Tag Archives: pronunciation

The hardest language

Originally published on The Editors’ Weekly, the official blog of Editors Canada

What language is the hardest to learn?

The hardest for whom to learn?

The world has many languages of many different kinds, but one thing they all have in common is that kids grow up speaking them fluently and think of them as the natural way to say things. Some languages have many inflections – up to two dozen forms of the same word – and yet their speakers have no trouble with them. Other languages rely on strict word order: move a word and the meaning changes. Kids learn them fine. Some assemble very long words from little bits; others use short words that can have many meanings depending on context. Children learn them all.

Adults, on the other hand, have a hard time learning what they’re not used to. A language that’s very different from what they grew up speaking will be a much greater challenge no matter whether we might think it simpler. But there are several factors that can affect just how hard the language is to learn.

Grammar is an obvious one. When speakers of one language have to learn a different language, they tend to learn the core denotative parts but not so much the grammatical connectives. That should make a relatively uninflected language such as modern English easier to learn (in fact, influences of foreign learners are the main reason it’s so simple – Old English was heavily inflected), but for people who are used to substantially different word orders, or to seeing grammatical relations marked on words, it could be a problem.

Pronunciation can also make a language harder. If it has sounds you aren’t used to making and distinctions of sound you aren’t used to paying attention to, that’s going to be trouble. English defeats a lot of people with our “th” sounds and subtle vowel differences (such as bit versus beat); Mandarin’s palatal consonants and its tones stymie many English speakers. Hindi has consonant differences most Anglophones can’t even hear.

One thing that makes a language particularly hard to learn is inconsistency: irregular verbs, idiomatic phrases, wildly inconsistent spelling. The same historical contacts that helped simplify English grammar helped nightmarify its spelling so even native speakers can’t get it all right. We’re not the only language with troublesome spelling: languages as different as French, Gaelic, and Tibetan are larded with silent letters. But they’re still mostly internally consistent. English doesn’t quite require a person to learn each word form, as Chinese does, but it’s much more challenging than most.

All of the above, however, is at least in the textbooks. The truth is that what really makes a language hard is culture: what words or ways of saying things you must or must not use with certain people or in certain places. Unspoken rules of politeness and social hierarchy, along with the habits of different genres (formal versus informal, or newspaper versus novel), are the real landmines, especially for someone from a very different culture. As odd as English spelling is, the fact that “Would you mind shutting the window,” “Could you shut the window,” and “Please shut the window” can mean the same thing in decreasing order of politeness, patience, and deference is likely to be even more vexing… and is less likely to be explicitly taught.

In excelsis in excess?

Is it possible to try too hard? Sure. People do it every year around Christmas. One of the ways they do it is by trying too hard to pronounce in excelsis right and ending up saying (or singing) it wrong – making too many sounds. Sometimes the highest and best is not the most. Here’s my latest article for The Week:

How do you pronounce ‘in excelsis’?



It’s tempting to say that this word is a tough nut to crack. But that wouldn’t be accurate. Better to say it’s the seed of an interesting exploration once you start to pry it open.

Prying open is, certainly for me, the essence of pistachios. The shells are always partly open, sort of like vegan clams, and the one thing a bowl of pistachios will guarantee is that my thumbnails will be separated a bit more from the quick by the bottom of it. And I will get to the bottom of it. Set out a bowl surreptitiously and you will be sure to catch me red-handed.

But not literally, I hope. Please don’t give me the ones that are coated in red colouring or your place will look like a crime scene (and so will my face; you will eventually figure out that I just touch my eyes a lot and am not actually in an emotional crisis). The red colouring isn’t really needed anymore anyway – it was added to hide stains on the shells, but since they’re picked by machine rather than by hand now, it’s not really an issue.

Pistachios are one of those things that are one thing to normal people and cooks and another thing to botanists. You and I and Julia Child classify things by their qualities in cooking and eating; botanists classify them by… different criteria, to do with form and function in nature (not in the pot). In botany, a banana is a berry and a strawberry is not. This does not mean that “a banana is really a berry and a strawberry really isn’t a berry wow can you believe it!!!!!!” Botany just came to use existing words in reconfigured senses rather than coming up with new words; they determined that consistency of sense in certain qualities was important and in other qualities was unimportant, and you and I and Julia have different priorities. Anyway, a pistachio is not a nut, botanically. It’s a seed. It’s in the middle of a fruit – specifically a drupe (cherries are also drupes). We don’t eat the fruit. We don’t eat the whole seed. We just eat the soft part in the middle of the seed. (Which, incidentally, gets very soft indeed if you cook it.)

How do the seeds get half-open, by the way? They just pop open at a certain stage in ripeness. Pop! They dehisce. “De-hiss?” Well, popping is quite the opposite of hissing… Dehisce means ‘open up’. It can also mean ‘doff your clothes’. Which can itself get a little seedy but never mind.

But never mind the sound of popping and of not hissing. What is the sound of pistachio?

This may seem obvious, as you probably say it the same way all your friends say it. But it has been a bit of an issue for me for some time. You see the word looks like an Italian word, and if it’s Italian, the ch is pronounced “k.” So “pi sta ki o.” But no. You almost certainly say it “pistashy-o.” But you may say it “pistatchy-o” if you’re British. So what’s up? What do the Italians say?

The Italians spell it pistacchio, with two c’s. And say it “pi stak ki o.” Well, they do in standard Italian now. But this word has been in English since the 1400s, and it came in by way of French as much as Italian. French for pistachio is pistache, though in earlier times there has also been a pistace version. And in Italian? Well, there’s the modern form, and there’s the regional variant pistacio, which in standard Italian would be said “pi sta chi o” (i.e., /pi.ˈsta.tʃi.o/), though I can’t say how the regional dialects say it.

But where did all that come from? Latin pistacium. Which in the medieval style says “ch” for the c but in classical style says “k.” However, the genus name – also “Latin” but botanical Latin, which means a special-use version of Latin no one has ever made complete Latin sentences with – is Pistacia.

Right, so OK, where did Latin get it from? Greek πιστάκιον pistakion. And Greek got it probably from Farsi pistah or Pahlavi pistag, and perhaps ultimately from Aramaic pistqa. So there we have it. A uvular stop /q/, then velar stops /k/ and velar or glottal fricatives /h/. And over time it moves forwards in the mouth and gradually softens, through affricate /tʃ/ to fricative /ʃ/.

So does that mean the correct pronunciation is “pi sta ki o”? Not in English. Just as pistachios soften with time in the cooking pot, that last consonant in pistachio has softened with time going from language to language. But whereas it has moved forward in the mouth, what it names tends to move back in the mouth as you chew and swallow it. And then, of course, you reach for the next one.

Here’s me saying some words that no one says “correctly”

My latest podcast for The Week comes from my article on words we don’t say the “proper” (unexpected) way anymore. In case my pronunciation guides didn’t communicate well, now you can hear me saying them:

5 words we’ve forgotten how to pronounce


2050: The podcast

Remember that article I did on what American English will sound like in 2050? The one I had radio interviews about? We’ve made a podcast of it:

What Americans will sound like in 2050


The sound of 2050

The Week is doing a special series on the US in the year 2050. They asked me to write an article on what English will be like then. I obliged. Here it is, with illustrative videos:

What Americans will sound like in 2050


Toilet-paper-roll words

There are some words that have two pronunciations, but most people prefer one or the other, sometimes quite vehemently. It’s sort of like whether you have your toilet paper roll over the top or down the back. These words – and where the pronunciation difference comes from – are the subject of my latest article for TheWeek.com:

Aunt, adult, pajamas: Why can’t we agree how to pronounce common words?