Damned Diphthongs!

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I’m coming up on 20 years in Chile, and I speak Spanish all day, every day. Sure, I still have an accent, but it rarely gets in the way—except when a diphthong is involved!

The dastardly diphthong is the sound produced when two vowels buddy up in the same syllable and get so tight they morph into a whole new vowel sound (sounds almost biological, doesn’t it?). We have our share in English, such as in words like “cloud” (see? Say it slowly—there’s an ah sound teaming up with an u to make an ow) or “coin” (when o dates ee and they make little oy’s). (You can Wiki up the full list for English, Spanish, and more languages here: “Wiki:Diphthongs”)

Spanish has more diphthongs than English does, which means it has vowel sounds we don’t have in English, which is where pronunciation problems come in. In fact, in my experience (as a speaker and listener), vowels seem to cause more headaches than consonants (I’ve got a good story about that—tell you later!**)

Spanish speakers are quick to point out that English speakers say “No-u” or “Hello-u,” for example, and if you listen closely, sure enough! There it is! (so much for that “long o” we learned about in grade school). Spanish speakers come up short at the end of a final o, so it sounds more like “No/” when they refuse something, although most seem to emulate and even exaggerate the final u when speaking English and call out Hel-lo-uu!

Ahem, back to the point… which is that I have mastered the pronunciation of the difficult Rodrigo—ok, mastered might be an exaggeration, but at least it’s been a long time since anyone has looked at me funny when I say it. Río Tinguiririca now rolls effortlessly (and gleefully) off my tongue, and I can even refer to my ENT as an otorrinolaringólogo without stumbling if I take it slow, but the other day I made said something about a “neurólogo” (neurologist) and had to repeat it several times! Jeesh! Reminded me of trying to buy a Beatles tape (back in the day) and the clerk came back with a group called Virus, which is pronounced bee-duus in Spanish and apparently sounded the same to her…

Something about Marchant Pereira (My Favorite Language Trick)
There’s a street near the Pedro de Valdivia metro stop called Marchant Pereira. See that diphthong in there? That e and i right between the two r’s? No easy feat for an English speaker. First, the r’s sound like flapping d’s (think of how the old stereotypical English butler would say “Yes, indeed. Vedy good sir” and you’ll see what I mean. And then there’s that wrapped-into-one ay-ee between them. Talk about tying a gringa tongue in knots! For years, every time I tried to say it (and for some reason it used to happen fairly often), someone would correct me. So that’s when I learned a great trick.

Whenever I had to refer to the street I would say “Esa calle, mm, Marchaaant…” and stretch it out as if I was trying to remember, and someone would always finish it for me! It was brilliant! I could then just go on with whatever I was trying to say and skip the mini pronunciation lesson!

And that reminds me of another story, which I’ll tell you right now, because this one is related. Back when I was still teaching ESL (a looong time ago), I had a student who was an eminence in his field, but who was particularly challenged by English. He, like many Spanish speakers, it seems, had a problem with words that have both an s sound and a th sound, as in “something” which very often comes out “thumsing.” So we were working on that, because, well, how could I let this very intelligent man go around saying “thumsing”?! So we practiced…

Repeat after me:
Some (to which he dutifully replied some)
Thing (thing)
Some-thing (some-sing)

No, try again… Some (some)
Thing (thing)
Something (thum-sing)

Some (some)
Thing (thing)
And he looks me straight in the eye and says:
Marchant Pereira!


So back to the present, and here I am again with the damned diphthonged up eu sound that’s driving me nuts. Trying to coax the ay and the uu to cozy up into one sound is hard! Making me neura, even neurótica, and causing so much neurosis that it must be neurodegenerativo and I can’t possibly be neutro!
(Wait… should that be “neutra“? Nooo! I’m using up all my neuronas on diphthongs today and can’t even think about Spanish language gender issues!)

**Bonus Track:
Okay, so now I’ll tell you that story: Years ago I taught English as a Second Language to Spanish-speaking adults. One day we were working on pronunciation and identifying problem areas, such as the difference between sh and ch, s and z, and b and v, because in Chilean Spanish the two sounds tend to be pronounced the same (ch, s, and b, respectively). I explained that my philosophy was not to worry about differences in pronunciation that do not impede understanding, where upon almost on cue one of the students gave me the perfect example of when it does. He nodded thoughtfully and said, “Yes, but bowels are the problem.” (oops!)


36 responses to “Damned Diphthongs!

