Words: On Sayin’ It Rong

There’s a conversation I have occasionally with fellow reader-geeks, about the words you know perfectly well from books, but almost never hear in conversation. The words you think you know how to say . . . until one day you’re forty-one and find out that all this time, you’ve been doing it wrong.

My personal go-to example for this is “chasm.” I was in my twenties before I discovered that ch is not pronounced as in “chair,” but rather as in “chord.” How was I supposed to know? It’s not as if that word gets used in everyday speech. “Debacle” is another one; like many people, I spent a long time putting the accent on the first syllable (DEB-ack-el) rather than the second (deh-BAH-kel). My sixth-grade teacher nearly cracked up when, during the health unit, I asked a question about kah-PILL-aries, rather than KAH-pill-aries — capillaries.* I don’t think I was ever in the pronounce-the-b camp for “subtle,” but I know a lot of people who were.

I correct myself when I can, of course — but the problem isn’t doing the correction; it’s knowing that you need to in the first place. To learn that you’re pronouncing something wrong, you generally have to hear the correct pronunciation in use, but of course we have these problems to begin with because the words so rarely get spoken. (Plus, when you hear it, you shouldn’t assume the other guy has it wrong; you have to second-guess yourself, and figure out who’s right. Sometimes it will be you. Sometimes it won’t.) You can’t just ask, “what words am I pronouncing wrong?” You don’t know. And unless a friend of yours keeps a list of words they’ve heard you mangle, nobody else is likely to have the answer ready.

But the tough ones are often widely shared, and so I throw the doors open to the internet and ask:

What words did you pronounce wrong for a long time? How were you saying them, and when did you find out your mistake?

Because it’s entirely possible that if you post a comment to the effect of, “oh yeah, I said vuh-HEM-ment for ages, until my wife pointed out it’s VEE-a-ment,” somebody else will read this and think, wait, THAT’S how you pronounce “vehement”? So I am furthermore declaring this a Shame-Free Zone; nobody should feel embarrassed for admitting past or present errors. It’s a common failing of readers, that we have big vocabularies we maybe don’t use right in speech. Whenever I have this conversation in person, people bond over it — knowing they aren’t the only ones to have made those mistakes. Share your stories, admit your blunders, and maybe you can save somebody else from the same fate.

*Though I’m checking all of these in the OED as I list them, and now I discover that accenting the second syllable is a valid alternative, though not the preferred one.

0 Responses to “Words: On Sayin’ It Rong”

  1. wldhrsjen3

    HEEEE! I have this problem more often than I’d like to admit. And sometimes, even when I *know* I’ve been pronouncing something wrong in my head, force of habit is terribly hard to break! For years I thought macabre was pronounced “ma-CA-brΓ©” and even though I know now it should be “muh-cawb,” I still have trouble with it. >.

    • Marie Brennan

      Bloody French, man. Its pronunciation doesn’t work well in English-speaking heads. πŸ™‚

    • octavia_b

      Hee. Sorry to butt in, but I puzzled over this until I realised that you were phonetically writing an American accent. I would pronounce it the same way but write it phonetically as “muh-cahb”.

      • Marie Brennan

        That’s half the game here, of course — figuring out how to represent the pronunciation without resorting to full-on IPA, and doing so in a way that might actually translate across the pond. (I thought carefully before choosing “back” as my analogy for the first vowel in “mallard” and “bastard,” because I needed something that didn’t shift radically depending on one’s accent.)

  2. yaleartificer

    I’m sure I’m not alone in having pronounced “epitome” as if it were a kind of tome. I made the same mistake pronouncing “behemoth” as if it were a very scary kind of moth, and to this day have to stop before saying it aloud.

    I had a Harvard psychology professor who assigned a book he pronounced in-FLU-ence. None of us corrected him, of course, but I looked it up just now to make sure it was IN-fluence. For once, my stress-first bias is right! But his does sound cooler in an Ivy league sort of way, which is probably why he’s never checked himself.

    • Marie Brennan

      Epitome: yeah, that’s probably a common error. I know I’ve heard “behemoth” mangled the same way.

      I think English tends toward a stress-first bias more often than not — I know it’s true for names, anyway. (Stupid wonkery during the presidential election about how the stress patterns of Obama’s name made him sound extra foreign. No, really.) But I don’t actually know what the rules are, or even if we have rules, that we follow more than 51% of the time.

    • brutti_ma_buoni

      Epitome – yep, me too. Except I actually knew perfectly well there was a word said like ‘epitomy’, and somehow I believed there was a different word out there which was spelt that way. I only sorted this mistaken belief out a couple of years ago (and I’m not young…).

    • shanna_s

      “Epitome” was mine, too. I knew the meaning and how it worked in context from books, but was mentally pronouncing it wrong all along.

      The weird thing is, I had heard the word used, but I didn’t connect what I was hearing to the word I knew in print, and it was a huge lightbulb moment to realize they were one and the same. Fortunately, it was my mom who caught me saying it wrong and figured out what I was trying to say, so there was no public humiliation, and I was only in high school at the time.

  3. desperance

    I learned “awry” from Shakespeare, damn it, from Hamlet his own self! Unfortunately, that was from Hamlet on the page, before ever I heard John Gielgud pronounce it. Therefore I thought it was pronounced “AW-ree”. And sort of still do, that’s still the place I go to in my head, before I find that little note I left to myself, “PS, it’s a-RYE”.

    Oh, but capillaries? In England, that’s definitely ka-PILL-aries. I struggle even to imagine any other way to say it.

    • akirlu

      Yeah, well, in England “mallard” doesn’t rhyme with “bastard,” so what can you do?

      • desperance

        Damn right it doesn’t; in neither syllable does it. Are you saying that for you it does?

        • Marie Brennan

          More or less, yeah. The first a is like the one in “back,” and the second gets kind of schwa-d.

        • akirlu

          Emphasis on the first syllable, second syllable has a schwa-ed vowel, yah.

          • desperance

            Ah, right. I was trying to imagine m’LARD and b’STARD, schwa’ing the entire other syllable. Wasn’t working for me. But no, over here mallard is two syllables evenly stressed, and bastard has a different length of vowel and then is schwa’d, so no. No rhyming here.

