Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Commonly mispronounced foods

Perhaps I am too pedantic by nature, but as linguistically-aware foodie, I hear people mispronounce certain words over and over again, and it kinda irks me.
Some of them are quite understandable, particularly when they are recent introductions into English from other languages. With some, however, people should really know better.
The aim here is not to be pretentious. No one is gonna think worse of you if you don't do the distinctively French throat-gargling "r" in "ratatouille". Likewise, the proper emphasis on syllables is not really so important; even though I admit a little bit of me dies each time I hear "nasi goreng" pronounced like nassie (rhymes with the dog Lassie) go-RENG.
I imagine there will be some disagreements with me here, or others you wish to add to the list. Let the debate begin!

WHAT IS IT? A root spice often seen in powdered form, adds yellow colour to many Asian cuisines.
WRONG: tue-meric
CORRECT: Exactly how it looks. You don't pronounce "turd" as "tude", so why ignore the "r" in "turmeric?

WHAT IS IT? A spice used extensively in South Asian and Middle Eastern cuisine, in both sweet and savoury foods.
WRONG: car-da-mon
CORRECT: Exactly how it looks. That's an "m" at the end, people! The mispronunciation can almost get a pass because the English word is based on the ancient Greek word kardamon, which ends with an "n".

WHAT IS IT? An Italian cream cheese
WRONG: mar-sca-pone, ma-scar-pone, mar-sca-pony
CORRECT: ma-scar-po-nay

WHAT IS IT? A liqueur named after the island in the Dutch Antilles which grows the particular variety of orange which the drink is based on.
WRONG: kyu-ra-kay-o, ku-ra-kay-o, ku-ra-kao
CORRECT: The island's name is Portuguese in origin. The exact pronunciation is hard to completely approximate in English, is between ku-ra-sow and ku-ra-so. The standard English pronunciation seems to be kyu-ra-so, which I don't think is authentically correct, but I guess it is good enough!

WHAT IS IT? A Spanish rice dish coloured with saffron and usually featuring seafood and vegetables.
WRONG: pie-ella
CORRECT: pie-EY-a. Double L in Spanish signifies a "y" sound.

WHAT IS IT? Either a Spanish omelette, or a Mexican flat bread.
WRONG: tor-tilla
CORRECT: tor-TEE-ya. See "paella" above.

WHAT IS IT? Italian toasted crusty bread with topping, typically diced tomatoes and basil.
WRONG: broo-shetta
CORRECT: broo-sketta. It's an easy mistake to make, but "ch" in Italian always signifies a hard "k" sound.

WHAT IS IT?Turkish bread. Often filled with cheese, spinach, or meat.
WRONG: pie-d (as in, rhyming with ride)
CORRECT: pee-day.


WHAT IS IT? Vietnamese noodle soup, usually of beef or chicken, served with bean sprouts and herbs.
WRONG: foe, poe
CORRECT: Allegedly derives from the French word pot-au-feu, and is pronounced accordingly. An approximate pronunciation is like the English word "fur" (no "r" sound though). If you want to be really correct or pretentious, try to nail the falling tone of the proper Vietnamese term.

WHAT IS IT? One of the world's hottest chilies, named after Havana in Cuba (though it is not actually from there)
WRONG: haba-nyero.
CORRECT: Exactly as it sounds - haba-nero. The "a" is pronounced like in the word "car". If you want to be extra authentically Spanish you can even drop the h from the start.
It is commonly mis-pronounced as if there is a tilda over the n; possibly this is due to confusion with...

WHAT IS IT? A Mexican chili named for the city of Xalapa.
WRONG: jala-pee-no, hala-pee-no
CORRECT: ha-la-pen-yo. The "a" is pronounced like in the word "car". But to say it more like a Mexican, start it with a throat-clearing "kh", and the second last syllable is more like the English word "pain" than "pen".