  1. Margaret – I do sympathize and identify with your challenges mastering Cervante’s language. Learning English has not been a bowl of cherries for me or for anybody else for that matter. We do NOT hear the subtle differences that appear so clear to you. How about these four; cheap, chip, sheep, ship. Say those four words in a row to any Chilean and then ask them to repeat them back to you. It’ll be fun.

  2. Hi John- Yes, the wonderfully tricky world of language acquisition! And each has its ways to drive learners crazy! The 2 different TH sounds are also tricky sound for American Spanish speakers who only recognize it as the “theta” (z) in European Spanish. I used to give students tongue twisters… how about this one: there are 30 thick bath towels there in the bathroom!

  3. Ok, we are into tongue twisters. Try this one for size. It is supposed to be the name of a town in El Salvador. Here it is; parangaricutiricuaro.
    I’m not kidding you. I can say it faster than anyone I’ve ever asked to. It’ll be the first thing to come out of my mouth if we get the chance to meet in Chile, 🙂

  4. Gotta tell you, I live on Pedro de Valdivia, and as a fellow gringa, I always avoid saying “Marchant Pereira.” I do the same thing…”Marchaaant…..” just to avoid it! I think one of the tricky things about the particular word “Pereira” is that it’s a Portuguese name. It’s tough to try to pronounce a Portuguese diphthong with a Chilean accent! Go figure!

  5. Bar, Bear, Beard, Beer, pronounced in British, then pronounced in American, then pronounced in Irish, the pronounced in Australian… I have really difficult times adapting to some shows in English when they come from different countries.

  6. @John: ¿Parangaricutiricuaro? En serio? I’m going to have to really practice with that one!
    @Sari- Great minds think alike!
    @Marmo-Yes- English in different places is very different–just like Spanish! There are films from the UK that I have to read the subtitles and places in the US that I have to listen very, very carefully in order to understand!

  7. @Margaret – It’s worse than what thought! It is the real name of a volcano in Mexico … are you ready? Parangaricutirimícuaro.
    You think I am pulling your leg?
    Here it is: http://es.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parangaricutirim%C3%ADcuaro

  8. (And I thought that Tinguiririca was hard enough…)
    Personally, I’m used to American English; so sometimes when I hear a Briton or an Australian, I find they have all their vowels (not bowels) changed…

  9. @John- Think I’ll just stick to Tinguiririca!
    @Raúl- good one! 😉

  10. @Margaret – You are a very smart gringa-chilena, but you already knew this.

  11. All my life speaking Spanish makes me more comfortable with my native language. One advantage that I like in Spanish is that if you see a vowel, you know exactly how to say the word that vowel is in. On the other hand, other languages, like English, have different sounds for the same vowel, and they even seem to break their own rules with certain words. My guess is that English has taken a lot of words from other languages and has incorporated them among their native words.
    Usually, there´s never a final “I” in English written words, (in Spanish sounds) in english become a “Y”, like in “already” (in spanish sounds it would be “olredi”) but when you write “taxi” that rule seems to dissapear. A good example of this could be the word “fiancee” (from French I suppose), if I try to apply my rudimentary rules to say it, it would sound like “fianci” (double E in English = I Spanish sound) but no, it´s “fiancé” (again in spanish sounds).
    In Spanish we have lots of diphthongs, in exchange, we know exactly how to say every word the first time we read it.
    I´m sure all of what I´ve just said makes no sense at all to an English speaking person, but from my point of view, it has been the most difficult part of trying to learn English, reading it and speaking it.

  12. Interesting post! Love your blog, always fun insights 🙂
    I would like to quote this in an article I am writing, if that is ok with you (crediting my sources, of course).
    We all have trouble training our ears and mouths to language subtleties. I had a French instructor in Chile long time ago that could not pronounce words like Irarrázaval, or Jorge.
    I have lived more than 20 years in the US and still have trouble with the A sounds, as in Wadsworth, wasp (A sounds like O), or salmon (L is silent). Have you noticed that some words with O in English really sound like A to Spanish speakers? For example, cosmetic, possible, posture, etc. Conversely, when Americans say ‘salsa’ they pronounce it ‘solsa’.
    By the way, the diphthong problem may be to blame for the trouble some Americans have pronouncing nuclear. Remember the comments about ‘nucular’ some time ago in the US?

  13. @Argandona – The trouble with the word ‘nuclear’ you are referring to applies mostly to an ex US president who went to Harvard (???) ! A guy by the initials GWB, LOL, 🙂

  14. @Marmo-¡al contrario! What you’re saying makes absolute sense to an English speaker! Spanish is phonetic and sticks to its own rules, whereas English seems to make rules just to break them! And, as you rightly say, that’s because over the course of its development it has borrowed heavily from a number of language families.