          • tchernabyelo

            Well, mallard as pronounced in the US would almost be a rhyme with bastard as pronounced in northern England, where the first syllable is short (though stressed)…

      • Marie Brennan

        What, is it muh-LARD? Or something else?

        • akirlu

          More like mal-LARD. It’s the bad beef fat.

        • la_marquise_de_

          It’s MA-lud, or MAl-ard

        • niamh_sage

          *barges in*

          MA-lard, with the a as in ‘back’, and -lard as in ‘lard’.

          I am also a kuh-PILL-ary person (I’m from Australia, which tends towards British pronunciation of things).

          And my embarrassing mispronunciation is ‘banal’, which I pronounced to rhyme with ‘anal’, and made my friend laugh like a drain for weeks afterward whenever she thought about it.

          This post and the answers to it are really interesting. I wonder sometimes about the influence of one’s native language in forming pronunciations in a second language. I speak Dutch as a second language, and often find myself struggling with place names in particular, because I put the stress on the wrong syllable. It’s taken me a while to get used to that.

          *barges out again*

          • Marie Brennan

            That is a valid way to pronounce “banal,” but again, not the preferred one. And yeah, it’s kind of distracting if you hear it wrong. πŸ™‚

            Native language definitely has an influence. I read “VΓ€inΓ€mΓΆinen and the Singing Fish” for Podcastle, and despite knowing Finnish stresses the first syllable, I kept slipping into a pattern of putting the primary stress on the third (and a secondary stress on the first).

          • niamh_sage

            I find this all so interesting. πŸ˜€

    • Marie Brennan

      I’ve definitely heard other people have the same problem with “awry.” (And now I’m thinking of a link I saw to a few minutes from an original-pronunciation rehearsal of Shakespeare, in which you find out how much of that stuff actually did rhyme back in the day — but if you used the rhyme scheme to guess at pronunciation today, you’d be led astray.)

      Interesting that you say the British pronunciation of “capillaries” puts the stress on the second syllable, given that the OED promotes the other variant. At least, my understanding is that whatever gets listed first is the preferred option . . . .

      • desperance

        As you say, interesting. I have lived in England for fifty-odd years, and many of my friends are medics one way or another, and it may not be a word of common conversation but it does crop up. I have never ever heard anyone stress anything other than the second syllable. This might be a historical thing, like the progression from hussif to housewife…?

    • anghara

      That one got me too, right at the beginning when I was still learning English in a school playground and, well, I made the mistake precisely ONCE – because that was all it took for gleeful malicious kids to gallop around the yard screaming “Aw-REE! Aw-REE” I kind of got the point FAST that this was not the way to say this word. At all.

      The one time I heard my upright and principled grandfather, who never used Language around his grandkids, actually SWEAR out loud in my presence was when we attempted to explain to him how to pronounce a word like “Worcestershire”… but that’s a whole other hill of beans…

    • octavia_b

      In England, that’s definitely ka-PILL-aries. I struggle even to imagine any other way to say it.

      Same in Australia. Numerous doctors in the family and I’ve never heard it any other way, except on US tv shows.

  4. mastadge

    This happens all the time. For years waft rhymed with raft, not loft. And umbrage, until recently, sounded French. Misled was not to have been mis-led, but was the past tense of misle.

  5. akirlu

    I can’t recall specifics of the ones I had wrong at the moment. I think several of them have been cases of foreign imports, especially from French. It was really only recently that I finally really figured out that the nitch/niche pronunciations are meant to be the same word. In my head, they’re actually different. A friend of mine refers to these sorts of cases as “readerisms”, which I find charming.

    I do remember having a very bad start in 7th grade or so when I first encountered the word “abyssal” and became briefly convinced that I had been hallucinating the ‘m’ in “abysmal” all that time.

    • Marie Brennan

      Yeah, foreign imports are frequently the source of trouble — they’re often the more high-falutin’ words, ergo less often used in speech, and French has such different rules for pronunciation, it’s no wonder we get tripped up.

      “Niche” drives me crazy. I say nitch, which is valid, but every time somebody says neesh (also valid) I have a moment of confusion. Actually, these days I think I tend to flip between the two, never making up my mind . . . .

      • artemisgrey

        Okay I gotta tell you every time someone says ‘niche (neesh) market, all I can think of is quiche…. and then I get hungry and miss the rest of whatever they’re saying… I’m a nitch girl myself.

      • tiamat360

        So I don’t have a problem with either pronunciation of “niche,” but I do hate it when people spell it “nitch.” (I mean, not when they’re trying to describe how it sounds, but when they’re trying to use it for real.)

      • genarti

        I flip between the two too! I can never decide which I like better.

        I also flip between crayp and crep for “crepe,” depending on the moment and the mood and how French I feel like being. Mostly crayp, because when you’re saying crep you might as well do the French R too and then it just sounds pretentious.

    • Anonymous

      I love “readerisms”!! It’s true!! It’s compulsive readers who most often fall victim to this. Mispronunciation should not be a source of shame, just a sign of Consummate Nerddom!

      • akirlu

        I believe it was the boy Huw, in How Green Was My Valley who remarks, when his teacher mocks him for mispronouncing something or other, that it is no fault of his that he has read more words of English than he has ever heard pronounced. And fair enough, say I.

  6. artemisgrey

    I’m blank on common conversation words at the moment, although I can assure you there were dozens. What immediately comes to my mind, and still fits into the geek-talk theme is the names of characters from various old school books. Case in point: The Dragonlance series. When I attended DragonCon, I didn’t meet one person that pronounced the various names the same way I did – and some people had reams of documentation as to why THEIR pronunciation was correct.

    Oh, and I’ve now reminded myself of two words I did ‘screw up’. Solace My version was SOL-ace while apparently most folk say so-LACE and Sojourn I said so-JOURN but it seems that most folk say SO-journ.

    • desperance

      Nooo…! Nobody could say so-LACE, surely? Trust yourself; it’s SOL-ace.

