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7 useful pronunciation rules for travellers

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By Zora O'Neill
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During World War II, Dutch Resistance fighters exposed infiltrators by asking them to pronounce Scheveningen; with its two subtly different gutturals, it was a trick only native speakers could pull off. The stakes of course aren’t so high when you’re on holiday in a new place, but there is some satisfaction in not immediately revealing yourself as a tourist when you ask for directions. From the obscure English pronunciation rules to odd Irish spelling, learn these common tricks, and you’ll stay under the radar.

Britain

Pity the poor visitor. One little island has so many tripwires! Place names can look unwieldy, but they can usually stand to lose a syllable: Leicester is LES-ter, and Gloucester is GLOS-ter. Consonants can get squished: Chiswick is CHIZ-zick. And don’t take vowels at face value: anything ending in –shire is said “sher” or “sheer”, and when asking directions in central London, say “BARK-lee Square” for Berkeley Square.

Ireland

Much worse than Britain, on the surface, but you just need to learn some quirky spelling: “bh” makes a “v” sound, as in the town of Cobh (“Cove”), and a “gh” is just “h”, as in Armagh (are-MA). Then again, somehow Dun Laoughaire becomes Dun Leery, so maybe all bets are off in Ireland.

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USA

Cultured travellers, forget what you know about Romance languages: it’s Dez Planes (Des Plaines) in Illinois, To-LEE-do (Toledo) in Ohio, and Ama-RILL-o (Amarillo) in Texas. There’s even a little town in New Mexico called MAD-rid, and Milan, Michigan, is pronounced my-LEN. Things get weirder the farther south you go; locals pronounce New Orleans NOR-lenz and then there’s NAK-e-tesh (Natchitoches). Plus there’s HEW-sten, or Houston, in Texas). (Note: Does not apply in New York, where Houston is HOW-ston, and New Yorkers will make sure you know it.)

Peru

That fantastic ancient city at the top of the mountain? Say it “MA-choo PEEK-chew.” There’s a reason for that extra “c” in Machu Picchu.

Canada

Perhaps the world’s most easygoing people when it comes to pronunciation, Canadians can handle the same word with a French or an English spin. But to get to the inner circle, say sas-kat-che-WAN (Saskatchewan) and Newfound-LAND. And don’t bother making any jokes about Moosejaw – they’ve heard them all.

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The Pacific

You may never make it to the island nation of Kiribati, but its pronunciation makes a great party game: who would ever guess KEE-re-bus? New Zealand is a more likely destination, but visitors need to know Maori (MOW-ree, by the way) words are pronounced quite differently from their spelling. Whakatane turns to fa-ka-TA-ne, and Whangarei is fa-nga-RAY, with a rolled r. We’ll leave it to you to figure out Whakapapa.

China

Maybe it’s hopeless in China, with all the tones, but at least start out knowing the “j” in Beijing is a real “j” sound, not a soft “zh”: bay-JING. Extra credit: put a high tone on the second syllable.

Try out the range of Rough Guide Phrasebooks, books hostels for your trip and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.