    @Ana María-I would be absolutely flattered if you quoted Cachando Chile! Please let me know when it’s done–would love to read it, and if it’s an on-line piece, I’d be happy to pass the link around!
    You’re right that an English o can sound like a Spanish a. What I find even more interesting is how Spanish speakers hear the short English u as a Spanish a in some words, such as drug and bubble.

    Whether nuclear has a diphthong or not seems to be regional. I assume you mean the same sound as in “news,” right? In some areas they say niuz and in others (such as my region) it’s nuz. But I don’t think we can blame GWB’s nucular on an idiosyncrasy of the English language… he’ll have to take the blame for that all by himself!

  15. BTW– Here’s a good one–anyone know how to pronounce “ghoti” in English?

  16. I do, I do! Of course. And also, I am incapable of saying the word fluoride in Spanish, but I think so far that’s the only one I’m really mucked up on. mmm, tasty language!

  17. I think Spanish language students can’t really complain too much about diphthongs… those who are learning German might see your diphthong woes (watch that one there!) and laugh. Ask you German friends to differenciate the u and the ü and then take it one more difficulty level higher to the o and the ö…
    my personal favorite: öl “oel” meaning oil.
    Thanks for the post.

  18. @Eileen- I knew you would know ghoti!
    I don’t remember having tried out flúor–or worse–fluoruro, but it sounds weird even when I say it to myself. I’ll try it out today (now let’s see how to work THAT into a dinner conversation!)

    @nicojah Oh yes! German is much trickier, although English is largely derived from it, so some things should be easier for a native English speaker, but those ö’s and ü’s are tough!

  19. When we first moved to Portugal I had problems with “eu” which is I. In the end I thought of it as e-yul…ha can’t write it phonetically…the next one was cão – dog. I mastered this one by squeezing my nose so it produced a more nasal sound! Trouble is you can’t go round pinching your nose when you are trying to speak to someone!

  20. Hi PiP- Portuguese must be a REAL challenge! There are tons of sing-songy diphthongs! Love to hear it spoken though!

  21. Margaret: you say that in Chilean Spanish sh and ch, s and z, and b and v tend to be pronounced the same (ch, s, and b, respectively). First, it’s in all Spanish. If Spaniards could tell the difference between sh and ch, we wouldn’t spell champú. Read what the RAE has to say about b and v, they state clearly that both sond the same. And z is not present in general Spanish as a different phoneme.

    On the other hand, we have ch in show (pronounced chou) and sh in sándwich (pronounced sánduish).

    We have b in in vida and v in nube.

    We have s in zipper and according to my books, Spaniards have z in desde.

    Note that the /rei/ sound is in another Spanish word: Carey.

    Don’t blame the loanwords for the chaotic spelling of English. Some words that are not borrowed from foreign languages: food and blood; how and row; lead and head; busy; one; woman and women; I live and it’s live; I read everyday and I read yesterday; gone and bone; kook and cook; naked and faked. P.S.: Any spelling fan or foe knows about ghoti, of course.

    I think that Chileans used to pronounce drag (drug), bábel (bubble), bráder (brother) and daglas (Douglas). Now many of them pronounce drog, bóbel, bróder and doglas, imitating the translations on TV. Our sebenap is Mexican’s sebenop (7-Up). Could it be that in British English “u” sounds more like “a” and that American English “u” sounds more like “o”? In the first half of last century English taught in Chile was with a British pronunciation. All people I know say either kantri klab or kantri klub (Country Club, a country club in La Reina).

  22. Hi Pedro- thanks for the comments–thoughtful and enlightening as always! I always look forward to what you have to say when I post something about language.
    My comment about Chilean Spanish pronunciation was precisely because s and z are not pronounced the same by all Spanish speakers, which is why the New World Spanish speakers have a “seta” and those from Spain have a “theta” (whereas in US English we have a zee and speakers of British-influenced English have a zed).
    And the reference to the origins of English were not in regard to recent loan words (canyon, adobe, and bronco come to mind), but rather to the earliest roots that draw on Greek, Latin, and Germanic languages. It would be interesting to check to etymology of all the words you list to see their first appearances in English and the histories of their pronunciations and spellings. And just so everyone is clear–they confuse native English-speaking schoolchildren learning to read and spell just as much as they confuse non-native speakers.
    Interesting about the shift in Chilean pronunciation of the English short u from a to o (drag to drog). I’m not sure if this reflects the difference between American and British English (may well be), but your point about teachers certainly makes a strong argument there. Even 20 years ago people always said they understood British English better, and I attributed it to what they had been taught in school, but now with so much influence of US TV, movies, and music, I would imagine that the younger generations are more more familiar with American English.
    Thanks for adding complexity to the issue!