      And, Katherine Kurtz’s Deryni series? I grew up reading that as DER-i-NIGH, and I still do. And assumed that was gospel, until I met Katherine. She says D’RINNi. She’s just wrong…

    • Marie Brennan

      Oh, man, names from books — they’re a carnival of variant pronunciations. Back in high school, I made an effort with the Wheel of Time books to make sure I lined up as best as I could with the ones given in the glossary, but of course the method of representation used there is so idiosyncratic, I can’t be sure what I came out with was what Jordan intended. It doesn’t matter too much in the grand scheme of things, but it gets funny in conversation.

      Solace: you hear people stressing the second syllable? They’re wrong, at least according to the dictionary I’m looking at. The first syllable can be a short o or a long one, but it’s always stressed. (And, just to confuse you more, Merriam-Webster says so-JOURN can be okay, though it isn’t preferred.)

    • akirlu

      I don’t care how you pronounce it, so long as you don’t use soujourn as a verb of motion.

    • of_polyhymnia

      Another vote for SOL-ace!

  7. pathseeker42

    In a DnD game that I’m playing, one player kept declaring his “rip-toes” strike. It took me the better part of a year to realize he was actually trying to riposte.

    But in keeping with the theme of humility, I have a long history of mutilating the English language, especially when I’ve encountered a word only in reading. The most obvious example is Samhain, which I didn’t really understand until running with the Changeling crowd where it was common spoken.

    • Marie Brennan

      Oh yeah, there’s that too — mispronunciations that come from a straight-up misreading of the word.

      Samhain . . . having studied Irish, I give an automatic pass to everybody on mispronouncing it. In a language where “bhfaighidh” is identical to the English word “why,” all bets are off.

      • anghara

        It took me AGES to connect the name “Nieve” (as I heard it pronounced) with a certain person I knew written down as Niamh – so yes, Irish is in a class of its own…

        • niamh_sage

          I’ve lost count of the number of times people have called me ‘Nee-am’. I’m glad it’s only my nick and not my real name, otherwise I think I’ve have lost the plot by now! πŸ˜›

      • hawkwing_lb

        Not ‘zactly identical. (But we do do a lot of freaking weird things to the poor alphabet.)

        • Marie Brennan

          It depends on the dialect; I’ve heard “why,” as well as “wee” and one other I’ve forgotten now.

          • hawkwing_lb

            Vae, maybe? (Most of us that learnt to speak it in schools in Leinster pronounce the bh as v, and something stange for many instances of “ai”.)

          • Marie Brennan

            Ah, you learned it in the south. At least one recording (I encountered the word in a song) has Donegal-born singers; not sure about the other, but the accent there sounds enough like the one I was taught that I’d guess it’s northern. If memory serves, the pronunciation of broad bh is one of the things that varies depending on region.

          • hawkwing_lb

            Officially, there’re three different dialects – Munster, Connacht, and Ulster. (In reality, there’re the three, and then there’s the accent of those of us who learned our Irish imperfectly as a second language from people who came from a variety of these places.)

  8. desperance

    Oh, and even now: I am writing about a wyvern. Which everybody tells me is pronounced WIV-ern, where I keep wanting to say WHY-vern…

    • Marie Brennan

      Merriam-Webster says you’re right. (And I’m there with you.)

      • doriscrockford2

        It’s probably one of those secret handshake things British English excels in:

        Beauchamp = Beecham
        Leicester = Lester
        Southwark = Suthuk
        Cholmondeley = Chumley

        etc., etc. Have to be able to identify Johnny Foreigner, don’tcha know!

        • Marie Brennan

          “Cholmondeley” has always been my favorite of that sort. I mean, really?

        • la_marquise_de_

          I once attended an academic paper on the medieval prose romance ‘Guy of Warwick’ where the (very nice) presenter pronounced it ‘War- Wick’ throughout. We Britons present were very good and did not giggle, though afterwards we did say ‘Why didn’t you ask us first?’ (It’s ‘Warrick’, for anyone wondering.)
          Our place names are just hopeless, and we have to learn them too. Norfolk has two gems — Wymondham (Wind-um) and Costessey (Cossey).
          Irish is hopeless. Welsh claims to be phonetic, but that is true only if you grew up speaking it.

        • everywherestars

          Even having been born and bred in Hertfordshire, I still trip up on British place names. Last week, on driving up to Manchester and passing Shugborough neither myself, my father or my grandmother knew if it was meant to be pronounced as spelt or more along the lines of Shoo-bruh. Oh the shame!

  9. doriscrockford2

    I was saying as-PAR-ta-mee for aspartame in my head for years. Decades, really. The very first time I said it out loud (because really, how often do you use that word?) the guy I was talking to laughed long and hard. “It’s ass-per-tame, you idiot!”

  10. carbonel

    The one I recall acutely from my childhood was the first time I used the word “subtle” in conversation. How was I supposed to know the “b” was silent? My parents corrected me politely enough, but they laughed first.

    It took me quite a while to realize that the word “CAL-ee-ope” that I saw in print was the same object as the “kul-lie-uh-pee” thing at amusement parks.

    And for some reason I though that the breed of sheep was pronounced “muh-REE-no,” but the wook made from it was “MAR-uh-no.” It wasn’t until I started spinning that I convinced myself I was wrong.

    There’s also words where the pronunciation is morphing. “Forte” should (for some value of “should”) be pronounced as one syllable, but hardly anyone does that.

    I had a nursing instructor (non-native English speaker, but fluent) who insisted that impasse was pronounced to rhyme with passe.

    • Marie Brennan

      “Subtle” is probably the most common one people bring up. Maybe because it sits right on the border of being uncommon enough you don’t automatically learn the right way, but common enough that you’re likely to get corrected on it. (Plus, y’know, its pronunciation makes NO SENSE.)

      You’re right that pronunciation shifts. I suspect “forte” has gone that route because of the collision between the French borrowing and the Italian; in music, it is two syllables.

    • of_polyhymnia

      Wait, what is “passe”?

  11. artemisgrey

    Just thought of another word that also happens to be a name. Penelope. I was utterly UTTERLY devastated to learn that it was pronounced PA-ne-LO-py rather than PEN-a-lōpe The people I was talking to when I pronounced Penelope my way belly laughed, although not at me, so much as my take on the name.

  12. la_marquise_de_

    I had huge trouble with phenomenon: my tongue just got tangled. It was only discovering the Muppets ‘Ma Na Ma Na’ song that let me get the rhythm right.

