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I can't figure out the difference in pronouncing "comedian" vs. "chameleon." I looked up their pronunciations in many dictionaries and audio sources, and practiced a lot, but my pronunciation still confuses Merriam-Webster Dictionary app's voice input function, which relies on Google's voice recognition technology. 80% of my attempts at "chameleon" are recognized as "comedian," while 100% of my "comedian" are registered correctly. Even for those "chameleon" cases, the Dictionary app was confused and listed "comedian" as candidate words.

I understand that the app is probably not the best tool to judge my pronunciation, but it is objective and reproducible. For comparison, my wife's pronunciation of "chameleon" are always correctly registered. And her "chameleon" pronunciations have never had "comedian" listed in candidate words, which means that the software thought that there was no confusion at all in her pronunciation. So this somehow proves that her pronunciation is much better than mine, at least according to Google's voice recognition software.

What is the trick for pronouncing "chameleon" correctly, so people (or Google) can understand what I mean when I say "I saw a chameleon the other day"?

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    The main difference is between /d/ and /l/, so it sounds like you’re not distinguishing those two sounds clearly enough. Going by your user name, I’m guessing you’re Chinese, in which case you should have a d/l distinction in your own language as well. Does your app also get other minimal pairs mixed up when you say them, like bidding/billing, real/read, wailing/wading, willow/widow, etc.? – Janus Bahs Jacquet Nov 12 '18 at 0:39
  • Thanks for all your help! I think I have found where I did wrong. Scott's comment below gave me the best hint. It should be (ka meel yun), while I was pronouncing it as (ka mee lyn). The former pronunciation always registers correctly with Google assistant and other voice recognition software. – Yan Li Nov 12 '18 at 2:50
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    Huh, come again? – Kris Nov 12 '18 at 9:30
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    So maybe the software thinks that chameleon ends /-i.ən/ and comedian ends /-i.ɪn/. That's probably true for most people without the weak vowel merger (like me), but a huge number of native speakers have the weak vowel merger, and so wouldn't make this distinction at all. I think native speakers (maybe unlike the software) generally would distinguish these two words by whether the consonant is /l/ or /d/. – Peter Shor Nov 12 '18 at 16:23
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    @PeterShor: As far as I know, -an would be /ən/ and not /ɪn/ for non-weak-vowel-merged speakers. For example, the 1989 OED entry for "arithmetician" gives the pronunciation as "/əˌrɪθmɪˈtɪʃən/" or "/ˌarɪθmɪˈtɪʃən/". – herisson Nov 12 '18 at 17:32
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Of course the consonants in the middles of the words is a big difference.  But another distinction I make is that I pronounce “comedian” as a distinct 4 syllables (ka mee dee un or ka meed ee un), whereas I pronounce “chameleon” as 3½ syllables (ka meel yun).  The American Heritage Dictionary supports me here:

comedian:

    kə-mēdē-ən

chameleon:

    kə-mēlyən, -mēlē-ən

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These two words have very different phonetics.

Comedian

C (pronounced like the c in 'car' but just the c, and is a hard c) - 'om' - 'ede' - 'ian' (ian like the the name Ian)

See here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=34Sb0_HbL54

Chameleon

Pronounced like:

'car' - 'me' 'lee' 'on'

See here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fEqHM4vXKFk

  • Are the first vowels in chameleon and comedian really different? The Oxford Dictionary Online doesn't think so. And the only person I've heard pronounce it Carmeleon was Boy George, when he was singing Karma karma karma karma karma karmeleon. – Peter Shor Nov 12 '18 at 0:57
  • These words are definitely pronounced differently! I prefer to offer practical advice here, rather than academic musings. – Gary Nov 12 '18 at 0:58
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    I have to disagree; the first syllable of chameleon does not sound like the first syllable of cartel. At least, not in any pronunciation I can find online. – Peter Shor Nov 12 '18 at 1:12
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    I’m really surprised to see you write the pronunciations like that, because I was going to say that I pronounce “comedian” as a distinct 4 syllables (ka mee dee un or ka meed ee un), whereas I pronounce “chameleon” as 3½ syllables (ka meel yun). The American Heritage Dictionary supports me here: “comedian” vs. “chameleon”. And yes, there is no “R” in either word. – Scott Nov 12 '18 at 2:00
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    @PeterShor Boy George doesn’t pronounce the first syllable anything like ‘car’ either. He clearly sings a schwa. Apparently a three-syllable realisation of chameleon exists (I can’t say I’ve ever noticed it), but apart from that, the only difference between the two words is the d/l. This answer gives very confusing and unintuitive phonetic respellings that moreover seem to me to be completely wrong. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Nov 12 '18 at 9:16

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