British and American pronunciation, and other ways of getting in trouble

Susan Leighton, from Woman on the Ledge, traded a few comments with me that led us to discuss the different ways fete is pronounced in the U.S. and the U.K.

Do we talk about the important stuff here or what?

In the U.S., we follow the French pronunciation—or try to, although our accents get in the way of it sounding like French French. But the effort seems to make sense, since the word came to us from French. So we say fett. In Britain, they pronounce it fate. So when a church holds a fete—as they seem to once a year—it sounds like they’re fated to it. Doomed, even. If you’ve ever worked on an event planning committee, you may understand this.

The English and the French have a long and spiky history, and maybe that explains why the British de-Frenchified the word, although it’s more likely that either the U.S. or the U.K.—or possibly both—shifted their pronunciation accidentally and so gradually that they didn’t know they were doing it, which is how these things tend to happen.

Irrelevant photo: rosehips

Irrelevant photo: rosehips

The same pronunciation pattern governs fillet and ballet. Americans pronounce them, more or less, fill-LAY and bahl-LAY.

But before I give you the British pronunciations, I have to interrupt myself: Nitpickers and experts, please note that I did say “more or less.” Trying to write out English pronunciation in any form that’s accessible to the average reader—or to me, while we’re at it—is a nightmare. Nothing in English is pronounced in any predictable way. When I edited kids’ books, we had to insert a vocabulary list at the back, and include pronunciations, and they were a nightmare. Take ballet: Is that bahl-LAY, as I wrote it? Not really, because the L isn‘t part of the first syllable, but if I wrote the syllable as bah you’d hear a different A—the one we use in bah, humbug—and if you said it that way you’d sound so phony you’d have to end the sentence with dahling.

We should have labeled the lists “Good Luck, Kids.” But the alternative is to use a bunch of symbols that only experts can read.

But back to ballet and fillet: (Are you actually interested in this? Skip ahead if you’re not. I’ll never know.) How do the British pronounce them? FILL-it and something I can’t reproduce but that sounds a hell of a lot like belly, so I’m forever thinking someone’s taken up belly dancing instead of ballet dancing.

Okay. I don’t know many people who’ve taken up either. In fact, I don’t think I know any. Still, I do know people who’ve gone to see ballet—or possibly belly—dancing, so the word, with all its confusions, has blown past my ear canals. Given how different the reputations of ballet and belly dancing are, the confusion’s is a small source of surprise and delight in my life.

I’m sure American pronunciations are equally absurd if you’re not used to them, but I am so I miss the jokes. I’ll be happy to hear from anyone who doesn’t.

As long as I’m talking about the oddities of the English language, I should point you toward an article in the New Yorker,Love in Translation,” by Lauren Collins, which mentions linguists who’ve been trying to measure the difficulties of various languages in some objective way. What they came up with is called the Language Weirdness Index. You have to love researchers who could study 239 languages and come up with a weirdness index. English came in as the thirty-third weirdest. Some—although by no means all—of the weirdest are small and isolated languages. Apparently being spoken by a small, isolated group encourages that, since the societies are cohesive and everyone can count on everyone else to understand what they mean. Languages spoken by large groups get their rough edges rubbed off by contact with other groups.

See? I told you immigration was good for us all.

This seems to imply that however weird (to use the technical term) English is now, it was once a lot weirder.

From there it’s a largish leap to my next bit of language trivia, but it’s a good story, so let’s not quibble over the logic.

Early in her tenure as Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton tried to negotiate what was being called a reset with Russia, so some genius got two red plastic Reset buttons made, one in English and one in Russian, and when she met with the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, she ceremoniously handed him the one in Russian. They were supposed to press them simultaneously, at which point absolutely nothing would happen because they were plastic toys.

Hush. Someone who’s presumed to be very smart spent a lot of time on this.

The problem (other than that they didn’t do anything) was that the Russian one didn’t say Reset, it said Overcharged—peregruzka, according to the article in the Guardian where I found this terribly important story. Do I trust the Guardian’s translation—or actually its transliteration of a translation? Not entirely, so I checked Google, which swore it should be peregruzhenny.

