Sunday, May 16, 2010

Mispronouncing Words

I have three language hangups.

1) I love words and try to learn new ones whenever they present themselves.

2) When I travel, I like to learn some basic rudiments of the local language.

3) When people mispronounce words, like nuclear, athlete, library or ticklish, it feels like grating fingernails on a chalkboard to my ears.

In trying to learn Mandarin, I’m the fingernail scraper.

I looked up the name for one of my favorite Chinese desserts – Bok Tan Go. Thinking I knew what I was doing, I went to the bakery in Chinatown and instead of pointing, like I usually do, I said, “Four bok tan go please.” The person behind the counter stared at me as if I’d just asked for nonsense. So, I pointed. “Oh,” said the person behind the counter. “Bok tan go.” I couldn’t hear the difference between what the person said, and what I’d said. But obviously I made an error so egregious that I couldn’t even be understood.

I at least understand nookyoolar or liebarry, or athalete or tickilish. But what I’d said wasn’t just a mispronunciation – it was nonsensical.

I tried again when I met a Chinese woman at Toastmasters who was going to China to visit her husband’s family. I asked if she was going to visit Guilin, which I pronounced Gwee-Linn. Again, the blank stare.

When I described the pointy green-covered hills, the long river, the caves, the woman finally said, “Oh, you mean Gwee-Linn.” That’s how I heard it. I cannot hear the difference between what I’m saying and what I’m hearing. But there must be a huge difference to native speakers.

So, I wonder if the people who mispronounce words in English can hear the difference between what they are saying and what is accepted as the correct pronounciation.


  1. "Real-ator" for "realtor." And in writing: "everyday" for "every day." They are two separate terms. The first is an adjective I think, and the second an adverb. But the two-word form is dying.

  2. We're not the only ones. I typed "commonly mispronounced words" into google and got lots of pages. Here's a good one:
    It even has mischievous, which is another of my bugaboos.
    Thanks for posting yours.

  3. Oh! and "heighth," when there is a "th" sound on the end the same as "width," "length," and "breadth." "Height" has no h at the end and is simply pronounced "hite." And, blush blush, for years I said "mis-cheeve-ee-us" because I thought that was really correct.

  4. Another one that bugs me is axe instead of ask.