Einstein Bros ciabatta

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When I went to the Einstein Bros Bagels shop in Houston Hall at 7:39 a.m. this morning to get my usual sausage, egg, and cheese on a ciabatta loaf, I noticed this sign taped to the cash register:

Seriously, how long did it take you to catch that?

But what this post is really about is how to pronounce "ciabatta". The first time I went to the shop and ordered what has become my breakfast on Tuesdays and Thursdays this semester, I said something like "May I have a chee-ah-but-tah with sausage, egg, and cheese?", to which the person behind the counter replied, "We don't have none of 'em."

I repeated myself, pronouncing the name 4 or 5 different ways, but each time the reply was, "Sorry, we don't have that." Yet I was certain that they had ciabatta sandwiches because a friend of mine had told me that he often buys them from that shop.

Because I kept persisting earnestly, several other workers gathered around, and they all said that they didn't have any "chee-ah-but-tah" sandwiches. Finally, I got the bright idea to spell out the name, and I did so very slowly and carefully, whereupon all the assembled staff said, "Oh! You mean chabutteh." Gratefully, I exclaimed, "Yes! Yes!! That's what I want."

But, really, how are you supposed to say the name of this delicious Italian bread in English?

In Italian, it's supposed to be [tʃaˈbatta]. I think that it means "slipper", presumably from the shape of the loaf.

For American pronunciation, online I've seen the following: [tʃəˈbætə] \chə-ˈbä-tə\ [chuh-bah-tuh] British: /tʃəˈbɑːtə/ tʃəˈbætə

When the folks at Einstein Bros see me coming, they start to giggle. Before I can mispronounce "ciabatta", they all shout out gleefully, "We know what *you* want!"

[Thanks to Chia-hui Lu for taking the photograph for me]


  1. Jeroen Mostert said,

    October 5, 2012 @ 3:15 am

    What's there to get? They don't except the coupons, so you're free to use them. What? That's not what they meant? Damn, FOIL-ed again.

    And you probably had to be there, but I really can't see how anyone would fail to get "ciabatta", even if mangled in unexpected ways. Unless you pronounced the C as a K, and even then you could guess what went wrong. Incidentally, I once said I wanted a ciabatta, and I was taken to a baseball field. …OK, not really.

    Recently someone said "coup de grâce" and before I could stop myself I blurted out "oh my God, you pronounced 'coup de grâce' correctly!" That of course made me look like an idiot, but I'm so used to people saying "coo de grah" that it came as a surprise.

  2. scav said,

    October 5, 2012 @ 3:31 am

    They forgot to capitalise the "i" in "institution"!

    You know, "capital I before N, accept now and then" is the rule, right?

  3. Colin said,

    October 5, 2012 @ 3:34 am

    On the other hand, it seems to be standard in UK and Australian English (and perhaps elsewhere) to pronounce 'bruschetta' with a 'sh' (∫) sound. What's strange about this is that 'sch' is usually pronounced 'sk' in both Italian and English (except sometimes 'schedule').

    I'm also a bit surprised that Americans would make a hard 't' sound in 'ciabatta', as opposed to an alveolar tap.

  4. Janet Kwasniak said,

    October 5, 2012 @ 3:57 am

    I have two cousins: one has the name Marsha and I say she is the cousin that can't spell her name; the other has the name Marcia and I say she is the cousin that can't pronounce her name. The name Marcia should be pronounced as if it was spelt Marsha. It is an Italian name. The i is to change the c to sh not to be said as a vowel. Of course I am teasing because I do not think that Italian words need to keep their sound when they become English words. My cousins have every right to misspell and mispronounce their names. And you can say the i in ciabatta.

  5. Andrew said,

    October 5, 2012 @ 4:10 am

    Likewise, or conversely (in the UK at least), it's common to hear the Spanish "chorizo" pronounced Italian-style as COH-REETS-OH instead of CHO-REE-THOH.

  6. RP said,

    October 5, 2012 @ 4:25 am

    Given their feeble attempt at spelling, it seems rich of them to mock your pronunciation.

    I'm from the UK, and I used to say chee-abatta (and I think my mum still does) – it may not be the correct Italian, but I am surprised that it should fail to be understood.

  7. A Reader said,

    October 5, 2012 @ 4:26 am

    As a minor bit of anecdotal evidence, both my fiancée and me have often said this word the 'chee-ah-but-tah' way (we're both originally midwestern Americans). I'm also reasonably sure I've heard others in the upper Midwest =say it that way too, though I don't suppose that recollection counts for much.

  8. David Morris said,

    October 5, 2012 @ 4:31 am

    Surely there are few words in any language in the form ch(vowel)b(vowel)t(vowel), very few of which would ever be spoken in a bagel shop, very, very few of which would ever be spoken in the middle of "sausage, egg, and cheese on a _____ loaf". You don't have to be Einstein to figure that out.