Do I trust Google? Well, no, but if the two had agreed I might have thought they were reliable. Once you get past the U, though, the two words don’t contain any of the same sounds. They do both follow it with a Z, but Z and ZH stand for different sounds.

I mention that because if you’re not used to a language the brain has a tendency to see a word and say “I don’t need to know this and won’t understand it anyway,” at which point it shuts down briefly. If yours did, you can come back now.

I don’t have a Russian-English dictionary, but I do have a Teach Yourself Russian book. Yeah, I do know how well those work, but I was trying to revive my Russian, which was never very good and has been dormant for over 50 years. That’s not exactly the same as learning it from scratch, so I thought the book might be worth a try. It was second hand, so I didn’t lose much.

Back when I bought it, we had a Russian neighbor whose English was even more limited than my Russian, and I was trying to add a few sentences to the handful we could exchange. These were, “How are you?” “I am well, thank you.” “I am very well.” “Today is beautiful. “ “Today is not beautiful.” Plus a few others that I could cobble together but was less sure of. I could have been saying I was squirting toothpaste in my ear and being overcharged. Except that I don’t know the word for toothpaste. Or ear. I do, sort of,  know the past tense.

I think.

Anyway, the book has a small vocabulary list in the back. It’s labeled “Good Luck, Kids.” I looked for overcharged, but the closest thing I could find was over there. I’m willing to bet that in no language are those the same.

I don’t know how to type Russian on my computer and I could transliterate that from the Cyrillic alphabet to the Roman one, but honestly, what’s the point? We might as well be pushing a red plastic toy button.

You have to wonder, once you leave the wonders of bad transliteration behind, exactly what form of overcharged the Russian word—whatever it actually was—meant. Overcharged as in you paid too much? Or overcharged as in I told you you should’ve unplugged that battery last night?

Any Russian speakers out there, what word were they really looking for? And what is the word for overcharged?

I don’t know what position Russian holds on the Language Weirdness Index.

I don’t know what position I hold on the Human Weirdness Index.

Given how bizarre the American election is getting, I should probably add that I don’t consider the Reset Scandal a reason to change my vote.

128 thoughts on “British and American pronunciation, and other ways of getting in trouble

  1. Pingback: British and American pronunciation, and other ways of getting in trouble | Matthews' Blog

      • Ellen,
        I’m sorry for answering that late, but here I go: the opinion expressed in “The Atlantic” is correct. Kennedy did not say that he’s a jelly donut, even if it could be construed as that. “(Ein) Berliner” can indeed mean a jelly donut, but no (native) speaker of German would misunderstood him. In fact, just “Berliner” in that context would sound unnatural to me as, like The Atlantic explained, that would mean he was born there.
        Hope that helps,

        Liked by 1 person

          • Here’s one I found in a German online newspaper today: [the Director of National Intelligence] “uebersieht” [no less than 17 intelligende agencies]. “Uebersieht” means “overlooks” = “misses”. I assume it was a literal translation of “oversees” = “watches over” or “controls”. But that wrong translation in a way is completely on the mark, isn’t it? ;)

            Liked by 1 person

            • Lovely. It makes perfect sense to translate it that way, except for the fact that it’s completely wrong.

              Isn’t it odd, though, that English gives such different meanings to overlooks and oversees?


              • I love those nuances, and I love the mistakes my fellow countrymen – and me, too – make with these. I think I got a good one oce:
                I wanted to translate the German “Unternehmer”, which would have been “entrepreneur”. Well, I translated literally: “Unter” as “under” and “nehmer” as “taker”! ;) “Undertaker” certainly is an entrepreneur of sorts, isn’t it?
                I think I might still do something like this once in a while. Hopefully not too often.

                Liked by 1 person

              • Beautiful. When I was about 15, I mispronounced noncarbonated in Spanish and everyone around me did a double take. I think what they heard was the second person informal of the verb to fuck. It wouldn’t have been half so funny if I hadn’t been so young and clueless.


  2. My brother moved to Australia many years ago. I Skype with him and note many “weird” ways he says things and one of them is “fillet” which is now the British way. I guess it is best to fit in especially if you decide to be a teacher of children.

