Thought Catalog

Stop Correcting The Mispronunciation Of Foreign Words

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“What do you think, Geoffrey — should we get an appetizer? What about the bru-shedda?”

“Great idea Cheryl! They do a really good job with that here. [To waiter] I think we’ll start with the bru-SKedda, thanks.” Poor Cheryl.

In high school I worked at an Italian restaurant, and I overheard a conversation similar to the one above at least once per shift. On especially exciting (and mystifying) occasions, waiters themselves would take a moment to kindly dispossess diners of their unfortunate ignorance and softly inform them that, in fact, they meant to order “bru-skedda” with a very explosive “k.” As you’d expect, such lingual evangelism was usually met by customers with a look that said, “You can shove your bru-skedda right up your asse-holé.”

And who could blame them? You hear it all the time, even outside of restaurants. “Ugh,” someone will exasperate, “I hate it when people say ‘bru-shedda.’ I mean, that’s why everyone thinks Americans are so stupid.” For years now the aggravating habit of correcting the mispronunciation of foreign words has been seeping into the realm of acceptable behavior like pus seeping into an infected wound. The intent seems obvious: to impress others with an infinitely varied potpourri of knowledge with regards to far-flung cultures and languages. Sadly no one ever tells these people the regrettable truth: their potpourri smells like shit. And as anyone who’s been there knows, it’s never pleasant to be downwind of such phonetic ostentation. Instead of being impressed by the display of cosmopolitanism, we’re repulsed by it on nearly every occasion. With such a miserable success rate, one wonders at the persistence of such pretension.

I use the word “pretension” deliberately, for more often than not those who engage in this behavior are simply pretending. Pretending at knowledge of a language they studied for a semester or two and then put to diligent use during some time abroad (cloistered in an American institution, speaking mainly English all day, but that’s neither here nor there now, is it?). The American worldview seems to be marked by two extremes: the rabidly xenophobic on one end and those with an annoying penchant for overblown displays of sophistication on the other. Thankfully most people fall somewhere in between. But many have this burning desire to prove that the iron fetters of middle-class upbringing and education have been flung aside in favor of charmingly informed worldliness.

Although it occurs not just with food and not just in Italian, I’ll use bruschetta as the most irritating example of this pretentiousness. Maybe they heard Emeril talking on TV and loved the musical sounds tripping upon his Italo-Bostonian tongue. Could be they know that the David wasn’t sculpted by Michelle-angelo, so they extend the rule to all “ch” combinations they see in Italian (in which case, praise for being observant is in order). And yes, it is true: in Italian, in the word “bruschetta,” the “sch” is pronounced as in English, “SCHool,” “SColiosis,” “SCurvy,” “Antonin SCalia SKims through SCatalogical magazines.” However, as it turns out, the Italian language has more than one pronunciation rule. Go figure.

I say if you’re going to feign erudition, might as well go balls out. There’s more to a correct pronunciation of “bruschetta” than just the “k” sound. You’ll want to be sure, as of course you’re aware, that your “r” is pronounced as an alveolar tap, retracting the tongue tip behind the alveolar ridge before striking the ridge in passing. Obviously, though you’ll pardon me explaining it to the Unwashed, the “u” will be the pure close back rounded vowel, pronounced endolabially, with no wretched diphthong leakage. It seems silly to mention this, but certainly you’ll double the “t”s, since in Italian doubled consonants require gemination and you’d be completely mortified to have your double “t”s sound as a single “d.” Lastly, only a simpleton, we’re talking a real fucking jackass, pronounces the “a” as a schwa, or neutral vowel, as in “thE,” or “dUH,” or “jUst shUt thE hell Up.” You employ a gorgeous open front unrounded vowel, as pure as the driven snow in Turin. Oh, I apologize. Torino. How foolishly and chauvinistically American of me.

The intellectual dishonesty of what I’ll call the “Bru-skedda Position” is so glaring that I wonder why more people don’t object to it. Frankly I think it’s cowardly not to follow the logic to its conclusion: if it’s not too much trouble to learn the basic pronunciation rules for Italian, surely it wouldn’t be asking too much to extend such diligence to every one of the world’s roughly 2,197 (known) languages. Anyone who subscribes to the “Bru-skedda Position” I would expect to have no trouble with the native-sounding pronunciations of:

– Chow mein. [chau (tone 1) and meing (tone 4). Duh.]

– Smörgåsbord [Hint: the first sound is not “sh.”]

– Foie gras [with the “French R,” the voiced uvular fricative.]

– Fogo de chão [watch those nasal vowels, please!]

– Kie?basa [no, that’s not really an “l.”]

– Weihenstephaner Hefeweißbier [you might have to put down the Brezel and concentrate on this one.]

