Lonely Planet Writer

You say potater: when travellers mispronounce

Ever landed in a new country thinking you're the living end because some guy you met in a bar before you left taught you a couple of local phrases?

'You'll fit right in, people will think you've lived there all your life!' he'll tell you. So you strut around town, dropping your particular patois, completely oblivious to the crashing surf of giggles from real locals who wonder who this putz is, mangling their beautiful language.

We love discussing the tiny quirks of language here at Lonely Planet; not so much the meat and bones of it but the more nuanced elements like pronunciation. For example, do you say 'Copen-HAY-gen' or 'Copen-HAH-gen'? Do you pronounce 'auction' as 'ock-shon' or 'awk-shon'? Do you say 'zee' or 'zed'? And what about those people who manage to get those weird accents by osmosis?

When you meet a newbie to your town, what verbal quirks do your ears prick up at? Even changing the inflection at the end of a word can change its meaning in some countries. And the big dilemma: how do you pronounce a foreign word with the correct accent within your own language without sounding like a complete wanker?

That's not how you say it!

We get a lot of feedback from people who love to correct tourists in the errors of their linguistic ways. Some of our guidebook readers have felt compelled to set the records straight. Here are just a few of their pick-ups:

  • The pronunciation of 'Namaste' is NOT 'na-ma-stay'! This has been done with a such a perseverance during the last thirty years that today it has become a running gag to imitate the 'Tourist-Namaste' (as all my Nepali friends say). It can even be read in Nepali comics where all the tourists (clothed either in Batik shirts or trekking equipment) greet with a 'NamastaaaaaaY'. - Nicholas Merky
  • Norwegians say that 'Danes speak with a potato in their throats', which means that they swallow the letter 'g'. So however you suggest Skagen should be pronounced, the point is that there should be a slight break between the two vowels (the swallowed 'g'). - Rolf Richardson
  • Nevis' name is pronounced Nee-vis (with emphasis on the Nee - like knee), not nay-vis which only tourists say and is flat out wrong. Please take this from someone who grew up there. - Jessica Johnson
  • As an American there's one thing I learned while in Melbourne, Victoria: Lonely Planet could develop a book/compact disc guide on how to pronounce 'Australian'. Forget Maribyrnong St - I had enough problems trying to pronounce Dandenong Rd (in East St Kilda) as well as trying to pronounce 'Yarra' as in Yarra Valley or Yarra River like a Melburnian does. - Martin Coghlan

Then we polled the Lonely Planet staffers for their favourite language manglings. English place names seemed to cause a lot of concern. Tourists who pronounced places ending in 'shire' as 'shy-er' rather than 'shuh' came in for a bit of flack (although let's face it, some of those places do not have the most intuitive pronunciations).

And pity those who can't get the pronunciation right even when they're trying. Dutch staffer Geartsje said 'The squares in London don't work too well with the Dutch tongue: Leicester Square = Leechester Square?'

Of course, if you're looking for real language trials, there's always the Shibboleth test - where only the innest of the in crowd get past the linguistic velvet rope.