    I also thought about President Kennedy’s “Ich bin ein Berliner” which I was taught in German class was wrong, because putting “ein” in there changes it to “I am a jelly donut.” I was going to tell you about that. I decided to look up a good source, but instead I find an article in Atlantic that says this is not so:
    “Afterward it would be suggested that Kennedy had got the translation wrong—that by using the article ein before the word Berliner, he had mistakenly called himself a jelly doughnut. In fact, Kennedy was correct. To state Ich bin Berliner would have suggested being born in Berlin, whereas adding the word ein implied being a Berliner in spirit. His audience understood that he meant to show his solidarity.”

    Of course, that could be wrong, too, but I think it is right. For years I have believed that. Your article pushed me to find the truth.

    Liked by 2 people

    • If Kennedy wasn’t a jelly doughnut, I’m deeply disappointed, because I’ve loved that story. Even better, though, is a tale about Pepsi spending a shitload of money on an ad campaign in Taiwan around the slogan Come Alive, You’re in the Pepsi Generation. According to the tale I heard, their billboards ended up saying Pepsi Cola Brings Your Ancestors Back from the Grave.

      I can only hope it’s true.

      Liked by 3 people

      • I was just going to suggest that you compare the Australian accent.
        Funny experience about accents with me. When I grew up in Australia until the 8th grade, I used to have an Australian accent. Then, studying in a British curriculum based school, I had developed a British accent and now I am in a university that follows American style so I now finally have an accent that is a mixture of Australian, British and American. Haha :)

        Liked by 1 person

        • I know someone who works as a dialogue coach and has an amazing ability to identify accents. You’d make her head spin.

          Unfortunately, I don’t know the Australian accent well enough to write anything even vaguely sensible about it.

          Liked by 1 person

  3. I remember years ago when I was on a chorus tour in England, staying with a host family for an evening, and they served me a very nice meal (!), and I asked what it was. I was told something that sounded like zoo-chee-nee stuffed with passed-uh. it took me a minute to realize that it was zucchini with pasta. I guess I’m spoiled by the way that Americans tend to keep the original pronunciation of foreign words, and it takes me aback when other people don’t.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Not sure how y’all divide syllables, but the way I was taught in school (I’m American btw), in the instance of double consonants it divides between them. So it’s technically correct to have the L ending the first & another L begin the next. Also I always liked those simplified children’s book pronunciation guides, so much better than spending forever flipping from the word in the dictionary to the crazy decoder again & again, then trying to stitch those sounds together. Though I generally get the impression of AH making the same A sound as ball, but when I hear the word ballet from other bent Americans I hear the same A sound as in call. I feel like I’m harping on irrelevant details…. Not trying to harp on anything, lol, just trying to join the conversation. We seem to have a lot of French borrowings with a hard A sound in the place of the letters ET (I have no idea how it may be spelled elsewhere, but my ignorance should not be shocking, as I mentioned I am American, lol).

    Liked by 2 people

    • The whole business about breaking syllables–if I understand it correctly, and I may not–gets messy because there are two different reasons to do it. One is so you can hyphenate a word at the end of a line, and that’s where the rule about breaking it between double consonants comes in. But when you’re trying to cobble together some kind of guide to pronunciation, though, that doesn’t really work, because that’s not (or not necessarily) what we do with the sound. A book on Yiddish finds a clever way around the whole mess by telling you what word or phrase in English the Yiddish rhymes with.

      Which works well until you start wrestling with the varying pronunciations English has.


      Liked by 1 person

  5. I never had much problem with pronunciation when I was in England, but words were a different matter. I went into an outfitter once and asked for a flashlight, took an interminable amount of time to get across what I wanted. To me a torch was something you set on fire.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Thanks for the pointer to the Language Weirdness Index! Small quibble as a linguist and a guy who recently taught a course on statistics for linguistic research: the sample size was 239 languages. No one actually knows how many languages there are–the low estimates are around 5,000, and the high end tends to be around 10,000. (Whatever the number is, the guess is that by the end of the century, there will only be half as many.) If you take the low-end estimate, they looked at 4.8% of the world’s languages. That might be OK, actually–we estimate the outcome of US presidential elections on the basis of much, much smaller samples of the American population, and don’t do too bad of a job. But, to know whether or not 239 is a sufficiently large sample, you need to know something about the degree of variability in the scores. I haven’t been able to find the study yet–do you happen to know where to find it?

