Tuesday, 7 April 2015

Daily Fail fails to ask a linguist (again)

It's no surprise when a newspaper publishes an article about language and fails to ask a linguist. They rarely do. It's even less of a surprise when the newspaper is the Daily Mail and the 'article' is actually just a summary of a website (note to newspapers: this is not journalism. It's lazy. Especially when you get to it two weeks after the rest of the internet has already seen it).

This 'article' summarises a reddit thread for us, which is actually quite handy because reddit threads are horrible things to read. The questioner wanted to know what the hardest English words to pronounce are. Here's the top ten, as reported by the Mail:

  1. Worcestershire
  2. Specific
  3. Squirrel
  4. Brewery 
  5. Phenomenon
  6. Derby
  7. Regularly
  8. February
  9. Edited
  10. Heir

The Mail then helpfully made some very condescending comments about how specific and squirrel are 'apparently easy' and brewery and edited 'seem rather straightforward to the average Brit', while February and phenomenon are 'notorious tongue twisters even for native speakers'.

So far, so utterly, utterly dull and vacuous.

Among the linguistically interesting things to note here is the fact that there are two types of difficulty: hard to articulate, and hard to predict. Derby is very easy to say for most people, but it's hard to predict its pronunciation from its spelling. Similarly heir and, of course, Worcestershire, which has the further problem of being long and daunting.

On the other hand, specific, squirrel, brewery, February and edited are all pronounced more or less like they're spelt, but it's actually saying them without stumbling that can prove tricky. They have consonant clusters like [skw], and lots of [r] sounds and 'glides' [w] that occur between vowels, making them hard to keep control of. February causes native speakers less trouble than the Mail would have you believe, because we don't try to pronounce both those [r] sounds.

[r] in general crops up a lot here, probably because a lot of the contributors to the list speak a first language like Chinese where [r] and [l] are not two different sounds, but rather two 'versions' of a sound ('allophones'). English contrasts these sounds (so read and lead are different words), but doesn't contrast the two 'k' sounds in car and key, for instance (so you can't the difference unless you're trained to do so). If your language treats [r] and [l] as being as similar as those English considers those two 'k' sounds, you can imagine the difficulty regularly or squirrel is going to cause you.

Likewise, edited contains a string of short, similar vowels separated by [d] or [t]. Those two sounds are very similar to each other, differing only in terms of whether they're 'voiced' or not ([d] is, [t] isn't) and again, many languages don't contrast these sounds. In many English dialects (e.g. US English), they are actually pronounced more or less the same in this word. You end up with some sequence of rapid tapping of the tongue against the back of the teeth which is over almost before you realise you've begun it.

(Incidentally, no one in real life pronounces the name of the sauce as Worcestershire - everyone calls it 'Worcester sauce'. Apparently this is frowned upon by the company that makes it, but it's true.)


  1. Thank you for this! I miss studying linguistics.

    PS. I'm still not sure how to pronounce Worcestershire!

    1. Haha :) I think my advice for all (British) English pronunciation is don't worry about any of the vowels! I'd say 'w-st-sh' with schwa for all the vowels there, for instance - would you?