    • artemisgrey

      The Ma Na Ma Na song!!! *love* I agree. I can say phenomenon easily now. But cinnamon still throws me.

    • Marie Brennan

      My husband and I have a bad habit of busting out with that song whenever the word “phenomenon” (or its plural) happens in conversation. πŸ™‚

  13. anghara

    I don’t remember which TV show it was in, but one of the characters was KILLING themselves with procrastination because they had to make a phone call to somebody who was apparently named Asshole and could not make himself do it. In the end, finally, the character in question picked up the phone and began, “I would like to… uh… may I speak to… er… is Mr…” Whereupon the secretary-like person on the other side of the line said airily, “Oh, you want to speak to MR ASHOLEY. Just a minute…”

    • Marie Brennan

      Names are a nightmare. They could be all kinds of things, between original pronunciation rules and what they’ve been turned into over the centuries.

      • tchernabyelo

        Yeah, I have big problems here in the US because so many names are of European origin, but are no longer pronounced as Europeans would do. Polish ones are particularly bad…

  14. Anonymous

    I don’t know if you remember the time in the Mummy game when I pronounced brazier like the female undergarment, and then you all laughed at me. That’s actually a mispronunciation I made for years. I knew the correct pronunciation by then, so it’s almost funnier that I made that mistake.

    It’s also funny because everyone in my D&D group in high school made the same mispronunciation. There were dungeons lit by flaming bras, mounted on the walls, everywhere in that game.


  15. artemisgrey

    Oh, here’s one… sorry, this is fun… and strangely addictive… retard. I grew up with musical stuff so I always heard it pronounced quickly RI-tard…. only later did I learn many people say REE-tard, and not with appropriate connotations.

    And another, equine. I always say ek-WINE but I’ve heard EEk-whine and various other versions.

    • Marie Brennan

      Music creates its own difficulties, yeah — there’s fort/forte elsewhere in this thread.

      Both EKwhine and EEKwhine are valid. (Online dictionaries are getting a workout today . . . .)

  16. artemisgrey

    and the infamous aluminum. I grew up saying ah-LOOM-i-num but sadly I’ve lost the ability to pronounce it at all that way. Now I say al-yoo-min-ium like an Aussie… since an Aussie friend taught me that pronunciation…

    • Marie Brennan

      I never understood the British pronunciation until I noticed they actually spell the word differently, with the extra i.

      • tchernabyelo

        Which I believe was a mistake; the discoverer did name it “Aluminum” but someone over in the UK decided that all “-um” elements actually ended “-ium” so “corrected” it. Oddly, Tantalum never had the same trouble…

    • octavia_b

      We mostly pronounce it “al-a-MIN-yum” in Australia (because we like to conflate everything), although I have heard “al-yoo-MIN-ee-um”.

  17. findabair

    As a non-native English speaker, I have this problem quite a lot… I read a LOT of English, I hear it spoken on the telly, but don’t normally speak it myself unless I’m travelling (with some exceptions, such as when there are visits by foreigners at work). — So I’ve bookmarked this post, since I’m learning a lot here πŸ™‚

    For instance, I still have trouble wrapping my head around the fact that ‘monastery’ isn’t ‘mon-AS-tery’ – I probably patterned that pronounciation after monastic, I believe.

    As for names from fantasy literature, I usually stick with what I hear in my head when I read, whatever the glossaries say. And yeah, that did make for some very strange discussions in our WoT high-school fan-club! For some reason I made an exception for Siuan – if I remember correctly, Jordan gives ‘swan’ for that name, and I stuck with that because it sounded better than ‘see-oo-ann’, which is what the Norwegian prononciation would have been.

    • Marie Brennan

      You’d think you could use analogous examples to guess at the pronunciation of an unknown word.

      In English, you would be wrong.

      (I am so grateful I grew up speaking this language.)

    • zunger

      Wow, I wouldn’t have guessed either of those for Siuan — I would have interpreted it as a modified form of Sc. Gael. ‘Siobhan’ and pronounced it sho-VAHN. (With the ‘o’ halfway to an ‘i’) Which I guess would also come from treating the ‘u’ like it would be in medieval Latin. But not classical Latin or Irish Gaelic, because then it would be more like ‘Swan,’ which is apparently correct but the last thing I would have thought of.

      I think I like the Norwegian pronunciation better.


  18. Anonymous

    Though I’ve come to accept and adopt it, I long thought “finite” should just be “infinite” without the “in-“, not “FINE-ite.”

  19. shadowkindrd

    Actually, since English is a 1.5ish syllable language*, the stress usually goes on the second to last syllable in native words, with more than four syllables having a secondary stress somewhere in the first two syllables**. Most of the words being brought up are not of English origin; they’re loan words. Different languages have different accenting rules, and those are the ones that things get confusing on.

    My issue is with anything that has -cracy on the end. I’m always trying to put the accent as CRA cee, which just doesn’t work for words like meritocracy, which is mera TO cra cee***.

    Another word that I had to work hard to remember to pronounce correctly is bakalava. I tried to pronounce it ba KAL ava, and boooyyyyy howdey, did I get dirty looks and a quick correction to BAK la va.

    One word I had no idea how to pronunce until I heard it was nauseous/nausea. I was like, OHHHHHH that’s how that sounds! when one of my 8th grade classmates used it.

    *I might be a few tenths of a point off on the number, but basically, it means that most words in English are one or two syllables, with the longer words being rarer. Look at previous sentence; two words are 3 syllables, four are 2 syllables, and the rest are one syllable.

    **Again, IIRC, and it’s been a while since I dug up that data from brain storage, so it might be off in places.

    ***I know it’s not phonetic, as much as I’d like it to be. LOL. I don’t want to hunt down the special keys to type them in.

    • Marie Brennan

      Actually, since English is a 1.5ish syllable language*, the stress usually goes on the second to last syllable in native words, with more than four syllables having a secondary stress somewhere in the first two syllables**.

      Ah, you’re right — thanks for correcting me. I knew that and had forgotten it. And yes, most of our troubles are with words borrowed in from other languages, most especially French. (Though really, English is more loan words than not, depending on where you put your horizon of “prior to this, things count as native.”)

