pronunciationPronunciation is a word which few non-natives pronounce natively. For a video tutorial on this word, click here. For a bit more detail, carry on reading.

Sometimes when I begin one of my short courses, a participant tells me that I’ve made a mistake in my printed materials, omitting the letter o from pron_unciation. But this isn’t a mistake: pronunciation is the standard form of the word, and you’ll find it as such in any English dictionary.

It’s a matter of sound as well as spelling. The verb pronounce has the vowel of MOUTH, as in noun:

But pronunciation has the vowel of STRUT, as in nun:

So, although the spelling of English vowels in general is tricky, the spelling of these two words is phonetically quite helpful.

Non-natives typically make two other mistakes with the word pronunciation, one with stress and one with syllables. Many non-natives begin the word with a strong stress, saying PRO-noun-ciA-tion, something like:

Natives, on the other hand, give the word a weak beginning, with the colourless vowel ə, saying prə-NUN-ci-A-tion. In other words, although natives have different vowels in pronounce and pronunciation, they keep the same weak-strong stress pattern: prə-NOUNCE, prə-NUN.

The other common non-native habit is to say -cia- as one syllable, roughly as if it were shay. The letter sequence -cia- is monosyllabic when it’s in a weak ending, eg special, technician and Patricia. But in the word pronunciation, -cia- is two syllables, sounding more like C.A. (Phonetically, we could transcribe it sɪjɛj.) So pronunciation is a five-syllable word, weak-strong-weak-STRONG-weak, with the main stress on the syllable before -tion (which is true of all -tion words). Non-natives should practise the rhythm da-DA-da-DA-da, and then transfer it to prə-NUN-ci-A-tion:

This rhythm, with a weak beginning and alternating weak-strong syllables, is very common in English.

It’s true that many native speakers use the non-standard form pronounciation, in both writing and speech. Google makes it easy to find examples. Here the campus store of Utah State University lists the Cambridge English Pronounciation Dictionary. The British author of this video on Old English both writes and says pronounciation. (Several of the YouTube commenters correct him.)

Nonetheless, whether they use standard pronunciation or non-standard pronounciation, natives generally say this word with the rhythm da-DA-da-DA-da. If you want to sound more native you should definitely practise this rhythm. It can be heard in countless phrases like United Kingdom, Barack Obama, a cup of coffee, tyrannosaurus, the Queen of England, tomato ketchup, A Christmas Carol, phonetic symbols, the Deathly Hallows, it’s now or never, Professor Higgins, etc etc.

Further notes

Pronounce and pronunciation aren’t the only pair of words with this vowel difference. We have others like

abound abundance
announce annunciation
denounce denunciation
foundation fundamental
profound profundity
renounce renunciation

And John Wells rightly points out that the same vowel difference appears in

south southern

although the spelling doesn’t show the difference. (Aside from southern and southerly, common words in which ou is pronounced as the STRUT vowel include country, couple, double, Douglas, rough, touch, tough and young.)

The explanation for the vowel difference lies centuries ago. The ou of pronounce once sounded much as it does in French, eg voulez-vous. It was a long vowel, , but when -iation was added to pronounce, the was shortened to u or ʊ (much as pronunciation still sounds in the North of England). Later changes transformed long ou and short u into the modern standard vowels of noun and nun heard in North America and Southern England today.

Beer for dessert

I was in a restaurant quite recently, and the waitress – not a native speaker of English – was describing the desserts on offer.  I was surprised when she told me that one of them was made of beer.  That, at least, is what I heard.  After a while it became clear that the dessert actually contained pear, the fruit.

There are two pronunciation problems which underlie this misunderstanding: one relates to the initial consonant, the other relates to the vowel.  (The waitress was a speaker of Estonian, but these problems arise with speakers of many language backgrounds.)

The English consonant p is one of three (p, t, k) which are aspirated at the beginning of a word.  This is crucial to differentiate them from English b, d, g.  Native speakers of English are very sensitive to this sound difference, and if we natives don’t hear aspiration, we are likely to think we’ve heard a word beginning b, d, g (like beer) rather than a word beginning p, t, k (like pear).  Aspiration is a challenge for all English learners whose mother tongue has little or no aspiration; this includes Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Japanese, Russian, Finnish, Estonian and many other languages.  Even high-level English users from these backgrounds often don’t aspirate enough.  I’ve made a video explaining aspiration which you can watch here.

