Why is American English so HARD!?
Updated: Aug 5, 2021
Some say, you don’t know the true meaning of fear until you are expected to say Worcestershire sauce in front of an audience of avid listeners. Okay, no one says this... except me...but it’s true!!! I have yet to meet one person who can say this word correctly on their first try. For those who can, I salute you and admire your articulation. Worcestershire is just one of many examples highlighting the complexity of the American English language and pronunciation. Why is that?! Well, there are many factors that I am going to talk about in a hot minute. Knowing that typical native American English speakers sometimes have trouble with the pronunciation of certain words, imagine the difficulty one would experience being an English as an additional language learner who is trying to navigate the exquisite intricacies of the English sound patterns governed by our American phonological rules and the language components that enhance our messages. So hang tight, warm up your listening ears, and let’s talk through this.
Letters Don’t Heart Sounds
Letters and sounds….What a crazy mismatch. As if life is not complicated enough, we make up rules to silence letters, smash a bunch of consonants, stress and unstress the heck out of syllables and words, vary our pitch a bit, and have unusual vowels and consonants that only we can say. The biggest curve ball our language throws at us, however, is that our letters do not match our sounds. This is the part where many tend to strike out when attempting to pronounce or read American English words, as it causes major confusion.
When we first begin to learn to read words, we learn that a letter makes a sound. Simple right? We also learn sight words. Sight words are words we are expected to memorize because there is no good way of learning them. It takes too much cognitive effort to learn
to decode them but we persevere through guided teaching. Yay us! So how do you pronounce the letter “C”? Like “C” as in CAT or RECIEVE. Something is off right? The “C” in CAT is pronounced like a “K” and the “C” in RECIEVE is pronounced as “S.” Let’s look further into this. Take the word CAT vs. CASH. CAT has 3 sounds (/kæt/) and 3 letters (C-A-T). Simple right? Well here comes the word CASH with 3 sounds (/kæʃ/) and 4 letters (C-A-S-H). It’s a mismatch! Here are more examples:
You Leave Me Voiceless, Voiced, & Silent
Continuing with the idea of sounds not matching our letters, we shift to something we speech-language pathologists call voiceless and voiced consonants. A quick 411 on this: voiced consonants = vocal cords vibration present; voiceless consonants = no vocal cord vibration. An example of a voiceless consonant would be /s/ → “s” as in sun or /k/ → “k” as in kite. A voiced consonant would include /z/ → “z” as in zoo. If you put your hand on your throat, near the level of your vocal cords, you would feel vibration on /z/ but not on /s/ or /k/. This is something many native speakers do not even realize they do. But why is this confusing for some, particularly for an English as an additional language learner? Well, here is where that beloved mismatch comes into play. In the example below, the word “yes” ends in a /s/ sound and the letter “s”, a voiceless sound, but the word “rose” ends in a /z/ sound, a voiced sound, but the last letter we see is the letter “e” with the letter “s” preceding it. When an English as an additional language learner reads a word like this, they typically pronounce “rose” with a /s/ sound at the end vs /z/. They also tend to pronounce silent consonants. One example
that always comes to my mind is when mom, who learned English in her teens, says the word “salmon,” she will always pronounce the silent “l” and the silent “s” in “Illinois” despite me telling her every time that they are silent…..but then again…. I pronounce the “s” in Aldi. lol. There is a “s” in spirit there and I’m ready to debate anyone on that.
The Unusual Bunches of Sounds
One of the uniqueness of languages around the world is that they tend to have their own distinct consonants and vowels, as well as sound patterns. This is very much true for American English. We have certain sounds and sound combinations not commonly used in many languages. Any guesses of what they are? To list a few, /æ/ as in cat, /θ/ as in think, /ɝ/ as in earth, etc. So if your native language does not have these sounds, how do you go about learning them? You would need verbal instruction as to where to position your tongue, lips, jaw, etc., as well as where to direct sound and air. Even then, it is still difficult to execute, because you would not have the motor speech plan to do it efficiently, nor the self-awareness to monitor and anticipate these sounds in conversation. Furthermore, not only are our consonants and vowels uncommon, our sound combinations are unusual as well. In many languages, stringing together several consonants consecutively is a big no-no. Take for instance, “splints” (C-consonant; V-vowel) we have CCCVCCC. That’s a mouth full of consonants!!
So, I think you get the point. American English is a fun language, but a complex one! I hope that this post sheds some light on the difficult feats one has to embark on when learning the language. Now, let’s circle back to the beginning and the most important point in this article. So how do you say it? War-chester-shire? Woos-sher? War-chest-er-shire? Woo-ster? Well, us Americans pronounce it WOO-STUH-SHER (IPA transcription: /wʊstəʃər/). For more information on this pronunciation check out this site: https://www.rd.com/article/worcestershire-pronunciation/ .
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