Wacky Words

For most of us, the process of learning English happened at a time of life when we weren’t as inclined to question the rationale behind unreasonable (and sometimes ridiculous) spellings.

But, consider the task of trying your tongue at English as an outsider, whether tourist or immigrant.

Here’s a simple sentence to put it in perspective:

“I would like to buy a certain fruit for my recipe.”

Easy for you to read, right?

Now, read through it as someone who may know the basic RULES of English, but doesn’t yet grasp the commonly accepted American notion of tossing all of those rules out the window …

“I wooled like to bu-yee a kertane froo-it for my re-sipe.”

Something like that, anyway.

photo by Evan-Amos via Wikimedia Commons

While it’s tough not to chuckle, you can see how utterly frustrating it must be to decipher the everyday dialog we take for granted.

“While there are clear trends in words non-native speakers mispronounce (due to irregularities in English spelling), words that are in principle hard to pronounce depend much more heavily on each individual speaker’s linguistic background,” explains Czech linguist and mathematician Jakub Marian, author of Most Common Mistakes in English. “Words containing an ‘h’ (as in ‘hello’) are difficult to pronounce for native speakers of romance languages and Russian, since there is no ‘h’-sound in their mother tongues. Words containing a ‘th’-sound (either as in ‘think’ or as in that’) are hard for almost everybody apart from Spaniards and Greeks, whose languages are two of the few that contain those sounds.”

Now that your word wheels are spinning with this new perspective, try a few more words that Marian and many others deem difficult for non-native speakers:

  • Anemone
  • Colonel
  • Comfortable
  • Drawer
  • Fruit
  • Height
  • Isthmus
  • Lettuce
  • Recipe
  • Rural
  • Sixth
  • Squirrel

P.S. Allow me to punctuate this post with a poem called “The Chaos” by Gerard Nolst Trenité in 1922. It brilliantly boasts hundreds of peculiar English pronunciations.


  1. BB king says:

    My My My no wonder English is so difficult to learn -this little poem says it all. As a teacher in Kashmir India, I had to teach in English and it was very difficult as American English differs so from British English that is still spoken in India after the raj. Also There is no clear P or F in Kashmiri. It is spoken as a combination of both sounds. So you can guess the reaction to the main character in” Midsommers Night Dream” which I had my students put on to all the dignitaries in the city. Yep, just think about Puck! Need I say more?

  2. melissa eloe says:

    MaryJane, You just gave me a new appreciation of our language and absolutely no excuse for dragging my feet learning French! Have a great day, Melissa

  3. Winnie Nielsen says:

    I have always heard how hard it is for foreigners to learn spoken English. Plus I agree with BB above that English in the US is different from British English which will make it more confusing living in the US, from a non-native English speaking country.

    What challenges me now is the new emerging text language that I think is totally colloquial on one hand and universal on another. Sheesh, I am still trying to do better in English without trying to also learn about texting lingual!

  4. Deon Matzen says:

    One of the most common set of words that confuse non-native English speakers is chicken/kitchen. I have had friends who were Spanish, Columbian, Chinese have problems with this. Garbage and Garage are another real problem. When I taught English at Bejing Foreign Studies University, we had a lot of problems with words that are spelled the same and pronounced differently with different meanings. “He wound the wound with a bow in the bow of the boat.” Try to explain that one. Think of all meanings and the two pronounciations of BOW. English is mind boggling. Thank goodness it is my FIRST language.

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