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Which English Words Do Native Speakers Mispronounce?
There are some words that are just hard to pronounce. Forget being a non-native speaker. Americans can’t even get these words right. Today, we’re going to go over 14 of the most commonly mispronounced words in American English.
The other night, I was watching Netflix. It was a documentary, Ugly Delicious episode 2. And I saw a native speaker completely mispronounce a word.
Excuse me? I actually had to go back and turn on the subtitles to make sure he was saying the word I thought he was saying, but mispronouncing.
He was. How is that? How is it that Americans mispronounce words in their own language? It’s because sometimes, we learn words from reading, not from hearing them used. And English is not a phonetic language. The letters do not correspond one-to-one with the sounds. So we can see a word and guess the pronunciation, and maybe be wrong. Someone who reads a lot may learn lots of words that they’ve never heard pronounced. So it’s actually really easy for native speakers to mispronounce a word.
This word is ‘echelon’, not echelon. But echelon was a good guess. Because the CH can be pronounced K or CH or SH. In this case, it’s the SH sound, not the K sound. But there would be no way to know that just by looking at the word. So the first word today is going to be…
Echelon. Try that with me. Echelon. By the way, if you’re wondering what the heck these symbols are, they’re the international phonetic alphabet symbols. They match up to the sounds of English because the letters of English don’t. If you want to know more about them, if you want to learn them for American English, i’ll put a link to my playlist that goes over them below. Oh my gosh, you guys. I just went to Youglish just to see if I could find anyone else saying ‘Echelon’. I typed it in and I found another guy mispronouncing this word, only mispronouncing it in a different way. I did not expect to find that.
So he said ‘Echelon’ with the CH sound, also a good guess, also not the way that word is pronounced. So that word only has one pronunciation listed in the dictionary and it’s Echelon. Echelon. If you’re unfamiliar with the word Echelon, it means a group or a level within an organization or a larger group. We’re looking to hire the best people who are in the upper echelon of their fields. The other day, I was talking to David about the Metropolitan Opera. I said it’s so cool to live so close to such an upper echelon Opera House. Hearing the wrong pronunciation of Echelon on Netflix got me thinking about the words I’ve mispronounced in my life. So I posted to Facebook to ask my friends about words they’ve said incorrectly, or weren’t sure how to say maybe because they learned them from reading.
One friend said ‘chaos’. He thought it was chaos, the CH letter is making a CH sound. Again those letters CH, they can be tricky, just like in Echelon. So here, we’ll study a list of words I’ve heard mispronounced by native speakers. I’ve mispronounced them myself or my friends have admitted to mispronouncing. This one is from my friend Lowell, reading out loud in class in the 6th grade, he said ‘schedule’. Ok so he mixed up the L and the D, and he also didn’t make a K sound. Sk, sk. Schedule. Schedule. So SCH is often S Plus K sound, sk, like in school. But not always, for example, when it’s followed by another consonant, then it’s going to be an SH sound like: schlep. Schlep has two meanings: to halt or carry something. I have to schlep my groceries up four flights of stairs. Or it can be a tedious or long journey. It takes me an hour to get to work on the subway, and I have to make two transfers so it’s a schlep.
Now, the word schedule. That’s the word that my students have requested a lot. So I do have a video that goes over how to pronounce that word in detail. I’ll link to it at the end or you can see the link in the video description. Here, I found one that even the guy in the dictionary mispronounces. Acai. Its acai. Now, I get it. When words come to us from other languages, it can be really hard, but come on. This one is written with stress on the last syllable. Its acai, not acai. Do you know this? It’s a berry supposed to be very very good for you. Often put in smoothies. And yes, I’ve definitely heard Americans pronounce this acai. I mean, with the letters, that pronunciation would make sense in English. But it’s acai.
This next one I have definitely mispronounced before. Just like Lowell did with schedule. I think we mispronounce it because in our minds, we switch some of the letters. We think it’s spelled like this: so we say, mischievious. But it’s not that, it’s: mischievous. It’s not hard to find examples of people mispronouncing this word.
Mischievous. But remember, no, that’s not it, that’s wrong. It’s just three syllables. It’s mischievous. Mischievous. If you’re not familiar with this word, it means playful but maybe doing something a little bad. My new puppy is a little mischievous, he’s always eating my shoes.
Now, this one again, for some reason, some native speakers add an extra syllable. The word is: Triathlon. Yes, I myself am guilty of mispronouncing this word. I used to say Triath-uh-lon, adding an extra syllable after TH. Triath-uh- Triath-uh-lon. I bet if you pulled 10 Americans, at least half of them would think that that’s how it’s pronounced. They’d probably misspell it, too, putting in an extra A.
But it’s not four syllables, it’s three. Tri-ath-lon. Triathlon. A triathlon is a race, swimming, biking, and running.
All right, the next one is an example from my own life. I was in the tenth grade, geography class, I can’t remember what I was talking about but I used this word: facade. But that’s not how I said it I said: facade. Barricade. Cascade. Decade. Facade made sense, but that’s not the pronunciation. Facade. The C is the S sound, that’s not uncommon, it’s S in lots of words like circle and city. Facade.
