases of mercury (not quicksilver, a false friend related to the German Quecksilber), potassium (Kalium in German), sodium (Natrium in German), tungsten (or wolfram; Wolfram in German), silicon (not silicone), and phosphorus (not phosphor).