    Liked by 2 people

    • Good point, and one I hadn’t given three seconds’ thought to. The study was done by a company called Idibon, which is on Twitter. The researcher who is named (I assume there were others as well) is Tyler Schnoebelen–also on Twitter. Both links are embedded in the Foreign Policy article. It also had a link on the word found, but wouldn’t you know, it didn’t lead anywhere. So, no, I haven’t found a copy of the study online, but you could probably contact Schnoebelen on Twitter. I suspect he’d take you more seriously than he’d take me. Which, I have to say, only makes sense.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Thank you so much Ellen, for the mention at the beginning of your very witty blog. My English friend from Yorkshire and I were discussing the pronunciation of fillet last month. We were also discussing how to tell an American and an English person apart from spelling. Humour, humor, colour, color, favourite, favorite and the list goes on and on. Of course we also realised (realized for us in the states) even more differences in spelling. Currently, I am residing in the Southeastern part of the US. Sometimes I have a hard time deciphering exactly what someone is saying due to the dialect differences. It can make for interesting conversations.

    Liked by 1 person

    • And thanks to you for pushing me in this direction. It is odd, when you think about it, that with all the differences within each country, when we focus on the differences between the two countries we–and I include myself here–act as if the U.S. has a single way of speaking and Britain does too. Which is completely ridiculous.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Dear Ellen, I love your witty and quirkily informative blog, but as the self proclaimed president of the Australian branch of the Grammar Nazis’ society, I have to say this: one gets INTO trouble and is then IN trouble. I hope you will forgive this correction when I mention that I bought your novel and loved it too.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Here you go: PEREGRUZHENY is an adjective, and it does not mean OVERCHARGED; it means OVERLOADED, i.e. with extra weight. PEREGRUZKA is a noun, and as with many Russian words, consonant Z at the end of a noun becomes ZH when a suffix is added to make it an adjective. The word they were looking for, interestingly enough, was PERESTROIKA, if they wanted a noun, or PERESTROIT’, as a verb, since the English RESET could possibly serve as both. Thank you for the anecdote; I will spread it in the Russian community.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. When mentioning an English word to an American readership, I usually give rhyming words (and then hope for the best!) While I left there some years ago, I’m used to the South-East England pronunciation of ballet which rhymes with Calais and valet. In other words the ‘ba’ of bat not the ‘ba’ of bar, followed by ‘ay’ to rhyme with May. Maybe in Cornwall you’re hearing the South-West England version of the word? This is the thing – different regions of the UK, just like different states in the US, have their own pronunciations.

    By the way, anyone can put translations into Google translate and the site also offers alternative translations but how someone who doesn’t know a language is supposed to choose, is anyone’s guess. I’m (ultra-slowly) teaching myself Russian and what I do find useful in Google translate is they have both a virtual keyboard and a virtual scribble-board, so if you know the alphabet you can input it either way.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Haha I like that you think of reviving your Russian from time to time. I did the same a few years ago, got a kind of modern teach-yourself book with pages of little stickers with the words in Russian you had to cut out and put all over your house on the object in question. My apartment looked like a kind of garage sale event for months but then I dropped the project. Cyrillic is too much of a brain twister to go back to. BTW I don’t know why WordPress doesn’t pop up your new posts on my Reader?

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Pingback: British and American pronunciation: a link | Notes from the U.K.

    • I do wish it worked that way.

      Actually, now that you bring it up, I’ve read some studies about attitudes toward immigrants in the U.K., and people who’ve had the least contact with immigrants seem to be the most worked up about them.


      • Yup. You’ve got that right, Ellen. It’s hard to hate a whole group if you work alongside one another, or if you hang out in the gym, etc. Even riding together on a bus can have a positive impact. Isolated people scare me. And I’m not even an immigrant. (Though my great-grandparents were.)