WHAT IS IT? Spanish spicy sausage
WRONG: cho-ritzo
CORRECT: cho-REE-zo. A lot of people seem to pronounce this as if it is an Italian word, but Spanish say it with a soft "z", no "t". Note that the Portuguese sausage chouriço is pronounced more like sho-ree-su.

worchestershire sauce
WHAT IS IT? A condiment named after a region of England.
WRONG: The way it looks like it would be pronounced (Wor-cest-er-shire)
CORRECT: wooss-ter-sheer. Weird, I know. Those English people should learn to talk proper English.

WHAT IS IT? Italian pasta/dumpling usually made from potatoes.
WRONG: nokki, nochi
CORRECT: nyok-ki

WHAT IS IT? A millet-like grain originally from the Andes.
WRONG: ki-noah, kwi-noah

WHAT IS IT? A summer vegetable stew from the south of France
WRONG: rat-a-too-lee
CORRECT: rat-a-too-ee

WHAT IS IT? A Greek version of a kebab
WRONG: jai-row
CORRECT: yee-row

These are not incorrect, just acceptable variations which you may often come across:

VARIANTS: koo-min, kyoo-min, or come-in. The "i" is often pronounced as a schwa (as in, the "e" in "oven").
While my dictionary tells me that the latter is the most correct, I prefer kyoo-min. Because the sound of "cummin' in the food" is not all that pleasant, if you know what I mean.

filet, fillet
VARIANTS: as it looks, or FEE-lay
It is a French-derived word, so fee-lay is more correct, but fill-et is a perfectly acceptable English pronunciation. Anyway, I can't help but think that walking into McDonalds and asking for a fee-lay o fish just seems pretentious.
By the way, a fee-lay has nothing to do with prostitution, in case you were wondering.

STANDARD ENGLISH: exactly how it looks
This is weird. In England, dropping the "h" is a sign of lower-class speech, and as far as I know, Americans do not drop the "h" when pronouncing any other standard English words. Of course, the word presumably derives from the French "herbes", in which the "h" is silent. So the American could even be more correct, in a way.

The former is consistent with the Italian pronunciation, while it is possible that the American word was influenced by the Spanish pronunciation.

AMERICAN ENGLISH: bay-zil, or bay-sil.
Americans are weird.


  1. Bruschetta is the one that drives me crazy - I'd say 99% of Australians assume the "sch" is a "sh" sound as in German. But as you say, it's an easy mistake to make.

  2. I've never heard anyone mistake tortilla or chorizo in the way you described. And about gyro, I knew it! I was half right before, saying Yai-ro, but I knew it wasn't pronounced with a soft g sound. Other people would 'correct' me and say it was jai-ro

  3. @ rimbambo:
    You are from the US, right? I think because the US has a strong influence from Spanish speakers, they are less likely to get words like tortilla wrong. However, in the rest of the English-speaking world, those kinds of things are pretty common.

    Re: "gyro", I think pronouncing it as "jai-ro" is become common enough in some places that it is acceptable. Not correct though!

  4. this is interesting. was laughing at myself pronouncing come of the above!

  5. In South Australia growing up, gyro were always spelt "yiros", pronounced "yee-ross". (Yep, by actual Greek-Australians who sold them). Now I live in Brisbane, they are almost always called kebabs.

  6. I would argue that in Canadian English, pronouncing 'fillet' other than the French way (fee-lay) would be considered wrong and ignorant, since Canada is an English-French bilingual country. I used to order a "fee-lay o fish" at McDonald's a lot when I was a child/teen, since it was one of my favourite burgers.

  7. @ Restructure!:
    Interesting point! I guess Canada has a different set of norms to other English-speaking nations. Raises the question of what will happen to "standard" pronunciations in the future as Western nations become increasingly multilingual.

  8. Worcestershire not worchestershire. I'm not sure of the use of kinda and gonna by a pedant. Two nations divided by a common language 😉

  9. Worcestershire not worchestershire. I'm not sure of the use of kinda and gonna by a pedant. Two nations divided by a common language 😉