      • shadowkindrd

        Well, given that the English language has 5.5 million or so words, 1.5 million of theme insect names, and most of the rest are scientific names from Latin. The OED has around 616,500 word-forms, and most native English speakers can recognize and/or use around 300,000 words with a working vocabulary of around 100,000 words. This in comparison to most standard languages which have a complete vocabulary of 40,000ish words… It’s easy to see the complications. (Blame my memories of Bill Bryson for the numbers except for the updated OED stats.)

        English has been known to mug other languages in alleys and steal their words for a long time. Don’t have a word? No problem. Just appropriate theirs for that description, and move on. That’s why English is the third hardest language to learn; the vocabulary is overwhelming. What’s the difference between a couch, a divan, and a sofa? When English borrowed the word from French. Now the words have become regional dialect tied, too, but…

        I love words. *grin*

        • Marie Brennan

          I knew English had a huge word-hoard, but not that other languages were so incredibly small by comparison.

          Now I’m curious: what are the first and second hardest languages to learn? And who’s making that evaluation?

          • shadowkindrd

            Japanese and Chinese seem to be the concensus as the hardest, and it’s because they use the kanji and hanzi characters instead of an alphabetical system.

            Learning Japanese is also hampered by the language having two other systems, the hirigana and the katakana, as well as romanji (i.e. Roman alphabet and western style numerals) thrown in for good measure, all mixed together, and then written in columns on books that read from what most western readers would consider back to front.

            Learning Chinese is almost as confusing because not only do they have Standard Chinese, but Literary Chinese and Vernacular Chinese styles and a few other things. Add to that mix that the learner isn’t learning Chinese as a spoken language, just as a written one. For spoken, there’s everything from Mandarin (the most common) to Cantonese to Wu to Hunanese to Hakka to Gan, and more subdialects than American English has words for pop/soda/cola/etc.

            There are other problems, and I’ll continue on another response.

          • shadowkindrd

            Spoken Chinese languages share a common issue, too, esp. for English speakers because the words are heavily inflicted and tonal. The same word, with different tones on the verb, can be four completely different words, but to an English speaker, sound the same. However, mispronouncing the infliction can create misunderstandings, to say the least. Japanese have this problem with English; to them, /l/ and /r/ sound the same, and they pronounce it /r/, no matter what the written letter is.

            The next problem is word order in sentences. English is fairly rigid within certain parameters of word order, i.e. the standard is subject verb direct object indirect object, all with appropriate modifiers. Modifiers have to come in specific orders, i.e. we can say the big red truck, but we can’t say the red big truck, or the truck red big, or the big truck red, etc. While yes, there are exceptions, the normal patterns apply.

            I can’t speak for Chinese, but my Japanese class was about tossing out all these concepts of word order and starting from scratch. From what little I remember (burn-out SUCKS), the verb always came at the end, so we didn’t know tense until then. Pronouns usually came up front, but not always, and knowing what the direct object versus the indirect object vs. the subject could get tricky fast because word order wasn’t all that fixed. So, toss that problem in with having to learn not one, but three alphabets AND the kanji…

            My memory isn’t very good for the Japanese, but I took the first two semesters of Japanese in 10 weeks instead of 30, all in the summer after my father died. It was a hard summer. I was literally crying in class by the end of it. Not a surprise I burned out before I could get my Ph.D. in historical linguistics. But at least it explains my passion for the topic. πŸ™‚

          • shadowkindrd

            Oh, yes, one other complication about Japanese. Their alphabets aren’t actually alphabets. Instead of each character representing a letter, each one represents a syllable that is (usually) either a vowel or a combination of a consonent and a vowel (the exception is /n/, which can be a syllable all its own). For example, one string may be sa shi su se so. Each one of those syllables have a unique character. However, by adding a few extra marks, the string becomes za zi zu ze zo. Add a couple more marks, and another string shows up: ja ju jo. Gets confusing quick.

            So, yeah. There are good reasons English shows up third on the hardest language list. πŸ™‚

          • Marie Brennan

            I was wondering if Japanese would be one. For my money, the kana systems aren’t the hard part; they’re actually quite simple, especially because pronunciation is relatively fixed (compared to English). I mean, sure, you sort of devoice some of the vowels — suki sounding more like “ski” than “soo-kee” — but still, it behaves itself.

            The bitch of it comes in with the kanji, as you say, because they can be pronounced so many different ways. Ima plus hi becomes kyou, because really what happened was somebody more than a thousand years ago slapped the Chinese characters for “now” and “sun” onto the indigenous word for “today.” I’m told that in most Chinese dialects, there’s one or maybe two ways to pronounce a given character; in Japanese, there might be a dozen. (The dictionary I use lists seventeen for “sun,” and that doesn’t include anything that might cover kyou.) The word-order thing, however, might not be difficult at all, depending on your native language; doesn’t German also stick its verbs at the end? Anybody used to a SOV language probably doesn’t find that aspect as hairy. Difficulty is almost certainly biased by who’s doing the rating.

  20. wshaffer

    I went through a brief period of persistently misreading “idiot” as “idot”. I thought it metaphorically referred to someone whose intellect was as tiny as the dot on an i. Then at some point I took a closer look and realized that it was just plain old “idiot”.

    “Chasm” is a pretty classic one – I remember seeing film of Sting recording the song “Fortress Around Your Heart” (with the lyric “let me build a bridge, for I cannot fill the chasm”, and having heated debate with the band on the correct pronunciation of “chasm”. I hadn’t been sure of the correct pronunciation myself before seeing that.

  21. landofnowhere

    Inebriated. For a long time I thought it was prononunced with a short “e” (in-EBB-ri-a-ted), and the long “e” pronunciation still sounds sort of silly to me.

    Misanthrope. I had been taught how to pronounce “Penelope” and “epitome” and overcorrected, and thought that “misanthrope” was homophonic with “misanthropy”.

    Cleavage. I thought that it (at least the last syllable) should be pronounced as if it were French, at least when used in the context of women’s fashion. It just sounded more sophisticated that way!

    (Yes, the drift of all this may be that I was too sheltered and well educated for my own good.)

    • Marie Brennan

      Misanthrope. I had been taught how to pronounce “Penelope” and “epitome” and overcorrected, and thought that “misanthrope” was homophonic with “misanthropy”.

