How to pronounce interpret

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.



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).

How to pronounce parameter

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)

Note that in both cases, the stress is on the second syllable, not the first! It is a common mistake but still a mistake to stress parameter on the first syllable. However, it is quite obvious why the mistake is common, because the words
parallel, paramilitary, paramount and even parametric are all stressed on the first syllable. In the case of paralyses, the stress is on the first syllable for the verb, and on the second for the noun. Furthermore, for the words paramedic and paralegal, the stress is on medic and legal, respectively. Hence, there does not seem to be an easy-to-remember rule regarding the pronunciation of para-, but at least you know the correct pronunciation of parameter now.
A detail not captured by the phonetic spelling given above (but can clearly be heard here) is the fact that in American English, the t is typically flapped (see, for example, the Longman Pronunciation Dictionary), similar to the word city.

PS: for a related discussion of the word meter, see this post.

Have you any questions?

Let me share some of the most interesting English blunders I encountered during a recent physics conference in Germany.

Mistake 1: Several German native speakers made the mistake of pronouncing the th in thermal and thermodynamic as a t rather than a θ. Since most of them pronounced other occurrences of th correctly, I suspect that they were confusing the English and German pronunciations of these words. You can hear the correct pronunciation of thermal here. For a general discussion of how to pronounce th, see here.

Mistake 2: I noticed that it is quite common for nonnative speakers to mispronounce the word engineering (as well as engineer). While the noun engine is stressed on the first syllable [‘endʒɪn], the stress in both engineer and engineering is on the last syllable (for example, [ˌendʒɪˈnɪə(r)]). Click to compare engine and engineer.

Mistake 3: In an effort to adopt an American accent, people sometimes make interesting mistakes, see here. A recent example is the pronunciation of because as [kɔːrs] (corresponding to becourse) rather than as [bɪˈkɔːz]. While the letter r is pronounced very strongly in American English, there is no r in because. An even though a so-called intrusive r is sometimes added at the end of words, this is not common in the middle of words.

PS: The title of this post was the exact last sentence of a speaker at the conference. Certainly better than a go-home message, but still not perfect.

How to pronounce know-how, comeback, come on

Certain English words and expressions are commonly used also by speakers of other languages. Know-how is a term that can be heard in many business meetings, while comeback and come on are often used in sports. Similar to the case of no comment, see this post, there is often confusion about the correct English pronunciation. So, let’s take a closer look.

Know-how is pronounced just like the words know and how. The mistake often made is incorrect stress. In English, the stress is on the first syllable, hence [‘nəʊhaʊ] (British) or [‘noʊhaʊ] (American). Know-how is often but incorrectly stressed on the second syllable. Of course, when know and how are not joined together in the noun know-how, the stress may be on how instead of know, as in the example

Do you know how he got here?

You can listen to the correct pronunciation of know-how here. According to the Duden, in German, know-how can be stressed either on the first or the second syllable, see here. (For my German-speaking readers: did you know that the name Knoff-Hoff Show is also derived from know-how?)

Similarly, the noun comeback is also stressed on the first syllable, whereas in to come back the stress is typically on back. Again, the pronunciation is just the combination of come and back, [ˈkʌmbæk]. You can listen to it here. The German language has its own rule, with the Duden suggesting that comeback is pronounced as [kʌm’bæk], see here.

Finally, the phrase come on can often be heard when spectators cheer on athletes. For example, I remember hearing it quite a lot at climbing walls (climbers also like to use the French allez). The correct pronunciation of come on is to stress on, although most non-native speakers stress come instead, which is only correct for the noun come-on, see here.

A comment on no comment

Have you noticed that the phrase “no comment” is now also used in other languages, but often pronounced in a strange way? The correct pronunciation of comment is [ˈkɒment] (British English) or [ˈkɑːment] (American English). A rather common mistake (especially among German speakers) is to stress comment on the second syllable, similar to the words command or commence. So the next time you have nothing to say, say it right.

How to pronounce abbreviations

Abbreviations such as LCD, HTML, or USA are commonly used in many languages. The correct pronunciation of such abbreviations is a two-step process. First, you have to be able to correctly pronounce each of the letters. As discussed in a previous post, this task can be more daunting than you would expect even for advanced speakers. Common mistakes include using a non-English pronunciation of letters such as x and u (for example, pronouncing USA as [ˌuː es ˈeɪ] instead of [ˌjuː es ˈeɪ]), or the confusion of g and j in abbreviations such as JVC or JPEG. Another common problem is the use of the clear l (common in German) instead of the English dark l (examples include XML, LCD, LED), see also this post.

Once you have mastered the pronunciation of each letter, the second difficulty is to get the stress right. Whereas abbreviations consisting of two or four and more letters are straight forward to pronounce for most people, three-letter abbreviations are often tricky. Native speakers of German have a tendency to stress three-letter abbreviations such as LED, LCD, or ETH on the last letter instead of the first letter. This problem is particularly common among Swiss people, who tend to do the same in German. Most notably, the Swiss usually pronounce ETH (Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule) as [‘tiː eɪtʃ] instead of [ˌtiːeɪtʃ]. The same is true for LCD, LED, NMR, or STM. While not so common among German and Austrian speakers, I did hear people stress abbreviations such LED or LCD on the the first letter as well. According to the Duden, this is not correct (see ETH, LCD, and LED). Similarly, in English, three-letter abbreviations are almost exclusively stressed on the last letter.