The vowel of pear is problematic partly because of the spelling and partly because of its actual sound.  The fruit pear isn’t pronounced like the second syllable of appear. It’s pronounced exactly like pair and the second syllable of compare, so it rhymes with bear/bare, wear/where, swear and hair.  The vowel of these words is a more open sound than the ‘e’ of most languages: in the International Phonetic Alphabet the English sound is ɛ. Americans will pronounce the r, so bear/bare, wear/where, hair are pronounced bɛr wɛr hɛr.  In England a long vowel is used, giving bɛː wɛː hɛː.

However, many dictionaries write this as AmE ‘/er/’ and BrE ‘/eə/’. Typically non-natives see ‘e’ and simply use the ‘e’ sound of their mother tongue, which is likely to sound too close, more like the English vowel ɪ.  This occurs in words like beer, here, year and the second syllable of appear: bɪr hɪr jɪr əpɪr (AmE), bɪː hɪː jɪː əpɪː (BrE).  As a result many non-natives pronounce words like bear/bare, wear/where and hair more like native pronunciations of beer, we’re and here.

To illustrate, here are AmE and BrE pronunciations of beer:

and of pear:

Feel the p*n*s?

Parental AdvisoryUkraine has more to worry about at the moment than phonetics; but some words have a powerful effect on the ear and brain.  When I heard the word penis from my favourite Ukrainian TV presenter, Euronews’s Oleksandra Vakulina, I couldn’t help but pay attention.

The word penis isn’t used an awful lot in TV news, still less in the kind of financial news covered by the Euronews show Business Line.  But the context reinforced my perception.  Allowing for Ms Vakulina’s pronunciation of English th as d, this definitely seems to be They could feel the penis:

Why has this penis made it onto Business Line?  Whose penis is it?  Who could feel it, and why?  More context is needed:

Ah.  Now it seems that no genitals are involved at all.  This seems to be They could feel the pain as their goods suddenly become more expensive for the buyers.

As so often when misunderstandings occur, we have a combination of several non-native pronunciation issues.

One is the final consonant of as.  In English, this is z, but Ms Vakulina has devoiced it to s, which is the final consonant of penis. Some authorities claim that Ukrainian differs from Russian in not exhibiting devoicing like this, but Ms Vakulina seems to do it here.

Then we have the vowel of as. For native speakers, most of the time, this is the weak, colourless vowel schwa, ə. More rarely, natives use the full TRAP vowel, a. This seems to be what Ms Vakulina is aiming at, but like many non-natives she makes a sound which is too ‘close’ – so as comes out too much like ɪs, as in penis.

Which brings us to the vowel of pain. In native speech, this is the diphthong ɛj as in FACE. Here is native pain from the Cambridge online dictionary, with penis for comparison:

Ms Vakulina’s vowel in pain is too close. The basic issue here is that the ‘e’ of many languages is nearer to the vowel of English KIT, ɪ, than to the vowel of English DRESS, ɛ.  So, when non-natives aim at the FACE vowel ɛj but say instead ej or ei, the result is often too close to English ɪj – the first vowel of English penis.

What is Rakuten?

rakutenA Japanese client recently asked me how to pronounce Rakuten in English. This was an excellent question, because it’s always sensible to pronounce names with the sounds of the language you’re speaking. (I discuss this in more detail in Chapter Five of my mini-ebook SMART Speech.)

But I didn’t know the answer. Rakuten isn’t a very common or familiar word in the UK. I’d seen it written, but never heard it pronounced; in fact I hadn’t even realized it was Japanese. But it was important for me to find an appropriate English pronunciation, not only for my client but also for the CUBE dictionary. (We try to keep CUBE updated with new words and names, and via the CUBE website you can request new items to be added.)

Rakuten is Japan’s largest e-commerce company, and one of the world’s largest. (In revenue and number of employees, it’s very roughly one-tenth the size of Amazon.) Although word Rakuten in Japanese means ‘optimism’, the company is realistic about their lack of familiarity in the UK. They’ve even made a light-hearted video called ‘What is Rakuten?’ in which an interviewer asks members of the London public what the word might mean. None of those interviewed knows the name.