        Liked by 1 person

  13. I always enjoy your linguistics and pronunciation posts. However, I realized that I have not been getting posts from you appearing in my wordpress reader. What the heck? I’ve been robbed. So I’ve tried unfollowing and then refollowing to see if they will now appear.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The author of that article just published a book (neatly timed to coincide with the article, or more likely the other way around). I can’t think of the title, but the article was, I think, a piece of it, so I’m guessing it’s an extended discussion of the topic.

      What’s it been like for you, living in a third language? Do you feel some loss–that the language can’t touch some of the depths of your first or second languages? I ask in part because my grandparents spoke to their kids in English–their second or third language–and I’ve often wondered what that was like for them. My Spanish isn’t good enough to be a fair comparison, but I do know the feeling of trying to express a thought that’s too big (or sometimes only too amorphous) for my competence in the language.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yes, I saw the book, it’s called “When in French” (I think). The thing is that I don’t speak French so examples she gives are lost on me (or rather they make me learn, which is good). But I can follow her thoughts remarkably well. I moved from Slovenia (and my Slovenian parents and English studies) to Italy less than four years ago to live and love to the best of my abilities. I speak English with my Italian partner though, and my emerging Italian with his relatives and everybody else. Before me, his English was limited to reading and writing (to online use). He is speaking and listening to it now for the first time in his life. We are both introverts. I don’t have many contacts around here, not to say friends. Also, no Italian TV (it’s just terrible). The situation is peculiar, that’s for sure. I think I could say I’m practically an English speaker now. However, it would be to our advantage if I started to speak Italian with him. Time will tell…

        Liked by 1 person

  14. POtato/potAto, tOmato/tomAto, Fait, Fete, Fait – American pronunciation isn’t a mystery; it follows the conventions established by Webster in his dictionary and Webster effectively removed all elements of French spellings from words used in what is curiously called American English. English as spoken in Britian, specifically England, continues to evolve …and continues to baffle both native and non-native speakers alike.

    An interesting post.


    Liked by 1 person

    • My understanding–and I’m far from being an expert–is that Webster modified the spellings but I’ve never seen any pronunciation-related changed attributed to him.

      American English continues to evolve as well. No language can help but change, to the distress of the Academie Francaise, which does its damnedest to keep French “pure.” As if any language was pure, but that’s a whole ‘nother discussion. (That last phrase, I suspect, is an example of American English’s evolution.)

      What makes you say American English is a curious name for the version spoken there?

      Long may both versions of the language continue to evolve and baffle us.

      Liked by 1 person

  15. Yes, Webster modified the spellings, but I would argue that by virtue of changing the spellings, it altered the way sounds within words are anticipated and spoken. The English language has either been enlivened, or excessively complicated by Norman French. So to remove the French letter combinations is to make spelling and pronunciation more predictable. Although native English speakers around the globe know that the letters of the alphabet do not represent the sounds we actually produce when we say a word, the simplification, or organisation of the spellings has become a better guide to pronunciation for those learning English as a second language in the US, as opposed to the UK.

    Why do I find the distinction between English spoken here and English spoken over there curious? It seems to me that we tend to categorise verbal communication based on whether it is an accent, a dialect, or a language and the essential difference between them is really nothing more than the number of people who fall into each group. It seems to me that American English is regarded as a language because there are over 300 million Americans; when in reality, the difference is entirely based on accent. The vast majority of native English speakers spread out across all of the continents of the globe understand one another. Clearly, if we were genuinely speaking different languages then we would not… would we?

    Liked by 1 person

    • American and British English are too close together to be different languages, regardless of how many people speak them, and I’ve never heard anyone else treat them as separate languages. As for Webster’s simplifications, I’m unconvinced. You make a reasonable argument about the effect they might have had, but before I’ll be ready to believe that’s what happened I’d want to see evidence from a contemporary observer that in fact it did happen.


    • American and British English are too close together to be different languages, regardless of how many people speak them, and I’ve never heard anyone talk about them as separate languages. As for Webster’s simplifications, I’m unconvinced. You make a reasonable argument about the effect they might have had, but before I’ll be ready to believe that’s what happened I’d want to see evidence from a contemporary observer that in fact it did happen.


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