How to pronounce refugee

Given the recent political developments in Europe, the word refugee is now used much more often by non-native speakers. Because most of them are not aware of the correct pronunciation, let me mention it here.

The most obvious mistake is to stress the word on the first syllable. Instead, refugee is stressed on the last syllable, as apparent from the phonetic spelling (‘ indicates stress)


You can also clearly hear the stress on the last syllable here. (In the case of German speakers, putting the stress on the first syllable may be a classified as a pronunciation false friend related to the German word Flüchtling.)

Minor but also quite common mistakes are the pronunciation of the letter g as [] instead of [dʃ] (compare China and John), and the short pronunciation of the -ee ending (the : in i: indicates a long pronunciation).



While reading an article about BMW’s Harald Krũger, who apparently fainted on stage at the Frankfurt Auto show but is OK, I noticed that BMW cited “circulation problems” as the cause. The term is a translation of the German expression Kreislaufprobleme. However, circulation problems in English refer to a serious and often lethal condition caused by blood clots. In contrast, Kreislaufprobleme is a German expression for various forms of not feeling well. According to the discussion here, it may be thought of as the German version of the British “back problems”, often invoked in order to have a reason not to attend an unpleasant activity (work, family affairs). The Xenophobe’s Guide to the Germans has this to say (the quote is also mentioned in the hilarious discussion here):

[…] the Germans devote enormous resources to the treatment of an illness that doesn’t exist, the notorious Kreislaufstörung. While the rest of us go to meet our maker once our circulation stops, the Germans routinely recover from it and go on to lead useful and productive lives. […]

Holy mispronunciation, Alfred!

A while ago, while watching Downton Abbey, I noticed that the name Alfred can be tricky to pronounce for non-native speakers. In particular, I remembered where I had heard it being pronounced differently — on TV. I’m not afraid to admit that I used to quite enjoy watching the TV series Batman while growing up. In the dubbed German version on Austrian television, Alfred was pronounced as [‘ɔːlfred] (with the first syllable pronounced like the word all). The proper English pronunciation is [‘ælfrid] (less common is [‘ælfrəd]), according to the Longman Pronunciation Dictionary. You can hear the English pronunciation here, and the non-English pronunciation here (around the 40s mark; if you understand German, you will wonder why this series was ever on TV). Finally, the strange German pronunciation of Alfred also creeps up whenever people talk about Alfred Hitchcock, as in this example (he got it right the first time, but not the second time).

How to pronounce smooth and smoothie

I have previously written about the different pronunciations of the th in English, see this post. Today, I want to discuss the tricky words smooth and smoothie, which are very often pronounced incorrectly. The main reason is that many nonnative speakers feel uncomfortable with the sounds [ð] and [θ]. However, that is not the whole story.

Let’s begin with the correct pronunciation, which is (listen here):

[ˈsmuːð], [ˈsmuːði]

A very common mistake, especially among German speakers, is to use the pronunciation

[smu:s], [smu:si]

with the th pronounced like an s. A good example is the following video:

[smu:s] and [smu:si:] are definitely wrong in English, but even the Duden suggests to use the English pronunciation for Smoothie in German.

Another common incorrect pronunciation is

[smu:θ], [smu:θi]

with the th pronounced as [θ] instead of [ð], as in this video

As argued in my previous post, the th is pronounced differently in different English words, and there is no simple rule for a given word. However, in the case of smooth(ie), a good way to remember the correct pronunciation is that the voiced [ð] is a much smoother sound than the voiceless [θ].

Finally, I am having a hard time even understanding the word smoothie in this video, because the presenter is trying to avoid pronouncing the th completely:

The bottom line is: for a smooth pronunciation, you have to pronounce the th in smooth and smoothie smoothly.

Not exactly a miracle

Have you every noticed that the name Miracel Whip (a brand name for mayonnaise used by Kraft in German-speaking countries) actually goes back to a sensible English name, namely Miracle Whip? From the Oxford Learner’s Dictionaries:

miracle: an act or event that does not follow the laws of nature and is believed to be caused by God

to whip: to stir cream, etc. very quickly until it becomes stiff

Because German-speaking customers were apparently deemed unfit for an English product name when the product first hit the shelves, the company came up with a completely meaningless new name by changing the spelling of Miracle to Miracel, and adopting the original pronunciation to make it easier to pronounce for German speakers. Below, you can find a German and an American commercial.



Porsche, Porsh, or Porshuh?

While there is no absolute true and false when it comes to pronouncing foreign names and words in English,* I would like to discuss the pronunciation of Porsche, which has puzzled me and many others for quite a while. Whereas some companies choose to use a very different pronunciation of their name in other countries (good examples are Michelin, Wilkinson in Germany), Porsche uses an English pronunciation that closely follows the German one. A good example is this video from 2014:

Hence, Porsche is roughly pronounced as [pɔːrʃe], corresponding to the por- in “porch” plus the che- in “chef”. Because the speaker in the commercial has an American accent, the r is pronounced. The corresponding British pronunciation would be [pɔːʃe]. Note that the e sound for the letter e in [pɔː(r)ʃe] is an approximation, as discussed below. In principle, this is all you need to know if you want to use the original pronunciation. However, the story does not end here, and there are some interesting twists to come.