      A perfectly reasonable error to make! Ditto lycanthrope.

      I suspect there are a lot of words like “cleavage” and “umbrage” and so on that people Frenchify because they think, consciously or unconsciously, that surely the more “sophisticated” sound has to be the right one.

      • zunger

        … which is how English ended up with its standard pronunciation of “lingerie,” which is actually nothing like the French pronunciation at all but sounds fancier. (It was years until I realized that it was borrowed from the French word, because of that)

        “Lycanthrope” is really a terrible word in this regard. It’s built out of Greek, so one would naturally expect a voiced final e, but the e here isn’t coming from a final eta like in Penelope, it’s coming as an English addition to make the final o be an omega sound rather than an omicron sound. How anyone is supposed to guess this without knowing Greek is beyond me.

        I find it amusing to hear native English speakers complain about how hard it is to read text in other languages.

        • Marie Brennan

          Lingerie — my French pronunciation is terrible, so can you give me an approximation of how it should be said?

          How anyone is supposed to guess this without knowing Greek is beyond me.

          Guess it, no. You just have to learn by osmosis.

          I find myself wondering if children in non-Anglophone countries have the same emphasis on spelling tests that we do. I can’t imagine it in, say, Spanish; for all the variants that do happen in its pronunciation, I’ve seen nothing to approach the kind of chaos that necessitates spelling tests in English. (Though in Japanese, I wouldn’t be surprised if you have an analogous thing for kanji: they can be pronounced a dozen different ways depending on context. Especially in names. The equivalent there to spelling your name for somebody is to explain what character is used and how it should be pronounced.)

          • zunger

            The French word is pronounced ‘lahn zher IE’, sort of like the English word except with a less nasal first syllable, and the last syllable sounding like an ‘ee’, just like a final ‘ie’ would in English. It means “laundry,” which is another part of why it didn’t occur to me that they were related.

            So random story about pronunciation: Hebrew is horrible in that the writing system only marks the consonants, so you need to know what the word is in order to say it. When my mother was in her 20’s, she applied for a job as a news anchor; the job test was simply to give them a sheet of text and have them read it out loud. Very few people passed. Hebrew’s spelling is even worse; there are several pairs of letters which produce almost identical sounds, and there are actually three different spelling systems in common use which sometimes get mixed within the same text.

            OTOH, the pronunciation rules for Polish can be summarized in about a page, and AFAICT they let you pronounce arbitrary text sounding like a native. (Which really surprised my Polish team members when I went to visit them in Krakow)

          • Marie Brennan

            Yeah, I tried to learn to at least read the Hebrew alphabet (if not understand what it meant) before I went to Israel . . . I didn’t get very far.

    • zunger

      On pronouncing “Penelope:” “I am not an ungulate!”

  22. sartorias


    I went until a year or two ago thinking it was BANE-ull, because no one ever used it in spoken language, until a friend of mine pronounced it Bah-NALL.

    there are many, many others. That’s the most recent.

    • Marie Brennan

      Technically it can be either, but bah-NALL is more preferred.

      • artemisgrey

        I can honestly say I’ve avoided using banal verbally for fear of pronouncing it like anally with a ‘b’ I just know it’ll pop out like Austin Powers and the word ‘mole’…

  23. tiamat360

    I thought maniacal was pronounced “may-nee-ACK-al.” Dunno where I would’ve gotten that from ::glares at maniac::.

  24. Anonymous

    my shames:

    reveled (I rhymed with “rebelled”)
    primer (I rhymed with “rhymer”)
    discontent (out of which I somehow got dis-CON-tent, and said it out loud in my sophomore [in college] philosophy class)

    • Marie Brennan

      “Primer” is one I used to get wrong, too.

    • landofnowhere

      Okay, now I’m confused about the correct pronunciation of “primer”, because it’s also a word I thought I used to mispronounce, only in the other way.

      As a kid I thought it was pronounced like “primmer”, but in recent years I’ve only heard it pronounced to rhyme with “rhymer”, so I assumed I was wrong as a kid. What’s going on?

      • Marie Brennan

        Oops, should have clarified. “Pry-mer” is correct for, say, paint, but “prim-mer” is preferred for an introductory book. (Though M-W claims “pry-mer” is the preferred British pronunciation for the latter, too.)

        • artemisgrey

          The funny part of primer for me is that I grew up around people who collected children’s books, such as old primers from the turn of the century. So when someone sent me to buy a gallon of primer one day, I found myself in the middle of Low’s surrounded by a bunch of paint-splattered older men who thought I was cute aa a button because I called it ‘prim-mer’ like their grandmothers used to say…

        • tchernabyelo

          M-W is right, and I had no idea that was a word with a different pronunciation here in the US.

          I’m generally pretty good on the differences in meaning between US and British English, but clearly there are still some pronunciation issues I have to encounter…

        • of_polyhymnia

          (Found this through someone on my flist)

          Either “pry-mer” is used for both in some parts of the US, or everyone I know just decided to be British-y on that! (Not that that’s not possible. I don’t hear the word that often.)

          • Marie Brennan

            “Pry-mer” might be accepted pronunciation for both in some parts of the U.S., or it might just be erroneous pronunciation in the process of replacing the correct.

            And thus language changes over time.

  25. starlady38

    I think I still say “epoch” wrong–“EE-poch” (with a hard final C, like ‘apocalypse’) when it’s supposed to be homonymous with “epic.” But oh, I had scads of these words in, say, middle school. I’ve forgotten most of them, because my speaking vocabulary has expanded, but yeah, that was totally me. Of course, I feel like my speaking vocabulary has expanded without my writing vocabulary getting larger, which is sort of annoying, particularly when writing research papers…

    OTOH, I also know a lot of random nautical vocabulary that I have no idea how to pronounce, since I only ever read or write it.

  26. ailaes

    There are only two I can think of, and one I was hearing quite frequently, yet never registered as the particular word when I read it.

    The first is macabre. Correct pronunciation: MAH-caub or MA-ca-bre. Mine? MAC-ah-bur. Which made me feel really stupid since I have a fascination with the macabre. D’oh.

