By Ellie Buchdahl

26 September 2018 - 07:29

Squirrel eating an acorn
'The classic word that defines whether you can speak German like the Austrians and Bavarians do is Oachkatzleschwoaf, meaning squirrel’s tail.' Photo ©

Caleb Martin used under licence and adapted from the original.

For European Day of Languages 2018, our colleagues across Europe told us some difficult words for an English speaker to say in their languages, with tips for pronunciation. 

German

Spare a thought for English-speaking students who become British Council Language Assistants in German-speaking countries. They have to tell people that they are a Fremdsprachassistent(in) or ‘foreign language assistant’. The word is long, though not by German standards. It also contains, close together:

  • the ‘r’ sound (pronounced in the back of your throat in ‘standard’ German, or as a rolled ‘r’ in other parts of Germany)
  • the hard ‘ch’

When shopping, try buying a Kürbiskernbrötchen. This is a tasty pumpkin seed bread roll. Along with the pumpkin seeds, it contains:

  • the tricky ‘ö’ sound (like a cross between English ‘oo’ and ‘er’)
  • a soft version of the German ‘ch’ sound (a little like the ‘hu’ in ‘huge’)
  • ‘ü’ (similar to the French ‘u’ sound).

It also has that ‘r’ sound

As an English speaker, you have to be brave to ask for Kürbiskernbrötchen at the bakery, but it is worth the effort.

Portuguese

If you are an English speaker using the word for a cultural institution in Porto, Serralves, stress the ‘r’ as much as you can. This is often the sound that English speakers find hard to pronounce.

If that’s too easy, you might want to upgrade to otorrinolaringologista. Although the English word ‘otorhinolaryngology’ (the study of diseases of the nose, ear and throat) isn’t easy to say either.

Hungarian

Hungarian is sometimes described as the most difficult language for an English speaker to learn. It comes from an Uralic route, which is unusual in world languages.

Gyógyszertár means 'pharmacy'. It contains ‘gy’ and ‘sz’ sounds, both of which can be difficult for non-native speakers.

Similarly, gyöngytyúk –'guinea fowl' – has ‘gy’ and ‘ty’ sounds.

Then there’s the female name ‘Tünde’. The best way to learn how to say this is to ask someone called Tünde, because there is no exact equivalent to the Hungarian ‘ü’ sound in English.

Swiss German

The classic test of Swiss German pronunciation is whether or not you can say Chuchichäschtli or ‘kitchen cabinet'. The tip from our Swiss office is to keep the sounds as close to the back of your throat as possible.

Dutch

If you can say achtentachtig prachtige grachten, then you might be a master of the Dutch language. Not only does it mean ’88 beautiful canals’ – a homage to those quintessential waterways of the Netherlands – but it also includes lots of Dutch ‘ch’ and ‘g’ sounds.

The Dutch ‘ch’ and ‘g’ sounds are made in the back of your throat, to varying degrees of harshness. The trick, according to our colleagues in the Netherlands, is not to overthink it or try too hard.

If that’s too easy, try saying the name of the Dutch town Scheveningen. According to rumour, a Scheveningen pronunciation test was used to uncover spies during the Second World War because only a ‘real’ Dutch person could say it.

Norwegian

Kjøkken means ‘kitchen’. Like Swiss German, the Norwegian culinary world is tricky to pronounce. If you are an English speaker, imagine you’re saying something like ‘Hhh-yo-ken’.

Greek

Those who speak English as their first language and want to learn a bit of Greek often have difficulty with the first words they acquire. While ‘good morning’ (καλημέρα, pronounced kaliméra) and ‘how are you?’ (τι κάνεις, pronounced ti kánis) are easy to remember and pronounce, the ever-useful ‘thank you’ (ευχαριστώ, pronounced efharistó) is a source of bewilderment.

The combination of ‘f’ followed by ‘h’ causes the most issues. The latter consonant might sound, to English speakers, more like an attempt at pulling a persistent layer of phlegm off your larynx than the gentle exhalation they associate with ‘h’ sounds. So much mental energy is spent on these two consonants at the start of the word that the remaining syllables are often forgotten and the speaker ends up with a sore throat.

Tip: just pronounce the ‘h’ as you would your ‘h’ in English. Speakers of Greek will understand you.

Maltese

Maltese is the only Semitic language in the list of 24 official working languages of the European Union, and it also contains influences from Latin and English. We’ve asked students from the University of Malta who are working on our Capturing Valletta project to help us with this one.

The letter 'q' in Maltese denotes a glottal stop, pronounced right in the back of your throat, almost as if you’re swallowing something. The glottal stop exists in dialects of English such as cockney, where the letter ‘t’ is missed out in ‘little’ and ‘water’. The sound is more pronounced in Maltese.

The best way to get around it – according to our student journalists – is to replace the ‘q’ with a sound like ‘ugh’. Then say qawl (idiom or proverb) or aqbez (jump). If these are too easy, try dqiq (flour), then progress to the expert-only qaqoċċ (artichokes).

Romanian

Scârțâit – the word for ‘creak’ or ‘squeak’ in Romanian – is fabulous, but tricky to pronounce. Roll the ‘r’ in the middle, and master both the â (a little like the ‘ir’ in ‘skirt’ in English) and ‘âi’ – a bit like saying ‘oi-ee’ very quickly.

On the subject of Romanian vowel sounds – lămâie, Romanian for ‘lemon’, can cause serious problems. Get the vowels in the second syllable wrong, and it can sound very rude. Try listening to the pronunciation a few times before heading to a Romanian supermarket to get the ingredients for your lemonade.

Austrian German

The classic word that defines whether you can speak German like the Austrians and Bavarians do is Oachkatzleschwoaf, meaning ‘squirrel’s tail’. Throw yourself into the harsh sound of the ‘ch’, and lean on the first syllable, then let the rest follow. Search for Oachkatzleschwoaf online and you’ll find a few examples.

You might also find the standard German equivalent –Eichhörnchenschwanz – difficult to pronounce.

European Day of Languages is 26 September 2018. 

Join Dr Mirjana Bozic from University of Cambridge for her seminar on bilingualism, organised by the British Council with the Universidad Complutense de Madrid.

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