  23. I have no problem with Pereira, in fact one of my favorite tongue twisters in Spanish is: Pedro Pablo Perez Pereira, pobre pintor portugés, pinta paisajes por poca plata para poder pasear por París. Where I struggle is with the eu, but at the beginning of words, specifically Europa. For the longest time I would say your-ropa until finally someone corrected me!

  24. Curiosamente me encontré con esto:
    -As say toon as: Aceitunas (Olives)
    -Boy as n r : Voy a cenar (I´ll have dinner)
    -Be a hope and son: Viejo panzón (fat old man)
    -N L C John: En el sillón (in the couch)
    -S toy tree stone: Estoy tristón (I´m kind of sad)
    T N S free O?: ¿Tienes frío? (are you cold?)
    -The head the star mall stand dough : Deje de estar molestando (stop bothering me)

  25. @Abby- Wow! I am really impressed! And yes, the eu IS hard! I had forgotten about Europa–I think I still say something derived from Yer-opa.
    @Marmo- funny!

  26. Even now its too hard to pronoun the exact diphthongs in English . As i studied English literature its too hard to pronoun this diphthongs . but here if compare with other languages like German, Greek and Latin, it will seem as better words to speech. So we have to familiar with these words. Then only we can perform well . Good topic to discuss.

  27. I read the description of the blog and I like so much the idea of a cultural interaction between insiders and outsiders, one of my major interests is precisely understand the Chilean society hehehe.


  28. Ooh! Phonetics fun!! Yay! The most difficult dipthong for me is “ae”! I always gringo-ize it. Like as in maestro. I say maystro instead of maestro. The trick for me is to pronounce the “a” and the “e” as separate vowels rather than to run them together. And even concentrating on that, it still comes out maystro. cuak. I would love to have another good phonetics class someday! It makes all the difference.

    I think the hardest part for me, with pronunciation, is that I usually can’t hear my mistakes, and no one corrects me in Chile. So I couldn’t tell you if I pronounce “Marchant Pereira” correctly or not.

    Whereas in Spain, my Spanish friends ALWAYS corrected me and made me repeat it over and over until I was bored to tears. It was awesome! hehe

  29. Oh Heather–for me, maestro is right up there pretty close to Pereira and neurólogo! I thought I had it and just ran it past my husband. Rats… todavía me falta… I thought it was ma-ES-tro, but he tells me its MY-ES-tro. (back to the dipthongy drawing board!)
    How interesting that your Spanish friends correct you and your Chilean friends did not… there’s probably a whole post worth of explanation behind that!

  30. I thought it was ma-ES-tro too! huh.

    Sorry to hear that you’re not quite there yet with “maestro”. I think I said it correctly once, haha.

    Haha, yes the cultural differences between Galicians (I studied abroad in Galicia) and Chileans are unending. They are absolute opposites in many ways! hahaha. Probably most Chileans would be happy to hear that, since they have so many jokes that star idiot Galicians, haha.

  31. I loved Galicia! Coulnd’t understand a word, but I loved it! My husband’s grandfather came from there and we were able to visit the house where he was born way out in the countryside, about 40 or 50 km from Ponte Vedra.
    On the other hand, all of our friends in Madrid said we wouldn’t understand a thing when we went to Andalucia, but that felt like being at home! the pronunciation was very, very similar!

  32. I loved Galicia! Couldn’t understand a word, but I loved it! My husband’s grandfather came from there and we were able to visit the house where he was born way out in the countryside, about 40 or 50 km from Ponte Vedra.
    On the other hand, all of our friends in Madrid said we wouldn’t understand a thing when we went to Andalucia, but that felt like being at home! the pronunciation was very, very similar!

  33. how the heck do you make that trill r sound with your tounge? I must have a left handed tounge.

  34. haha-I can do it, but can’t explain it. I have heard, though, that the ability is a genetic trait that some people just don’t have (although that theory may have been devised by a trill-challenged scientist!)

  35. Jwhere, jwhite, jwhat, jwhen! I had a professor at the university that always said WH words with J at the beggining. My classmates and I were always laughing of her.

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