    The second is carotid. For years I was saying it CARO-tid. Though it is CAR-ah-tid. As in, carotid artery. Boy, did I feel silly with that one.

  27. landofnowhere

    One more: At one point when I was around 13 I thought the word “discipline” should be pronounced so that the beginning of the word sounded like “disciple”. When I said this out loud it cracked my family up.

    I’d surely heard that word out loud multiple times before, though — I think what happened was that when I was younger I thought that “disciple” was pronounced like the beginning of “discipline” (being raised in a non-religious family, my main encounter with religion came from reading books given to me by my Catholic relatives) — and at the point when I learned this was wrong, I overcorrected.

  28. greybar

    As a kid who read lots of military history, I somehow got into my head that the Pillars of Hercules were not pronounced “JIL-baa-TRAR” – until I said it outloud as a highschooler who was playing a big tabletop wargame with grownups.

    Also “res-EYE-dual” instead of “RES-id-ual”

    Lot of the ones other people have mentioned are/were mine too.

    On the French-origin ones – I take The Economist in podcast form and notice that the readers often shift to full French pronounciation for some words (which are in italics in the print edition). Pretention, more European, both?

  29. Anonymous

    I spent years thinking Worcestershire (as in the sauce) was pronounced fully like its spelled – Wor-chester-shire. Ditto for other similar words.

    Cue me going to England for the summer, and having a bunch of Brits tell me its “Glouster,” not “Glouchester.”

    Of course, these are the people who pronounce the town Reading as “Redding.”

    • deird1

      There’s a town in Britain called Launceston, and another in Australia with the same name.

      The Australian one is pronounced as it’s spelled; the British one sounds like “Lonston”.

  30. deird1

    I asked a question about kah-PILL-aries, rather than KAH-pill-aries — capillaries.*

    You’d be pronouncing it correctly for Australia, then…

    I always thought “chagrin” was pronounced as “charinge”, and “guffaw” was “guworf”.
    Not sure why…

  31. Anonymous

    Erin here

    Well, you’ve heard how I mangle certain WOT character names, so I won’t go into that

    I have two problems, first, my mom is Irish, so I say a lot of things in the British manner (Cap-PILL-aries, Alu-min-i-um, etc), and

    My other problem is that I have a nasty tendency to flip letters and/or add them randomly into words. I usually make sure I’ve heard someone say a word before I say it out loud, but sometimes I forget and it leads to hilarity. In astronomy, when we’re looking at a star at the telescope, and guiding off it (that is, adjusting the telescope’s position to keep the star in place), we call the box selecting the guide star a “reticle” (rhymes with spectacle ). I flip the “c” and the “t”, and drop the “i”, which makes it sound like the kind of exam you get if you set off the metal detectors at an airport.

    …this is hi-lariously funny at 4am on the third night of an observing run.

    Even now I have to force myself to say it “wrong” so that it sounds right to everyone else. I spell it correctly-it usually is just how I say the word that’s affected. It doesn’t affect my reading ability–it’s fine if I’m in my own head, but problematic when I’m trying to communicate to others, especially if I’ve only seen the word in print.

    • Marie Brennan

      Interesting — if you’re spelling things correctly, then it isn’t dyslexia as we usually think of it, but that’s a classic dyslexic flaw, flipping letters around like that.

    • diatryma

      I do that with ‘lascivious’ and ‘inexorable’. I pronounced them wrong in my head and it took years for me to pick up on the wrongness outside it. I have to pause and orient myself when I say them.

      • Anonymous

        Yup–lascivious is one of them (I flip the v and c), and inexorable I have to pretend there’s a silent ‘h’ to get it right. It’s nice to hear from someone else who does it too!

  32. lindenfoxcub

    Mine was ocean – I pronounced it oh-KEEN. When my mom corrected me, she was kind enough to tell be about pronouncing cathedral KATH-ed(like ted)-rul.

  33. hawkwing_lb

    I commonly mispronounce a whole raft of words in the English language. Complicated by the fact that I have an adaptive accent – whatever I’m listening to, television- or speech-wise, my accent will slide around and try to assume protective colouring. (Which works about as well as you’d imagine.) And by the fact I’m presently learning trying to learn three languages (in my copious spare time).

    So I’ll pronouce epitome like it’s supposed to be pronounced one day, and the next say EE-pi-tommy. The differences between the hard and soft “g” trip me up if I’m not paying attention, which is annoying.

    For years I pronounced conscience phonetically as she are spellt. Con-science. And ravine is pronounced raven-like-the-verb (which I pronounced like the bird for longer than I care to admit.)

    Idiolect. I have one.

    • diatryma

      You didn’t read about ray-vines?

      • hawkwing_lb

        I did not claim it made any sense! Down in the raven, where the woolverin killed without con-science… I was laughed out of school.

    • Marie Brennan

      There are a number of words I remember how to spell by pronouncing them phonetically in my head — but mostly I remember not to let that actually go out via my mouth.


      (Conscience is one, actually. Con science.)

    • fuzzyfostermom

      Mercy it’s good to have someone else say they have the same problem with an adaptive accent – or what I call “being an accent chameleon.” I pick up both accents and slang terms, and mix them into my “regular” speech at random without noticing. I think sometimes people have to work out what I’m saying, from context, even when I’m not using words like “vituperative.”

  34. diatryma

    I once lost a spelling bee on ‘vehemence’. I think I went with ‘viaments’ for this completely unknown word, which was revealed to be the same as veHEEmence.

    This is why, when I next competed seriously, I got tapes of a guy reading the Paideia words.

    ‘Corridor’ isn’t coRIder. Epitome is the same as when people same epitomy– I don’t know why I made up a spelling for the pronunciation, but I do remember connecting the two. ‘Ignorant’ and ‘arrogant’ bounce with ‘Benjamin’ rather than ‘Matilda’. I will never get ‘inexorable’ or ‘lascivious’ right, but that’s because I swap the insides, not because I stress them wrong or anything.

    I have read that one characteristic of fandom-speech is that we try to pronounce letters that aren’t pronounced, like in ‘folk’. I know I do that.

    • Marie Brennan

      I lost a spelling bee on a word I forgot to request a definition for, so to this day I don’t know if they were asking for “kernel” or “colonel.” I tried for the latter and failed miserably.