I have two friends who said they were unsure of how to pronounce these two words: vague and vogue. Vague and vogue. Kirk wasn’t sure if vague should be vague, or vague. And he says he still gets nervous saying it, but it’s AY like in day, say, way, AY. Vague is the right way.
Now. Catherine worked in fashion so I’m pretty sure she figured out how to say Vogue. But I can see how the U and E at the end makes this pronunciation a little confusing. Vague and vogue. Something that is vague is something that’s not clear, not clearly defined, stated or explained. I’m trying to put together some furniture but these instructions are pretty vague. If something is vogue, then it’s popular or fashionable. I can’t believe scrunchies are in vogue again. Speaking of that UE at the end of a word, like vague and vogue, what about this word?
That looks like too many letters, doesn’t it? My aunt said she had heard different pronunciations of this word and she wasn’t sure how to say it so she had to look it up. So if you’re a non-native speaker, and you’re feeling bad about not knowing the pronunciation of a word when you read it, don’t worry native speakers have that same problem. This word is: Queue, just like saying the letter Q out loud. Q, it also has the same pronunciation as this word: cue. Queue is a line. Queue up to try to get tickets to the show. Cue is a signal. C-U-E. For example, if you’re at someone’s house in the evening. And they keep yawning, that might be your cue to go home. I have two more with QUE.
My sister-in-law said she used to think this word was ‘antique’. But that’s not it, it’s antique. And a friend of mine once heard someone say this word as ’boutique’, but it’s not, it’s boutique. So does every word that ends in IQUE pronounced this way? Antique, boutique, critique, physique, unique? No, not quite. We also have applique, and communiqué, so they don’t all follow that rule.
An antique is something that’s old, maybe a rare, high-end quality, used to describe furniture from another era. This antique desk belonged to my grandmother. A boutique describes a small fashionable business. A boutique hotel for example doesn’t have a lot of rooms, and each room is really individual and tastefully done.
Our next word is artisanal. My friend said she once had to correct a smart, smart friend who had said: artisanal. Stress can be tricky. There aren’t many rules about it. This word does have second syllable stress. Artisanal. Something that is ‘artisanal’ is something handmade, often in a traditional way. Artisanal bread. Artisanal cheese. Something handmade in a small batch, different from something made in a factory. Artisanal.
Next is cognac. My friend Emily said: I said it loudly at a party, and the room got very quiet. I thought it was pronounced Cogganack. I can see why she thought that, look at the letters. Cognac. But it’s cognac, cognac. Cognac is a very high quality brandy.
Next is: draught. This word is confusing because it looks like it should be the pronunciation of this word: drought, the one with OU is pronounced drought, the one with AU is pronounced draught. Draught is common because beer in kegs is called draught beer, and a lot of people prefer drinking that to beer that’s bottled or a canned. Drought with OU is a long period with little or no rain. And then there’s another word that sounds just like draft, but it’s spelled differently, DRAFT, which means something that’s not in its final form. I wrote a first draft of my paper. Draught. Drought. Draft.
And what is up with this word? Colonel. Where’s the R? This is the only word in english that I can think of that has an R sound, but no letter R. The letters of this word make no sense for the way it’s pronounced. A friend of mine told me she pronounce this word ‘colonel’, of course, it makes sense, in a presentation in school. I think many people have that same story. A colonel is a rank in the military. Colonel.
So we need it now, I can never say this. Worcestershire?
We have the word: Worcestershire. This word is so weird. I actually talked about this in a previous video. Let’s check it out. This is one of the few cases where we’re actually retaining British English pronunciation. This sauce was first made in the city of Wooster England. Shire, is the British equivalent to our counties here in America, so this sauce is simply named for the region from which it comes. Worcestershire, where ‘shire’ sounds just like the state named New Hampshire. So we drop the first R, and the vowel in that syllable is the UH as in push vowel. Wuh– wuh– so the lips will start in a tight circle, and then they’ll relax a bit out, but we still went a little bit of round for that vowel. Wuh– wuh– this is the stressed syllable. Then we have two unstressed syllables. Stershire– stershire– stershire–
So they can be lower in pitch, and quicker. So we have the ST consonant cluster, worcest– st– st– So your teeth need to come together for the S sound, tongue will go to the roof of the mouth for the T. Worcestershire. Now the second two syllables have the schwa, so we need basically no jaw drop for those. Worcestershire. Tershire. To make the SH sound between the two UR sounds, the tongue will come forward a little bit, but the tongue tip still doesn’t need to be touching anything, and your teeth will stay together, Shh, and your lips will flare. Worcestershire. So it’s just three syllables. Da-da-da. Worcestershire. Don’t pronounce that first R, and also make sure you put the schwa in the last syllable. Some people will want to say Shire, but just like the State New Hampshire, shire, shire, it’s a schwa in that last syllable.
What words have you mispronounced or heard mispronounced? Put it in the comments. Okay, earlier I promised you a link to the word ‘schedule’. I actually had a series going for a while called Word of the Week, where I made a video on how to pronounce a specific word that someone out there had requested. All sorts of good words for non-native speakers. I’m going to link to that playlist here. Be sure to subscribe and come check me out every Tuesday, where you’ll get a new video on the English language. I love teaching you English, thank you for being here with me. That’s it, and thanks so much for using Rachel’s English.