The video allows us to hear various British people saying the name. They mainly stress it on the middle vowel, rə-KU-tən, so that it rhymes with gluten, Newton and Luton. Here’s the interviewer:

This, I think, is how most English speakers would read the written word. In fact, gluten is the only common word of English whose spelling ends -uten.

This is very different from the original Japanese pronunciation, where the -u- is weakened between k and t, becoming ‘devoiced’ and almost inaudible. Also, this word lacks a Japanese ‘pitch accent’, which means that the final vowel has the highest pitch and sounds the most prominent to speakers of languages like English. Here it is on Google Translate:

Towards the end of the Rakuten video, the interviewer aims at a pronunciation more like this, with a heavy stress on the end, but it seems to be an effort. To get a natural pronunciation closer to the Japanese one, I think most English speakers would have to see a written form like Rack Ten or Lack Ten.

Native English speakers who work for Rakuten seem to pick up an ‘official’ company pronunciation with stress on the first vowel, RA-kə-tən. This can be heard in several YouTube videos. But members of the public seem more inclined towards rə-KU-tən, which the spelling encourages. This is shown nicely by another video, of a promotional event held by Rakuten in Manchester. Although the Rakuten employee who offers prizes says ‘a RA-kə-tən Superbag’:

the member of the public who wins one says ‘Nice one, rə-KU-tən’:

So I’ve opted for rəkʉ́wtən as the phonetic transcription in the CUBE dictionary. I think the Rakuten company will have to spend a lot of money on TV advertizing in the UK if they want to teach the British public to say RA-kə-tən.

By the way, Rakuten seem resigned to a pronunciation with stressed -u- in German-speaking countries. German has more words than English ending in written -uten, eg Guten Tag ‘good day, hello’, and these are pronounced –U-tn. This Austrian TV ad even uses the rhyming slogan Rakuten, die Guten:

I have one question

When I teach small groups, a participant often raises a hand and says something like:

A native speaker in the same context would be far more likely to use the indefinite article a than the numeral one.

Several major languages have the same word for the indefinite article and the numeral 1. For instance, the two English phrases a question and one question can both be translated into Spanish as una pregunta, and into German as eine Frage.  But the two English phrases are different in meaning, and need to be distinguished in pronunciation.

First the meaning. We use the numeral one to express that a larger number is not meant: in many cases, one means ‘only one’.  A journalist, or a lawyer in court, might say ‘I have one question’ – meaning ‘only one question, not the multiple questions you might have expected’. So if you don’t mean ‘only one’, you should probably say simply I have a question.  This is why I began this post a participant often raises a hand, and not one participant often raises one hand.

The pronunciation difference is one of relative strength.  The indefinite article is very weak, with the unstressed schwa vowel: I háve ə quéstion.  Numerals are stronger: I háve óne quéstion. Here are the two phrases, first with the article (weak), then with the numeral (strong):

The audio clip at the top of this post falls between these two pronunciations and sounds rather odd.

Further note

The actual vowel in one depends on the dialect.  In General American, it’s stressed schwa, wə́n. Traditional British dictionaries tell you it’s wʌ́n, but a common and equally ‘standard’ alternative has the LOT vowel, wɔ́n, rhyming with gone.

An interest in fashion

catwalk photoIf someone likes fashion, we can say that they have an interest in fashion:

In standard English pronunciation, both British and American, this sounds different from an interesting fashion, which of course means a fashion which is interesting:

The word in ends in the sound n, while the suffix –ing ends in the sound ŋ. The difference in sound is small, but English speakers can hear it and, as this example shows, it can carry a difference in meaning. Many languages don’t have the difference, so it’s worth making sure that you can hear it and reproduce it.

In English, n should be made just as clearly at the end of a word as at the beginning.  You can practise making the same sound at both the start and end of words like nine, noon, nun, noun. By contrast English ŋ, which doesn’t occur at the start of a word, is made with the tongue in the same position as k and g.  Compare ran and rang, thin and thing:

It’s interest-ɪŋ that the difference is often not made in rock, pop and folk singing. Indeed, the suffix is sometimes written -in’ to reflect this. A famous example would be Bob Dylan’s famous song Blowin’ in the Wind.

Some of my clients and students use English both in their ‘day jobs’ and also for singing pop/rock music by night. I recommend that they keep interest in different from interesting at least during the day.