According to the Longman Pronunciation Dictionary, we have

[pɔːʃ] or [pɔːʃə]

in British English, and

pɔːrʃ], [pɔːrʃə], or [pɔːrʃi]

in American English. The first variant, [pɔː(r)ʃ] is reported as being the most commonly used. Hence, in contrast to the pronunciation I gave above, [pɔː(r)ʃe], Longman suggests that the letter e is not pronounced at all. This makes sense, because a final e is usually not pronounced in English (examples include give, make, stage, or the originally French words niche and moustache). Alternatively, if it is pronounced, is sounds either like [ə] or as [i]. The schwa sound [ə] is the same as at the end of comma, whereas [i] appears at the end of me. Hence, none of the three variants given in the dictionary (and widely used in spoken English) matches the pronunciation used in the Porsche commercial!

Interestingly, you will often hear and read that the second variant, [pɔː(r)ʃə] is the correct pronunciation because it matches the German pronunciation. If you know the TV show Friends, you may remember the episode where Joey insists on the (wrong) pronunciation, see here for the transcript. However, [pɔː(r)ʃə] is simply wrong. By German standards, [pɔː(r)ʃ] would be correct if the name was spelled Porsch, [pɔː(r)ʃə] would be correct if it was spelled Porscha or Porscher, and [pɔː(r)ʃi] would be correct if the spelling was Porschi. Other people claim (for example, here) that Porsche is pronounced as Porsch-uh or Por-shuh (the simple but ambiguous way of avoiding to write [pɔː(r)ʃə]) . However, uh is pronounced either as [ʌ] or [ɜː] (see here), so that is certainly not correct.

Ironically, even phonetic spelling does not completely solve the problem (the phonetic alphabet was invented to give each sound a unique symbol). The Longman Pronunciation Dictionary also includes the German pronunciation [pɔːʁʃə], which should be compared to the pronunciation given by the Duden, [pɔːrʃə]. First, note the different symbols used for the r (Longman uses ʁ to distinguish it from the English r, whereas the Duden uses r for the German r because it is a German dictionary). More importantly, the schwa sound [ə] is not the same sound in English and German. In English, the schwa appears at the end of words such as comma. In German, there are two schwa sounds (schwas are so-called reduced vowels). The [ə] schwa (also called e-Schwa) appears in words such as halte or lese (with German phonetic spelling [haltə] and [lesə], respectively). It is therefore not identical to the schwa in English words such as metre or silver, but instead sounds much more like the [e] in chef or test. On the other hand, there is also a German schwa sound that is identical to the English schwa (the a-Schwa or Lehrerschwa, so called because it is exactly how –er at the end of Lehrer is pronounced). The latter is denoted in the Duden as ɐ. With this insight, the pronunciation of Porsche can be understood by comparing the German words

Lehre (German phonetic spelling [le:rə], listen here)


Lehrer (German phonetic spelling [le:rɐ], listen here)

Lehre ends in an e-schwa exactly like Porsche, whereas Lehrer ends in an a-schwa. However, because Porsche ends in e rather than er, the correct sound is the e-schwa. Whereas [ə] and [ɐ] sound very different to the ears of German native speakers, they may sound quite similar to English native speakers. Even wikipedia incorrectly claims that the two sounds are identical, see here. John Wells (author of the Longman Pronunciation Dictionary) confirmed to me that English speakers typically have a hard time distinguishing the two German schwa sounds, and therefore replace the e-schwa by the a-schwa. Another example discussed on his blog is Miele. Hence, Por-shuh is indeed a common English pronunciation of Porsche (as suggested by the dictionary), but it does not match the original German pronunciation.

Conclusion: The correct pronunciation of Porsche is a hotly debated topic. As a native German speaker, I can assure you that Porsche is never pronounced Por-shuh in German, simply based on the rules of the German language. In fact, the poor man’s phonetic spelling Por-shuh is wrong even in English, because uh is pronounced either as [ʌ] or [ɜː] but not as [ə], see here. (There is a good reason for using real phonetic spelling.) Therefore, I suggest to stick to the most common English pronunciation, [pɔː(r)ʃ], or to make the effort to get the letter e right if you are aiming for the original pronunciation used by Porsche. So, strictly speaking,


PS: If anyone from Porsche is reading this, I have always wondered exactly how much fun it is to drive a Porsche …

* The motivation for changing the pronunciation is that foreign words often contain sounds that are not part of the English language (e. g., umlauts). Such sounds are often approximated by the most similar English sounds. This approach is typically used when using words from less widely used languages in very common languages such as English. However, because of the wide-spread use of English, English words are often pronounced with non-German sounds (most notably the th) even in German, see here.

About Mrs S, Mr X and A J

The English language offers some very interesting ways to shorten names.

First, it is common to abbreviate double names (two first names, as opposed to double-barrelled names which correspond to two last names) by their initials. For example, the son of Anthony Soprano in the fantastic TV series The Sopranos is usually called A J (instead of Anthony John). There is a crucial difference to German, because while in German you may abbreviate Hans Peter as H P in a written document, I have never heard of anyone named Hans Peter call himself H P (exceptions do exist, as I have just learned from a reader). Other common names in English are T J and C J (if you are in my age group, you may remember C J Parker from Baywatch, and C J Gregg from Westwing). For some reason, the short form seems to be most popular if the second initial is J.

Second, in English, you can abbreviate the surname of people you know (but are not on a first-name basis with) by using only the first letter. Most of the examples I remember involve children who address adults (for example, fathers or mothers of their friends). Hence, Mrs Soprano becomes Mrs S, and Mr Simpson (yes, Homer) becomes Mr S (an example is given here). In the case of English, it seems that such abbreviations were made popular by the sitcom Happy Days, where Mr. and Mrs. Cunningham were called Mr. and Mrs. C. To my knowledge, such a short form is not used at all in German (apart from using initials in order to avoid mentioning real names in news articles, etc.). Do you know if it exists in other languages?

Finally, in English, Mr/Ms X is used for a person whose name is not known.