How to Pronounce Those Foreign Words You're Saying Incorrectly

Bonjour! My friends often ask why I take such pains to use the correct foreign pronunciation when saying the names of foreign dishes. I reply by asking them, "If you went to a steakhouse, would you order a STEEK?"

My friends always chuckle at this illustration, and I hope you did, too. I find that using the correct pronunciation is not that difficult and demonstrates my deep respect for and understanding of foreign cultures. In some cases I have even met English-speakers who pronounce their own surnames incorrectly! They are always grateful when I explain their error at length.

I obviously can’t teach you everything I know about this subject, so think of this guide as a simple introduction. Stay with me, and I’ll have you sounding educated in no time!

I’m going to an Italian restaurant this weekend, and the whole menu is in Italian! Any tips?

Great question. Italian spelling is phonetic, so with a little practice you can pronounce anything. It’s so easy even Italian children can learn it! That’s a joke, of course, but it’s also true.

Take ‘bolognese’ for example. You will often hear it said ‘bo-lo-NAYZ’ or ‘bo-lo-NEEZ’. You will be understood, much as we understand a dog when it barks for its dinner. Italian is a language of simple rules, and it has no silent vowels. The correct pronunciation is ‘bo-lo-NYE-ze’. Say it aloud a few times.

My best friend pronounces the Greek dish ‘gyros’ as ‘HEE-ros’. Is that right?

You’re probably thinking it’s pronounced ‘DJAI-rows’ (similar to the English word ‘gyrate’). The good news is you’re both wrong!

That ‘g’ in ‘gyros’ is the English transliteration of the Greek letter ‘gamma’, which is pronounced like an English ‘y’ in this case. The ‘y’ is itself an upsilon (pronounced ‘EEP-si-lon’), and is pronounced ‘ee’. Thus, ‘YEE-ros’ (with a rolled ‘r’, obviously) is the best approximation. You will probably still get it wrong, but I studied a semester in Athens and can say it quite well!

Can you help me with French pronunciation?

Never mind about French. You’re not quite ready for that :)

I know it’s not a food, but my sister pronounces Barcelona with a lisp. I find this irritating and pretentious.

Ah, Bar-the-LO-na! ¡La ciudad de las maravillas! Don’t be irritated by your sister - being correct is never pretentious. Spaniards pronounce any ‘c’ preceding an ‘i’ or ‘e’ as ‘th’. It’s this kind of detail that cultured people use to identify one another.

Hold on. Isn’t Catalan the native language of Barcelona?

I’m not sure I follow your point.

The letter ‘c’ in ‘Barcelona’ would have an ‘s’ sound in Catalan, wouldn’t it? So it wouldn’t be a ‘th’ like you say, if you want to be technical?

That’s why I said it was pretentious. And going back to what you said about there being no silent vowels in Italian, I’m pretty sure the letter ‘i’ can be silent. I’m thinking of ‘prosciutto’.

I think you do say it a little, like prosh-YU-to. Don’t worry, it’s an easy mistake for beginners.

Actually, I just did some research. The ‘i’ is silent but it palatises the preceding ‘sc’.

Right. Yes. Palatising. I will explain that thing - palatising - in more advanced lessons, so what I did was leave it out on purpose but thank you for your time and I hope you learnt something! Au rev— Bye!