      I mean, really, English. I don’t know where you get these notions.

      • diatryma

        I also lost once on ‘billowing’ I think, because I couldn’t hear whether it was ‘billowy’ or not. But that was the same year I went to the Bee, so who cares if I came in fifth at the Tri-County?

  35. iriththedreamer

    I have to admit that I had this trouble with the word ‘paladin’ for years. I thought it rhymed with Aladdin. It does not… and my first D&D group laughed at me. XD

  36. hakamadare

    oh man, i’ll want to come back to this post πŸ™‚ just to get in the door, however, my first was “vacant”, which i learned from reading, not from hearing, and so pronounced “VAY-chent”.

    a decade and a half later, i was still pronouncing “mechanism” like “mechanical” (that is, “meh-CAN-is-um”).


  37. nipernaadiagain

    All English words! You all insist on writing Mary and then reading it John (oh, and John should be read YoHn, not DΕΎon! If you mean DΕΎon, why not write it like that!)

    And I can never get it right with gmail! As when I say it as I would an Estonian word – ge-mail – then the person is the one who prefers the English way of dΕΎi-meil and vice versa (err, actually I would not use anything Latin in spoken … see, there IS reason why I prefer written to spoken speech)

    • Marie Brennan

      English pronunciation is a mess, yeah. As I said elsewhere in this thread, I suspect non-Anglophone countries don’t have to spend years on spelling tests just so their inhabitants will have basic competence with the written language.

  38. unforth

    Hmm…I too mispronounced chasm in the same way. It was in one of the first grown up books I every read (A Spell for Chameleon) so I learned that one pretty quick (and learned that I had it wrong a couple years later). πŸ™‚ Some others I remember getting wrong:
    …but there are a lot more. This comes up about once a month between mom and I. Our most recent was Pilate, as in the guy from the bible. She and I both read a LOT, which means we both know a lot of these obscure words. Ah well. πŸ™‚

  39. of_polyhymnia

    (Someone on my flist linked to this – Hi!)

    I’d like to submit “subpoena,” correctly pronounced suhpeena rather than sub-poe-ee-na.

    And also “Hermione.” I said Her-mee-own until she taught Viktor Krum how to say her name properly.

    (Luckily I was taught a few in school, so I always managed “Wooster” (Worchester), “Tems” (Thames), and “buhzum” (bosom).)

    I’ve moved to England from the states now, though, and woo boy. SO MANY DIFFERENT PRONUNCIATIONS.

    • Marie Brennan

      Hi, and welcome!

      I strongly suspect Rowling put in the bit about Krum mispronouncing Hermione’s name just so she could correct the readers who were getting it wrong.

  40. jennifergale

    I see a lot of my blunders here. My recent discoveries have been place names:

    Sequim is pronounced Squim

    The Moscow of Idaho is pronounced Moss-koh

    My most memorable gaffes have come from pronouncing certain French words the way the Chef pronounces them in The Little Mermaid. :sigh: I was teased endlessly.

    • Marie Brennan

      As I understand it, the Russian Moscow should be pronounced more or less the same way; it’s a sloppy American thing to make it rhyme with “cow.”

  41. jedibuttercup

    There are some real gems buried in here!

    Thematic, too. I just saw “Megamind” in theaters yesterday, and was totally charmed when the title character kept mispronouncing words at random. They never go into the why, but it was completely obvious to me: he grew up learning most of his vocabulary from books, not people! A neat backstory note for the creators to use; it made me identify with him immediately.

    It happened to me a lot when I was younger, but the one that still trips me up even today is gesture. I thought it was pronunced with a hard g, like “guess-ture”, for ages, until I said it in front of my mom one afternoon and sent her off into an extended gigglefit. But the part that stuck was that I’d said it wrong, not the right pronunciation, so I keep having to check on it to make sure I’m remembering right (including just now, heh).

    • Marie Brennan

      That is indeed a nice character touch.

      You and “gesture” is me and “gelding,” except the G in that case goes the other way. I finally had to map it to “wergeld” in my mind before I could remember it. πŸ™‚

  42. fuzzyfostermom

    I STILL cannot say “sough” with any confidence. Not that it’s a word that comes up a lot in conversation, but it was in a story I was reading for tape so I had to say it. I looked it up in an online pronouncing dictionary, but even so I wasn’t sure. Sow (as in the pig)? Saff? Soff? Sawff? A different pronouncing dictionary says sou or suhf, which leaves me entirely confused.

    Nobody who heard the story said anything, but I suspect that’s more because they didn’t know either, than that I might have gotten it wrong.

    I still waver between the British and American pronunciations for “cumin” – KOO-min or KYOO-min. And half the time can’t remember which is which, so there’s a pause as I try to remember which one I’m supposed to be using in this country.

    • Marie Brennan

      “Sough” is a new one by me. Looks (according to M-W) that “sow”-as-in-the-pig is preferred, with “suff” (not so much a u as a schwa) as a secondary option. But I don’t think I’ve ever heard it used.

      You reminded me to look up “slough,” though, as in “Slough of Desopnd,” so thank you for that. πŸ™‚

      • fuzzyfostermom

        “Slough” is a good word. Slooouuuuu. I remember being deeply puzzled by it when I first encountered it somewhere in L.M. Montgomery.

        I really don’t know where I first encountered “sough,” but I am fairly sure I also have never heard it spoken aloud by anything other than a pronouncing dictionary.

  43. grav_ity

    When I was in England, I discovered accents play into it as well. Labratory (Lab-ORE-atree) I got, but Mandatory (Man-DATE-oree) went by a bit fast for me the first time I heard it in a lecture. πŸ˜‰

    I screwed up nearly every Greek name I ever came across until I was about 8 and my cousin explained that Greeks don’t really have silent letters.

  44. Anonymous

    The one which caused my parents the most amusement was subterfuge pronouced souter-fudge. After all, I knew how to pronounce “doubt”, right?

    David Speyer

  45. unforth

    Had one today, thought I’d share: I always thought the word chrysoberyl was pronounced like the word “cry,” but when I said it to mom she immediately corrected me, turns out it’s pronounced like the name “Chris,” which makes sense once I looked in to it, because it’s got the same root as the word chrysalis…

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