Have you ever found yourself in a restaurant or café, having made your choice but facing the embarrassment of not knowing how to pronounce it? Menus in English are often peppered with words borrowed from different languages; after all, just like our language, our cuisine draws on influences from throughout the world. And like the food itself, the words have become anglicized as our prowess in foreign languages falls a little short of our multilingual neighbours.
To the chagrin (or bemusement) of Italian speakers, ordering a panini is far from the only time we misuse foreign food words. An example soon to be added to OALD online in this category is biscotti – but the Oxford English Corpus quotes ‘I grabbed a latté and a biscotti’, a faux pas not uncommon among native English speakers. Both biscotti and panini are plural nouns in the original Italian, but even English plurals can be a source of inaccuracies, and can be found with a scattering of decorative apostrophes on menus and signs, so it is hardly surprising that we stumble over asking for bruschetta – is it /bruˈʃetə/ or /bruˈsketə/? You’re less likely to be understood in English-speaking countries if you pronounce it correctly, /bruˈsketə/. And what’s worse, you risk looking rather pedantic.
And this risk isn’t limited to ordering food – perhaps at your next coffee klatch with friends you might stumble over what to drink, too. If you search for latte in OALD, it will redirect you to caffè latte, which would be understood in Italy. But in English-speaking countries it has become the norm to ask for a latte (pronounced by most /ˈlɑːteɪ/), which might confuse an Italian. Why would a fully-grown adult just be ordering milk? But not only this; sometimes we go even further in our attempts to be exotic, adding superfluities such as the accent you might have noticed sneaking in above (‘I grabbed a latté…’).
There’s a salsa bar of sorts from which you can choose your heat, from mild to habañero. The place feels authentic.
Well, perhaps it feels authentic to those who don’t know that Habanero has no tilde – but maybe the confusion comes from the similarity to jalapeños, which, like fajitas and tacos, English speakers make a good stab at pronouncing authentically. Having taught modern foreign languages to secondary school students, I became more aware of this rather endearing tendency to pop an accent on a word to make it seem less like an English word whose translation has been guessed at. Or we go to the other extreme and treat foreign borrowings as English, such as adding the regular ending to make the French past participle sauté an English one, to make sautéed potatoes.
And speaking of confusion, a recent TV cookery competition in the UK sparked debate (even anger) over the pronunciation of chorizo, with the sausage being pronounced in three different ways: /ʃəˈriːzəʊ/, /tʃəˈriːtsəʊ/ (perhaps because people think it’s Italian?) and /tʃəˈriːθəʊ/. We seem to be able to pronounce churros, so why not the /tʃ/ of chorizo?
But perhaps we shouldn’t worry that languages are not really our forte: the English language is a melting pot of words borrowed and tweaked from others throughout the centuries, why stop adding to the mix now?
(Incidentally, forte comes from French, so why do we pronounce it as though it were Italian?!)
Isabel Tate is Dictionaries Assistant in the ELT Dictionaries department at Oxford University Press. Learning languages is her forte and, when not sipping lattes and baking lasagnes, she has taught languages in the UK, France and Italy, and biscotti-making in Peru.