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.
I’m quite sure that even people who are not very confident about their English in general would not hesitate to claim that they can of course count to five. However, if you take pronunciation into consideration, this is not be true for many of them. (This post was inspired by an announcement I recently heard on a train in which five was pronounced incorrectly.)
Let’s stick to tradition and start at the beginning.
1 – one
Most people get this one right but there are in fact two possible pronunciations: [wʌn] and [wɒn] (used by 70% and 30% of British English speakers, respectively, see the Longman Pronunciation Dictionary). To hear the different o sounds, click here and here.
2 – two
The pronunciation of two is straight-forward, namely [tuː], identical to the word too.
3 – three
This is where it’s getting tricky. The th is a major challenge for many nonnative speakers, as explained in detail in this post. Listen to the correct pronunciation [θriː] here.
4 – four
After the difficult number three, four is quite easy in comparison. The pronunciation is [fɔː(r)] (the r is for American English), identical to that of the strong form of for.
5 – five
Congratulations if you have made it so far, but there is one more obstacle to overcome. Unbeknown to virtually all German-speaking people, the v in five is not pronounced like the letter f at the beginning but like the v in seven. Hence, the correct pronunciation of five is [faɪv]. In fact, v in English is never pronounced as f, but there is a single word for which f is pronounced as v. If you want to know which word, read this post.
During a recent talk I heard someone (a nonnative speaker) pronounce the noun expertise in a way I had not heard before, namely as [ˌekspɜːˈtaiz], similar perhaps to exercise (listen here). While at first I thought this was simply a pronunciation mistake, it turns out that the verb to expertise (yes, there is a verb, and it means “to study or investigate as an expert”, see here) is in fact pronounced [ˌekspɜːˈtaiz]. However, the standard pronunciation of the noun expertise is [ˌekspɜːˈtiːz]. You can listen to the correct pronunciation here.
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.
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 [tʃ] instead of [dʃ] (compare China and John), and the short pronunciation of the -ee ending (the : in i: indicates a long pronunciation).
In today’s business-driven world, many people are using the word corporate, even in non-English speaking countries. Whether you are talking about corporate design, corporate identity or something else, let me inform you about the correct pronunciation of corporate.
According to the OED, the correct pronunciation is either [ˈkɔːpərət] (British English) or [ˈkɔːrpərət] (American English). You can listen to both variants here. A fairly common alternative pronunciation is [ˈkɔː(r)pərɪt], with the ending pronounced like the word it. Finally, a common incorrect variant often used by nonnative speakers is [ˈkɔː(r)pəreɪt], that is, with the “-rate” part of corporate pronounced just like the word rate.
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).