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One of the differences between modern US English (hereafter referred to as "American English") and British English is the way in which we pronounce foreign words, particularly those of French origin and/or related to food. For example, Americans…

  • drop the "h" on "herb" and "Beethoven";
  • rhyme "fillet" and "valet" with "parlay" as opposed to "skillet"; and
  • pronounce paella as /paɪˈeɪə/ (approximating a Castilian or Mexican accent), whereas the British pronounce it as /pʌɪˈɛlə/.

In general, the British seem to pronounce foreign/loan words as they would be phonetically pronounced if they were English, whereas Americans tend to approximate the original pronunciation. I've heard some people claim that this trend is due to the melting pot nature of America, and others claim that the French pronunciation, in particular, is due to America's very close relations with France during its infancy. This latter hypothesis, however, seems to be contradicted by the following:

Avoid the habit of employing French words in English conversation; it is in extremely bad taste to be always employing such expressions as ci-devant, soi-disant, en masse, couleur de rose, etc. Do not salute your acquaintances with bon jour, nor reply to every proposition, volontiers. In speaking of French cities and towns, it is a mark of refinement in education to pronounce them rigidly according to English rules of speech. Mr. Fox, the best French scholar, and one of the best bred men in England, always sounded the x in Bourdeaux, and the s in Calais, and on all occasions pronounced such names just as they are written.

                  —THE LAWS OF ETIQUETTE; or, Short Rules and Reflections for CONDUCT IN SOCIETY. BY A GENTLEMAN. PHILADELPHIA: CAREY, LEA, AND BLANCHARD. 1836.

Question: At what point did the USA drop the British convention of pronouncing foreign words as they are spelled?

Edit: Cerberus brought up the topic of upper-class (U) English in the comments, below. It is interesting to note that there seems to be a trend in U English to substitute words that have an obvious counterpart in French with words that are either of Germanic origin or those that do not have a direct equivalent in modern French. For example:

  • scent is preferred over perfume;
  • looking glass is preferable to mirror;
  • false teeth is preferable to dentures;
  • graveyard > cemetery;
  • napkin > serviette;
  • lavatory > toilet;
  • drawing-room > lounge;
  • lunch > dinner (for a midday meal); and
  • what? > pardon?

This is admittedly a stretch, but perhaps there is some connection between the US's lack (and some might say derision) of a noble class and its preference toward non-U/French pronunciation?

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Is 'herb' a foreign word? –  UpTheCreek Jun 22 '11 at 13:17
    
@UpTheCreek: According to the OED, 'herb' was adopted into Middle English from the Old French word 'erbe'. –  ESultanik Jun 22 '11 at 13:24
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Just because an American etiquette guide made this claim doesn't mean that it was actually what Americans did at any point in time. In fact, the tone of the excerpt seems to suggest that a large number of Americans were not pronouncing foreign words as they were spelled, and this author sought to put a stop to that (and apparently did not succeed). My speculation is that the author's motivation for this rule was to align our pronunciation with the British, based on his statement that one of the "best bred men in England" pronounced the words as they were spelled. –  Kosmonaut Jun 22 '11 at 13:50
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Many of my countrymen (that is, Americans) tend to take a phonetic approach to every new word they meet unless and until they are clued in on the word's origin and native pronunciation. And sometimes after as well. –  dmckee Jun 22 '11 at 16:04
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@ESultanik: I think you are over-generalizing. There is a lot of variation across both the UK and the US, both regionally and by individuals, as to how loan-words are or should be pronounced. –  user1579 Jun 30 '11 at 14:55

4 Answers 4

I agree with OghmaOsiris that the etiquette rule you state seems to equate being a "gentleman" with sounding British, which is more than slightly xenophobic.

In the United States, it is a sign of unrefinement and of ignorance of world cultures to "butcher" a word borrowed recently from a foreign language. To blatantly mispronounce a foreign word tells the listener that you either do not know the origin of that word, which is more or less of a bad thing depending on region and the overall popularity of the word, or nearly always worse, that you don't care where the word came from or how to pronounce it, which is usually an implied smear on that foreign culture. This does generally stem from the "melting-pot" mentality of Americans, who come from all walks of life and generally have a history of "meeting in the middle" when it comes to customs and language.

In Britain during the 18th and early 19th centuries, being cultured was everything, because culture was equated to wealth and high station. In addition, British nationals were universally held in higher standing than citizens of colonized nations. Learning about the native culture of the colony's residents was unimportant, and it was a sign that one was forgetting their station if they intermingled terms from other languages into cultured British. Therefore, words were introduced into common British English only when necessary because it was the easiest way to express the idea or concept, and they were "anglicized" to sound more like they belonged in the English language. This pattern continues, as the UK only relatively recently lost its empire after being nearly ruined financially from World War II.

Though these two sides seem very different, there are parallels, especially with the recent wave of xenophobia stemming from the concern over illegal Hispanic immigration. Just as cultured Londoners still look down on those with rural, Scottish or Irish accents, Americans hear a Southern drawl or a Plains-State "twang" and immediately think "redneck". Though we borrow words from cultures, we demand that immigrants learn English. And there are plenty of examples of borrowed words whose common pronunciation in English is a mockery of the word in its native tongue.

