On my recent teaching travels, I met as usual many impressive individuals who use English non-natively at the highest level. But I did encounter, from speakers with several language backgrounds, a pronunciation that really hits the ear of the native English speaker. This involves the very common word focus.
Native English speakers pronounce the stressed first syllable with the long GOAT vowel, so that focus begins like folk. This is a general feature of two-syllable ‘ocus’ words. Here is folk followed by focus, locust, locus, hocus-pocus and crocus:
The problematic non-English pronunciation is one which makes the stressed vowel too short and/or too open in quality: too much like the LOT vowel, as in pocket, soccer, shocking and hockey:
Here, for comparison, is native focus followed by a problematic ‘fockus’:
The problem with using a LOT-type vowel in focus is that it makes the word sound uncomfortably like f*ck us (because LOT is more similar than GOAT to the STRUT vowel of f*ck). It was exactly this phonetic proximity that was exploited in the Hollywood comedies about the ‘Focker’ family, Meet the Parents, Meet the Fockers and Little Fockers. (The LOT vowel is somewhat different in Britain and America, but the joke – and the problem – is essentially the same on both sides of the Atlantic.) In order to avoid a restricted ‘R’ rating on these films, the producers had to prove to the Motion Picture Association of America that there really were people named Focker.
The word focus, of course, was not invented by the English-speaking world. It’s an international word – and that’s the ultimate cause of the problem. Whenever we speak foreign languages, international words tempt us to fall back on their pronunciation in our mother tongue. I always recommend trying to pronounce international words as they’re pronounced in the language you’re using.
The GOAT and LOT vowels are commonly shown in BrE dictionaries as /əʊ/ (BrE) and /ɒ/, eg focus /ˈfəʊkəs/, pocket /ˈpɒkɪt/. The CUBE dictionary uses /əw/ and /ɔ/, eg focus /fə́wkəs/, pocket /pɔ́kɪt/. (/ɔ/ makes explicit the likeness to similar vowels of German, Italian, French, etc.) American GOAT and LOT are commonly shown as /oʊ/ and /ɑː/.
In familiar two-syllable words, the GOAT vowel is used when stressed ‘o’ is followed by a single ‘c’ in the spelling, eg focus, locust etc, and also local, vocal, Coca(-Cola), process, social, etc; while the LOT vowel is typically used when ‘o’ is followed by ‘ck’ or ‘cc’. Exceptions include the rare words jocund and socage, which are pronounced with LOT, as if they were written jockened and sockage.