As someone who isn’t a native speaker of English, I’m often fascinated by how those who are seem to change the pronunciation of words originally from French, Italian, Spanish, and so on in a seemingly uniform manner.

But what unofficial rules govern this?

For instance, I recently looked in my fridge and saw a bottle of Tabasco chipotle hot sauce. The label said pronounced chee-POHT-lay and obviously, that's nowhere near how a Spanish speaking person would say it.

image of Tabasco chipotle sauce
image credit social-brain.com

But what is it that makes Englishmen and Americans alike mispronounce — or perhaps I should say alter the pronunciation — in the same way?

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – tchrist Nov 1 '16 at 0:14

This answer can't be as complete as I'd like it to be, because the "why" part of your question is fairly difficult and I don't know the answer. But here's some relevant information.

Peculiarities of the English sound system

English has a different sound system than the other languages, as you're probably already aware. This means that native English speakers find it easy to hear and pronounce some sounds, and difficult to hear and pronounce other sounds.

One of the most salient and unusual features of the English sound inventory is the large number of diphthongal vowels: vowels that start in one place and glide to another place. Both the "oh" sound of "goat" (US /oʊ/, UK /əʊ/) and the "ay" sound of "face" (/eɪ/) are typically diphthongal.

An oddity of the English vowel system is that certain vowels generally can't occur at the end of a syllable. These are called "lax" or "checked" or "short" vowels. Many of the monophthongs that English does have fall into this category; for example, the vowels of "dress" (/ɛ/) and "lot" (US /ɑ/, UK /ɒ/).

Due to both of these factors, English speakers generally can't pronounce words exactly as they are in foreign languages without violating the pronunciation rules of their own language. It's physically possible to do that, but generally speakers don't, for various psychological and social reasons.

Why it can be difficult to pronounce words with foreign sounds

Psychologically, as I said earlier, our native language conditions both how we perceive sounds and our natural way of pronouncing sounds. Some English speakers certainly would be able to "pull a proper 'amigo' off", but others wouldn't. I'm a bit surprised that as a non-native speaker of English, you aren't already familiar with the difficulties that many people experience when they try to acquire a foreign accent.

Socially, using markedly non-English sounds while speaking English can often trigger a negative reaction from listeners: people think it sounds affected (and when it's native English speakers doing it, it very well might be: as I said in the previous paragraph, for most native English speakers, it takes more conscious effort to pronounce a word with foreign sounds than it does to pronounce a word with native English sounds). You can see an example of this attitude in the following SNL skit: Antonio Mendoza

Why English speakers choose particular ways of nativizing sounds

The next part is the part I can't explain very well: English speakers generally find word-final /e/, /ɛ/ or /e̞/ in foreign words to be best approximated in English by the diphthongal "face" vowel /eɪ/. (As I'm a native English speaker, the phonetic similarity of these sounds just seems obvious to me. But people do know how to analyze this kind of thing more scientifically; you can study the sound system of the language, what distinctions it makes, and what phonetic variation exists and use this information to try to explain why native speakers adapt foreign sounds in certain ways.) To some degree, this is also conventional: people are familiar with using "face" /eɪ/ for foreign e-sounds, so they might apply this knowledge to pronounce a foreign word they've seen in written form even if they haven't heard the word in question.

Some differences between English and British nativization of foreign sounds

By the way, it's not true that English and American speakers always adapt foreign words the same way. These varieties of English do have different sound systems and this affects how they nativize the pronunciation of foreign words. One notable point of possible divergence is the adaptation of foreign /a/ sounds: UK speakers are generally more likely to use the /æ/ vowel of "trap", while American English speakers are generally more likely to use the /ɑː/ vowel of "spa". Another possible point of divergence is in fact /o/ or /o̞/: I have the impression that UK speakers are more likely than US speakers to use the "lot" vowel /ɒ/ to approximate this vowel sound when it comes before a consonant. The Oxford English Dictionary lists /tʃᵻˈpɒtleɪ/ as a British alternate pronunciation of "chipotle." For this specific case, the "lot" vowel is actually used by some Americans as well, but I think I've seen other examples that demonstrate this tendency.

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    A few notes: 1) If Christopher’s name and location are anything to go by, his first language is Swedish, which (curiously) shares with English the feature of most its long vowels being diphthongs. Less diphthongal than in English, but definitely diphthongal. 2) The pronunciation of chipotle with /ɒ/ is not specifically British, I’d say—having mostly heard Floridians and Californians use the word (talking about the restaurant chain), I’ve mostly heard it with /ɒ/. 3) Chipotle is a good counter-example for the premise of this entire question. → – Janus Bahs Jacquet Oct 31 '16 at 19:28
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    → The entire reason that the bottle has that pronunciation hint is that English speakers don’t Anglicise the word the same way. Quite a few people even say (or used to say, before the restaurant became so well-known) /tʃɪ̵ˈpɒtəl/, giving at least three common ways this one word has been Anglicised. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Oct 31 '16 at 19:30
  • I've even heard people say, " /tʃɪ̵ˈpoʊlteɪ/" – Jim Oct 31 '16 at 23:11
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    @Jim /tʃɪ̵ˈpo⁽ʷ⁾tleʲ/ is the normal pronunciation around here, and it does not differ phonemically from the Spanish version, even though nearly ever single phone is different. – tchrist Oct 31 '16 at 23:28
  • @Jim It’s like the English speakers who pronounce Castro in English as [ˈkʰɑst͡ʂɻoʷ] thinking they’re so much more "accurate" than those who say [ˈkʰæst͡ʂɻoʷ] all because they swapped [æ] for [ɑ], not realizing how much else they’re saying "completely differently" than the real Spanish version which is [ˈkäs̺t̪ɾo̞]. See all that? There’s much more to it than the stressed vowel alone. – tchrist Oct 31 '16 at 23:34

Armed with a couple of weeks of French language instruction under my belt, I ventured forth from my provincial university in the north of France and set about booking my railway ticket to Paris for le weekend. But first I had to locate the railway station which meant verbally accosting the doughty locals on the street and asking, in my best intoned French translation of the English, "Where is the railway station, please". I was met with stony silence, Gallic shrugs of the shoulder and finally a denizen who replied with a certain frisson of barely concealed disdain, C'est fini, monsieur! The penny eventually dropped. I had transposed the French pronunciation of the words for railway station and war! Easily done in the carefree days of 1976.

Edit: on-topic to follow later today...

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    Interesting anecdote, but this doesn't actually answer the question, I think. – Andrew Leach Oct 31 '16 at 9:11
  • @AndrewLeach OK. I'll give it a shot with an addendum to my anecdote which I had intended to be illustrative of the OP's question. – Peter Point Oct 31 '16 at 9:14
  • The everyday story of an Englishman in France. The opportunities for getting it wrong are infinite. Worse would have been to have told the waiter that the soup was dégoûtant (disgusting, revolting), when you meant to say dégustant (delicious, tasty). – WS2 Oct 31 '16 at 10:44
  • @WS2 Easily done! I once regaled a small but select gathering of guests at a dinner part in Paris with my story of President Mitterrand's description of Margaret Thatcher as having, "The mouth of Marilyn Monroe and the eyes of Caligula!" Somehow I substituted the French word for eggs in place of eyes. Not a titter! The Entente Cordiale was severely strained that night. – Peter Point Oct 31 '16 at 11:07
  • @PeterPoint I anxiously await the arrival of "later today", having determined that you pronounced "gare" to rhyme with "fare" instead of "far". – Hellion Aug 17 '17 at 19:38

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