The Weirdest English Words to Foreigners
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The English language is one of the most complicated to learn, so what are the weirdest quirks when learning the lingo?
The human vocal tract is capable of producing a finite, though surprisingly extensive, number of sounds and sound combinations. When there are only so many sounds, many words in different languages sound the same but denote completely different concepts, but when at the same time there are also so many sound combinations to work with, many words can also sound funny to non-native speakers.
However hard you try to learn English, there will always be exceptions to the rules to make your life harder. These exceptions only prove the rules, and yes, you heard that right – there are very clear rules governing English pronunciation.
Deviations from expected pronunciation are the result from the different ways words developed – obviously, when changes in the language took place, these words were not affected or were affected in a slightly different fashion, or entered the language at a later point.
So, here are several examples of the weirdest pronunciations which might confuse you even if you know perfectly all phonological rules in English:
- Suite [swi:t]
- Bread [bred]
- Bury [beri]
- Floor [flo:]
- Flood [flʌd]
Many languages contain sounds or combinations of sounds impossible to pronounce by foreigners. English is no exception. Some speakers of Slavic languages such as Polish, Bulgarian, Belarusian, Macedonian and others, which allow for the pronunciation of a dark [l] sound (similar to the English sound [w]), find it hard to pronounce the clear [l], as in love.
In English there are a couple of occurrences of dark ‘l’ too, as in ‘walk’, ‘talk’ and others. It is not a rare occasion that some speakers never learn to pronounce the clear [l] creating embarrassing moments.
Now, to the non-native ear not accustomed to the correct pronunciation, this mistake usually goes unrecognized. So, if two people – one from Poland and the other from Bulgaria – use English as a common foreign language to talk to each other, and both make this mistake, they won’t probably even notice it.
They will draw the meaning from the context. So, if you meet a Belarusian who says that they, love your wife, don’t punch them in the face – they must be admiring your lifestyle. Here are some more examples:
- White – Light
- Wife – Life
- Worst – Lost
- Wolf – Loaf
- Watery – Lottery
- Yoke – Yolk Some non-native speakers won’t make these two words sound different
- One – LAN (local area network, produced as [lān])
As world languages resort to a limited number of sound combinations and as languages borrow from one another all the time, it is very often the case to find words in two languages that sound exactly the same but mean something which is worlds apart. Sometimes meanings overlap to a certain extent but the word in either of the languages doesn’t reflect all the nuances of the word in the other language.
Very often loan words become false friends for learners of English. For example, when a language borrows a word from English but then the original meaning changes due to various reasons (such as appearance of a new phenomenon which is denoted by this very word), learners of English transfer their knowledge and believe they have learned the word. A popular example of general confusion is the word ‘preservative’ which in many languages has come to mean ‘condom’, while in English we use it only to denote food preservative.
Here are other false friends that you might want to know:
- Actual: in English it means ‘real’, while in many European languages it denotes ‘topical’, ‘current’, ‘up-to-date’, even pressing in some contexts (e.g “a pressing issue”).
- Family: while in English it means your immediate family, in some Slavic languages ‘familia’ has acquired just the secondary meaning of the word to designate all the descendants of an ancestor.
- Friend: travelling to the Scandinavian languages the word friend has lost some of its initial connotations to come to be used only when meaning ‘relative’.
- Pregnant: if you are German and think that ‘pregnant’ and ‘prägnant’ (concise) mean the same, think again.
- Fart: if you visit Norway, you might be confused why they control fart (speed), and in Poland, they will greet you with ‘good fart’ when all you need is luck!
- Magazine: in many Roman languages, such as Italian and French, as well as in Greek, Arabic and Dutch, a similarly sounding word of the same etymology means a shop, store, or warehouse.
- Rapport: the meaning of this word (written in Cyrillic) in some Slavic languages has nothing of the romantic side and harmony of rapport. It means a report or debriefing. So Slavic learners of English might jump at a very wrong confusion thinking they can guess the meaning.
I Thought I Knew This!
There are words that we all know! They have become so common in all languages thanks to the Internet, Windows, and other concepts and products that travel easily across cultures and countries.
But, surprise, surprise, English is an economical language and so it makes the most of its resources. Hence, many quite common words appear in all sorts of context meaning the most unexpected things. Check out the list of words with somewhat surprising secondary meanings.
- Start – oh, yes, everyone knows this word! But how about these sentences: “Oh my! You scared the crap out of me!” she said, starting. or John saw her start suddenly from a bush. Are you sure you speak English?
- Shock – its main meaning has become so popular across languages that when it comes to denote an impact or explosion, it sounds a bit weird.
- Stranger – this is not a strange person in the sense that they might surprise you or are hard to understand. This is simply someone whom you’ve never met before.
- Box – how come this popular though rough game also means a type of container?!
- Testy – perhaps you wouldn’t want to test someone to see if they are easily irritated, cranky, grumpy…
Honestly Hilarious Words
Non-native speakers usually find some English words sounding weird just for their sound. Check out these hilariously sounding words and tell us – do they make you laugh your socks off too?
- Flabbergasted – no surprise, this means surprised or astonished
- Bamboozle – cheat someone
- Kerfuffle – a British informal word for fuss
- Debauchery – funny only in the way it sounds (vice or total corruption)
- Shenanigans – can a word meaning ‘secret’ be any funnier?
Even though some linguists believe that all languages stem from a common source, languages see so much influence during their everyday use that they change as we speak. Having fun while discovering English (either as a mother tongue or a foreign language) is an ideal way to learn words through laughter and enjoyment. Go ahead and share with us which English words you find the most hilarious, weirdest, or amusing.