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The reason why I included that excerpt was to show that there was at least some sentiment in the US in the 1830s toward perserving the British convention of pronouncing words as they are spelled. I think it is safe to say that no contemporary American English speakers adhere to that convention anymore. Therefore, as I stated at the bottom of my question, what I am really interested in is the historical linguistic question of when that convention was completely lost in the US. –  ESultanik Jun 22 '11 at 15:45
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Also, I think it would be better to say the USA, rather than say America or American as that denotes all people in both of the Americas adhere to the same social conventions. –  OghmaOsiris Jun 22 '11 at 15:50
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That part of the question is interesting to me as well and I unfortunately don't know much about it. I imagine it would coincide with the decline of traditional aristocratic conventions in the U.S., beginning around Reconstruction and continuing through the Second World War. As language and accent, as evidence of a classical education, became less and less of an indicator of your financial standing and thus your station, the importance of preserving British-style pronunciation also declined. However, I think you'll find that "old money" still clings to some of that. –  KeithS Jun 22 '11 at 15:57
    
Do you happen to know more about American "old money" speak? Does America have its Versions of U- and Non-U English? –  Cerberus Jun 22 '11 at 21:21
    
I do. If you want to hear what this sounds like, rent the movie 1776 and pay attention to the actor who plays John Adams-that is a Boston Brahmin accent and it closely resembles how old moneyed Yankees spoke up until the early 60s. Vocabulary was a little more flowery for this set than the average American, but differences were not as distinct as between the British upper crust and an average Englishman. (For another example, read Eleanor Roosevelt's letters online. She had an upperclass NY accent but her choice of words would have been as flowery as a Bostonian.) –  Mary Feb 22 '13 at 15:42

Your premise is simply incorrect. It is not the convention in the UK to pronounce all foreign words as they are spelled. Indeed, I cannot imagine how one would pronounce "Bordeaux" "according to the strict rules of English pronunciation".

As a counterexample, americans frequently say "risotto" with two long o sounds, which violates the normal rules of English pronunciation (short vowel before double consonant), and is completely at odds with the Italian pronunciation.

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Bordeaux is perhaps a bad example given that the cumbersome "x" has likely caused its pronunciation to fall out of favor, however, there are still many people that pronounce the "s" in "Lyons", for example. Also, with respect to "risotto", the pronunciation varies across Italy itself, with some regions pronouncing it with two long "o"s. –  ESultanik Jun 22 '11 at 17:49
    
@ESultanik: The link does not remotely correspond to the long o pronunciation used by Americans. Who is pronouncing "Lyons" as "Lions"? I have certainly never heard it pronounced that way. –  Marcin Jun 22 '11 at 18:17
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+1. The funniest for me is the American pronunciation of "van Gogh" - British English speakers get at least a quarter of the way to the original Dutch. –  Henry Jun 22 '11 at 18:46
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@ESultanik: I've never heard anyone say "riz-ah-toe". American pronunciation of "riz-oh-toe" is both flatter and more elongated than in your link. Basically, your whole premise strikes me as entirely fake. –  Marcin Jun 22 '11 at 19:05
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Wikipedia offers [vɑŋ ˈɣɔχ] –  Henry Jul 7 '13 at 17:14

The argument over the US/UK pronunciation of “risotto” stems from how the first “o” is pronounced in Italian.

It is a sound we don't really make in English, lying almost exactly between our short and long “o” sounds. To the US ear, it sounds more like a long “o”; shorter in duration, but essentially the same vowel sound. To the UK ear, it sounds more like a short “o” rhyming with “pot”. For the US speaker the second syllable rhymes with the Italian word for eight, “otto” (oh-toh). For the UK speaker, who's long “o” sound is more flexed and drawn out, this would sound a bit strange (oe-toe)—and no doubt he‘s been told as much—so he rhymes it with "motto" or the name “Otto” to get a bit closer.

The same phenomenon arises around the pronunciation of the Spanish “Rioja”, with the US speaker saying “Ree-ò-ha” (approximating the Mexican Spanish pronunciation of the “j” as an “h”), and the UK speaker saying “Ree-ock-ka” (and doing something strange and interesting with that “j”, turning it into a “k” in an attempt to mimic an aspirated “kh” sound).

Its all a bit baroque (US: rhymes with “joke”; UK: rhymes with “rock”), the native pronunciation lying almost exactly in between the two.

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British English speakers are much more likely to pronounce European words and place names like native speakers of such languages now than they would have done, say 50 years ago, as a result of much more frequent visiting of European countries on holiday/vacation or business, and because of the UK's membership of the European Union. I don't know anyone in the UK who would speak of the French city, Lyons, as lions. No-one who owns a Renault or Peugeot pronounces the t. On the other hand there is a general anglicisation of the vowel sounds, often in food names - Risotto.

On another matter, did Ronald Reagan really say "the trouble with the French is that they have no word for entrepreneur" - this still makes me laugh!

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I've heard that saying attributed to GW Bush before, but not Reagan. (I've no idea whether either of them really said it.) –  Mark Bannister Jul 4 '13 at 8:35

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