You go to Frederick’s of Hollywood and buy your wife some sexy “lin[nasal]-zhuh-REE” and gaze at the magnificent artistry of Starry Night, painted by a very guttural “van Gokhkhkhkhkhkhkh,” not bothered by the fact you’re still saying “van” as in “the car your Mom drove you to soccer practice in.” You shake your head at the political excesses of Iran’s “Makhkhkh-mood Akhkhkh-ma-DEEN-a-zhad.” The tones of your flawless Mandarin ring like bells as you discuss the Nixon/ Mao Summit or Tiananmen Square or the artificial manipulation of the Yuan over kung pao at General Tso’s.

But be reasonable, you say.  Who could possibly know how to pronounce everything in every language? I certainly couldn’t.

But I’d argue that what matters is the accepted pronunciation. If I ask for “bru-shedda,” don’t give me that look of forced confusion. You know I mean the damn delicious toast-and-tomato appetizer. If someone wants to talk about “Angela” and not “AN-gay-la” Merkel, I know they’re referring to Germany’s rather homely chancellor. The primary function of language is to convey meaning, not intellectual or cultural superiority.

So the next time someone orders “bru-shedda,” try letting it go and enjoying the meal. Cringe if you must when they accompany you to a performance of “Don Geo-vanni,” because chances are you’ll run into some confusion with your first Götterdämmerung, and you’d feel hurt if someone corrected you. As long as the meaning is clear, accept it. If you have to, remind yourself that you know how to pronounce “gnocchi” and let that calm you down. If you’re going to have a conversation in English, then damnit! Have it in English.

Of course, “bru-shedda” won’t get you very far when you’re actually in Italy, but that’s another story. TC mark

image – Peter Kaminski

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    • http://twitter.com/redrosevivi Vivi

      In England we say ‘brushetta’ and fuck Italian waiters.  As often as possible.

    • Asdf

      I feel ya, bro-shedda. I feel ya.

    • Anonymous

      Lol, I get the point of this article, but I’ll correct people when they say bru-shetta, and I like when people correct me when I pronounce something improperly. It’s never bad to learn.

      • Anonymous

        I disagree.  There is hardly anything less annoying than when people correct pronunciations.  Oh, “Le Bain” is pronounced “Luh-Bah” and not “Luh-Bayne.” It’s annoying as fuck.

    • CALM G WIT POET

      Stop destroying the English language. 

    • bee

      BUT WHAT ABOUT PRIX FIXE!!!!????

      • Asdf

        Sounds like a wonderful porn film.

    • Oliver Miller

      I say KOIS-SANNT or whatever.   There’s not much I can do about it, because I know that’s the right way, and I can’t *force* myself to do it wrong.  This does, however, necessitate me doing things like order the Kois-sannt-wich at McDonalds.  Anyway.

      • matt

         don’t forget the r in there

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=604840365 Joey Navarrete

        actually, you don’t pronounce the t. 

    • http://twitter.com/Amphx AnnaMariaPhilippeaux

      This was so funny. On the one hand, I do like to know if I’m saying something wrong so that I won’t do it again, but at the same time, correcting someone in this manner (especially when the word in question is foreign) is overwhelmingly pretentious.

    • Chelsea

      There is a huge difference in pretension and a friendly correction. I’m one of the worst offenders when it comes to mis-pronouncing foreign words (other than in Spanish), but I’m always happy to be corrected by somebody, as long as I feel safe that they’re not judging my overall intelligence based on a minor mistake. Because, in truth, I would much rather be politely and quietly corrected than to learn later on that my friends were biting their tongues as I stumbled over menu items I assumed we were all ignorant on how to pronounce. Now THAT is embarrassing. 
      I agree that we cannot be expected to inherently know how to pronounce words in all other languages, but we CAN and should broaden our worldview and be open to learning a bit here and there. As we increasingly expect every person on earth to speak English, it certainly couldn’t hurt us to learn to pronounce a few words, specifically the food items that we repeatedly order, correctly in multiple major world languages. To do so is not really arrogance or over-sophistication, in my opinion. It’s a genuine wanting to be a citizen of the world. I find the “THAT is why everybody else finds Americans so obnoxious” people to be even more obnoxious than ignorant Americans, myself. But I also find the “forget this, we can’t learn how to pronounce all this shit so why even try lulz” to be obnoxious, as well. Surely, there must be some middle ground? 

    • Anonymous

      I’ll correct people if they word they mispronounce is in the language we’re speaking. People do it to me as well. I don’t care. But I agree when it comes to food and what not, it becomes a bit pretentious and annoying. Also, I want to kill anyone who tries to pronounce van Gogh correctly. You’re never going to get it unless you grew up in the Netherlands, so just say freaking Van Goh or van Goff or whatever.

