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Okay. So you’re an expert speller. You’ve already handled the four blog posts about basic vowel sounds, and the post on consonant sounds was a snap, right? Ready to tackle some foreign sounds that aren’t native to American English? This may take some practice. And let’s be honest…this will also take some willingness on your part to sound or even look a bit foolish. Keep in mind that millions of people around the world make these sounds every day with the utmost of seriousness. After all, these sounds are just a natural part of the language they speak every day. So let’s dig in!

The guttural \k\

This first foreign sound is quite common in words derived from languages like German, Scottish, and some Slavic languages. It lands in an area somewhere between a soft \h\ and a hard \k\. To be really informal about it, it’s a bit softer than the sound you’d make if you were clearing your throat or trying to hock a loogie. (Just don’t spit!) Words that use this sound include loch, echt, Gaeltacht and hochmoor. (Those last two appeared in the Scripps finals in 2019.)

The nasalized vowel sounds

The next foreign sounds are seen quite often in French words. Nasalized vowels are…well, what happens when you try to say a vowel sound, start closing to the \n\ sound, but don’t quite get there. As a result, the vowel sound moves more through the nose and sinuses than the mouth. The three nasalized vowels you’ll encounter most include the sounds most similar to the words “Ann,” “on,” and “own.” You’ll see these sounds in the dictionary printed as a vowel sound followed by a small, superscript n. (They appear as \aⁿ\, \äⁿ\, and \ōⁿ\.) Conveniently enough, you can say all three of these nasalized vowel sounds in one French-derived word: embonpoint. Here are other words that include these nasalized vowels.

  • \aⁿ\: ingenue, baragouin, pointillage
  • \äⁿ\: contretemps, entourage, denouement
  • \ōⁿ\: garçon, bouton, cornichon

Vowels with umlauts

The final two foreign sounds are sometimes seen in French, German, Nordic, and even Turkish-derived words. The first sound is most common in German. It usually appears in pronunciations in the MWU like a small letter u attached directly to a small letter e: (\ᵫ\).To make this first sound, purse your lips like you are about to say the sound \ü\, but instead, try to say the sound \ē\. Words with this sound often – but not always! – appear in print as a u with an umlaut: ü. Examples include words like the German-derived prefix über-, führer, gemütlich, and sprachgefühl.

The second sound is similar. In pronunciations, it appears most often like a small letter o attached directly to a small letter e: \œ\. To make this particular sound, purse your lips like you are about to make the sound \ō\, but like the first sound, try to say the sound \ē\. Words with this sound also often appear in print as an o with an umlaut: ö. Examples of this letter include words like fröhlich, höchst, Koppelflöte, and Zauberflöte. (In fact, words with the German suffix -flöte abound. This suffix means “flute,” and not surprisingly, is common in words relating to music.)

As of this blog post, Scripps and other spelling bees in the United States do not require spellers to state whether a word has an umlaut or any other diacritic mark. So don’t worry about saying anything like “umlaut o” when spelling. Just be aware of the pronunciation of these tricky vowel sounds.

Finally…done and done!

With this blog post and the others before it – the four posts on common vowel sounds and the single one on consonant sounds – we are officially finished with pronunciation! On to tackle other aspects of the English language!

Photo credit: “flute player” by snapclusion