Tag Archives: pronunciation

trebuchet

This is a word that can really throw you.

I don’t just mean its object, that butch tree, that brute tech, that better-than-catapult that can hurl large stones, small cars, and any old piano or organ through the countryside:

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I tell Boston about Celtics

Edgar B. Herwick III, of the National Public Radio station WGBH in my erstwhile stomping grounds of Greater Boston, got me on the phone (Skype, actually) to find out why Celtic music is “keltik” but the Boston Celtics are “seltik.” Of course, I told him. You can listen to the radio show, or read the script, or both:

Why We Pronounce ‘Celtic’ Music And Boston ‘Celtics’ Differently

I woke up in the middle of the night to talk to the BBC about pronunciation

A producer from BBC Radio Solent (in southern England) asked me if I could be interviewed for their morning show. I said sure, when? How about 8:45 am? Hmm… England time or Toronto time? Oh, uh…

Well, anyway, I got up in the middle of the night to take a 3:45 am phone call and talk to Sasha Twining about how to say PyeongChang and a few other things. Here’s the link to the show: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p05vswzq My segment starts at about the 17:10 mark and goes for about 5 minutes.

Sorry about the audio quality. We had arranged to use Skype with the phone as a backup but they couldn’t get the Skype to hook up so you’re hearing me on my phone headset.

Oh, also: the link to the show is only valid for 29 days. So listen to it by March 23, 2018, or you’ll be too late!

I tell San Francisco how to say Pyeongchang

The local ABC news in the San Francisco Bay Area asked me if they could use my video on how to say the 2018 Olympic venue names in one of their news clips. I said yes, of course – I mean, if I don’t want people to see these videos, why do them? (Of course I know most people don’t really care about how to say non-English names accurately. I don’t mind; the videos are just for people who want to know.) You can see the clip here:

How do you pronounce Winter Olympics location ‘Pyeongchang?’

Winter Olympic pronunciation tip: sz – Polish vs. Hungarian

With the Winter Olympics, you’ll see a slight increase in the number of Eastern European names you haven’t encountered before, including a definite uptick in ones containing sz. Most of those will be Polish or Hungarian. And that’s where the trouble starts, because it doesn’t sound the same in Hungarian as it does in Polish. So I’m going to tell you how to say not just sz but every available combination of c, s, and z in each of the two languages.

Chinese pronunciation tip 6: si, shi, ci, chi, zi, zhi, Cixi, and mei shir

I’m going to turn my pronunciation tip attention to the Olympics soon, but I wanted to cover one more thing in Chinese first: the I’s. Half the time you say them just as you see them, but the other half the time… you have to keep your eyes steady on this. I mean your I’s.

Chinese pronunciation tip 5: Lucy Liu’s feng shui

Today’s pronunciation tip is on iu and ui. If Lucy Liu and Liu Xiaobo had talked about feng shui, how would you talk about that? Now you know…

Chinese pronunciation tip 3: Mao Zedong, Cao Xueqin, Z, C

I’ve added another pronunciation tip on Chinese, and you can expect a few more. Then I’ll move on… there are lots of other languages that people wonder about. Expect Hungarian, Finnish, Turkish, and lots more. But today, it’s time for Chairman Mao… and a closing quotation that is not from his little red book but may have to do with politics.

glögg (pronunciation tip)

What’s the next level after glühwein? Take it up to Scandinavia and put it on hyperdrive – the beverage, that is, not the word. The Scandinavian word for the drink – glögg or gløgg – is shorter and should be straightforward enough. Except it involves a sound not typically made by sober Anglophones. Here’s my advice on saying it:

The hardest language

Originally published on The Editors’ Weekly, the official blog of Editors Canada

What language is the hardest to learn?

The hardest for whom to learn?

The world has many languages of many different kinds, but one thing they all have in common is that kids grow up speaking them fluently and think of them as the natural way to say things. Some languages have many inflections – up to two dozen forms of the same word – and yet their speakers have no trouble with them. Other languages rely on strict word order: move a word and the meaning changes. Kids learn them fine. Some assemble very long words from little bits; others use short words that can have many meanings depending on context. Children learn them all.

Adults, on the other hand, have a hard time learning what they’re not used to. A language that’s very different from what they grew up speaking will be a much greater challenge no matter whether we might think it simpler. But there are several factors that can affect just how hard the language is to learn.

Grammar is an obvious one. When speakers of one language have to learn a different language, they tend to learn the core denotative parts but not so much the grammatical connectives. That should make a relatively uninflected language such as modern English easier to learn (in fact, influences of foreign learners are the main reason it’s so simple – Old English was heavily inflected), but for people who are used to substantially different word orders, or to seeing grammatical relations marked on words, it could be a problem.

Pronunciation can also make a language harder. If it has sounds you aren’t used to making and distinctions of sound you aren’t used to paying attention to, that’s going to be trouble. English defeats a lot of people with our “th” sounds and subtle vowel differences (such as bit versus beat); Mandarin’s palatal consonants and its tones stymie many English speakers. Hindi has consonant differences most Anglophones can’t even hear.

One thing that makes a language particularly hard to learn is inconsistency: irregular verbs, idiomatic phrases, wildly inconsistent spelling. The same historical contacts that helped simplify English grammar helped nightmarify its spelling so even native speakers can’t get it all right. We’re not the only language with troublesome spelling: languages as different as French, Gaelic, and Tibetan are larded with silent letters. But they’re still mostly internally consistent. English doesn’t quite require a person to learn each word form, as Chinese does, but it’s much more challenging than most.

All of the above, however, is at least in the textbooks. The truth is that what really makes a language hard is culture: what words or ways of saying things you must or must not use with certain people or in certain places. Unspoken rules of politeness and social hierarchy, along with the habits of different genres (formal versus informal, or newspaper versus novel), are the real landmines, especially for someone from a very different culture. As odd as English spelling is, the fact that “Would you mind shutting the window,” “Could you shut the window,” and “Please shut the window” can mean the same thing in decreasing order of politeness, patience, and deference is likely to be even more vexing… and is less likely to be explicitly taught.