    • Anonymous

      This is a very funny and well-written article and I enjoyed reading it. Aren’t compliments on the internet weird? I feel gross now. 

    • Jesus

      Sounds like you enjoy your ignorance. Friendly hey this is how it’s said is cool

    • http://twitter.com/faktorii Mike T.

      Chao *mian* (goddamnit)

    • E.Eggen

      “The primary function of language is to convey meaning, not intellectual or cultural superiority.”
      Pierre Bourdieu (P’yair Bor-dyoo) called. He wanted to know why you skipped all you sociology 101-clases.

    • http://gplus.to/gplustips Ryan Crowe

      I would rather be corrected than continue to sound ignorant. Different strokes for different folks, I guess.

    • Ifyoufindyourselfcaughtinlove

      I get it, but it’s still not “bru-SKedda”.
      It’s a hard T.  “brus-ketta”

      • Readcarefully

        he said that. double t. 

    • Bothered

      I 100% agree with the premise of this article and have been making this argument to my Italian American friends for years!!

    • Eric

      It’s one thing to let something go if a native English speaker is actually unable to produce or uncomfortable producing a certain sound (such as the alveolar tap that is the “r” sound in Italian), but it’s a completely different thing to let something go that a native English speaker shouldn’t have any problems pronouncing (such as “sk” instead of “sh”). It’s not a sign of pretension to politely correct someone on the latter point, it is to correct them on the former point.

    • Hamilton

      I don’t correct people, I just would rather not take the chance of being perceived as pretentious. But as for the hypothetical conversation you start off with, what do you want the second person to do? Intentionally mispronounce the word so the other person can continue pronouncing it wrong?

      I love languages and it’s a talent of mine. I see nothing wrong with pronouncing things correctly if I know how they should be. And as for languages I don’t know, it’s interesting to learn how things are pronounced, there’s no harm in it. But I only know Turin as Torino and Florence as Firenze- what do you want me to do, learn the wrong way to say them so I can correct myself? (Which is already something I do thanks to people like you.)

      If you’re arguing that people shouldn’t correct others based on mispronunciations of foreign words, because it’s pretentious, and because no one can know all pronunciations, then fine. That’s a legitimate point– one that you tanked as soon as you started telling people how to pronounce things, namely in the American way. 

      • payAttention

        It would not be the wrong way to say Firenze, if you said Florence instead. In that case both are correct.

      • bmv

        I actually agree. I think the waiters were rude for directly correcting the patrons, but I don’t think it’s rude to say it correctly later on. Intentionally repeating the word to indirectly correct someone, however, is kind of a dick move. It has passive aggressive pretention written alllll over it.

        For example:
        Cheryl says, “I love bru-shedda!”
        Tom says, “YES, bru-SKEDDA is really delicious.”
        Cheryl: “Don’t you mean molto bene, professor?”
        Tom: “You’re right, I’m a huge tool.”

        vs.

        Cheryl: “Let’s get some bru-shedda.”
        Tom: “Hello sir, could we please get the bru-skedda to share, and the wine menu when you’re ready? Cheryl, would you like wine?”
        Cheryl: “What a lovely idea! You’re so polite!”

        See, totally different.

    • http://twitter.com/zionistdee Darren Jackson

      This is hilarious and well written. I laughed quite hard at some of the things that were written here.

      People that are taking this writers thoughts so seriously, chill out! It’s OK! I’m pretty sure it’s meant to be a cultural satire. Why else would the author lambaste others for condescending and pretentious lambasting, and write in a condescending and pretentious tone? (See what I did there?) Especially about such a trivial topic. To be honest, reading into the content of this article literally only supports his marginal premise. But I could be wrong…

      Loved the article. 

    • person

      when in americuh speak americuhn

      • guest

        I am an American living in Italy and am corrected quite often but I appreciate it, since I live in their country the least I can do is try to speak the language correctly and believe me that is quite often not the case

    • http://twitter.com/tannnyaya Tanya Salyers

      this makes me want to take Italian.

    • guest

      “their potpourri smells like shit,” yeees indeed, tell em

    • Anonymous

      you don’t want people to correct others for pronouncing the word improperly, but go so far as to ask them to just stop saying it properly. if you can’t say it right, don’t get mad because others can, and they won’t get mad because you can’t.

    • Tde4564

      Awesome.  One of the best pieces I’ve read on TC in a long time.  

    • dibsie

      as a foreigner, whenever i pronounce english words incorrectly, people correct me. if they’re rude about it, that’s annoying. if they’re nice about it, it is fantastic because i do not want to speak the language in an incorrect way. if i am going to speak a language, why would i want to speak it incorrectly? people should strive to pronounce any word in the way it is intended to be pronounced.

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