  9. RP said,

    October 5, 2012 @ 4:35 am

    Re-reading the story, it almost seems that the staff knew what he wanted but just pretended not to. After all, there were multiple members of staff involved, and their response to the original request for a ciabatta was "we don't have none of them" rather than "what is a ciabatta?" or "can you repeat that?".

  10. John Walden said,

    October 5, 2012 @ 4:47 am

    How "off" a pronunciation can be but still get recognised is interesting. I can't order Pernod anywhere in France unless I point; you'd think my pronunciation was closish sometimes, while I worked in a London pub where we worked out what was meant by numerous ways of saying Guinness.

    Are speakers of some languages better at recognising their language when it's differently pronounced? Perhaps exposure to tourists and incomers opens people's minds? Is there national pride involved? You'd think that saying Thinzano, Chinzano, Sinzano and even Tinzano would get you a red vermouth. Not always.

    I've noticed that Spanish speakers can cope with a wide variety of different consonants and still recognise the word, perhaps because that's what happens across varieties of Spanish, in Spain at least: it's the vowels that are more consistent. English, broadly speaking, seems to cope with the vowels changing around as long as the consonants don't get mangled too much. *m*r*c*n can be pronounced with pretty much any vowel where the *'s are and still be recognised.

  11. John Walden said,

    October 5, 2012 @ 4:50 am



  12. Yuval said,

    October 5, 2012 @ 4:52 am

    In Israel, oddly enough, it is pronounced as though the Italian reads "Giabetta". Odd because Modern Hebrew has the [tʃ] sound, as in [tʃips] "chips". First time I saw it on a menu abroad it took me a while to recognize the bread as the jabeta from back home.

  13. mollymooly said,

    October 5, 2012 @ 5:35 am

    If the staff involved were non-native-speakers of English, then they would have much more difficulty decoding an unexpected pronunciation, even one that was plausible based on the spelling.

    I'm not sure whether the difficulty would be more or less if their native language was Italian as opposed to some other non-English language.

  14. Victor Mair said,

    October 5, 2012 @ 6:38 am

    @A Reader

    I also am originally from the upper Midwest.

  15. Jay D. said,

    October 5, 2012 @ 6:43 am

    Back in college, in NYC, my roommate's friend from Chicago came to visit. We went down to the corner deli and she (the visitor) asked the gentleman behind the counter (non-native English speaker) for milk, which sounded like [melk]. He looked perplexed and asked her several times to repeat, at which point I interjected and said she wanted [milk]. With a smile and an "Ah!" he pointed to where it was.

  16. AG said,

    October 5, 2012 @ 6:44 am

    Maybe I'm missing something obvious, but I'm not grasping the "but" part of most of the phonetic pronunciations here.

    How do you get "but" from "bat"? Do you also say "Pancake Butter"? "Mutter and anti-mutter"? "Whole Lutta Shakin' Goin on"?

  17. Lazar said,

    October 5, 2012 @ 6:53 am

    @A Reader: Here in New England, where there are many people of Portuguese descent, it's known as chouriço and rather oddly pronounced [ʃǝˈɹiːs]. That may sound odd, but Wikipedia attests that final o is often reduced in southern Portugal.

    Though I'm still not sure how the local ethnic slang term Portugee (portugui?), meaning a Portuguese person, was derived from português.

  18. RP said,

    October 5, 2012 @ 7:01 am

    I always assumed that "Portuguee" (which is known in the UK too, though normally jocular) was a backformation from a putatively plural "Portuguese" (interpreted as "Portuguees") – in the same way that "pea" is an inferred singular from "pease". The OED backs up my theory, happily.

  19. Ellen K. said,

    October 5, 2012 @ 7:03 am

    Colin, I would argue that sch is usually pronounced SH in English, due to it being most commonly found in German names.

    As for not flapping the T, some of those pronunciations seem to have the stress on the first syllable, in which case it's a normal T, not a flap. As for the one that indicates middle syllable stress, it could simply be that the transcription doesn't indicate that; he is, after all, giving what dictionaries say, and dictionaries never indicate t-flapping.

  20. RP said,

    October 5, 2012 @ 7:17 am

    If by t-flapping you mean turning a "t" into what sounds to British ears like a "d", then dictionaries sometimes do indicate this – or at least I know one that does. The OED, if you look up "bruschetta", shows two British pronunciations with /t/ followed by two American pronunciations with /d/.

    It would not have surprised me if Americans did make an effort to pronounce the "t" in a "t"-ish way (after all, when they are pronouncing Spanish-origin proper names such as "Nicaragua", Americans pronounce them virtually as though they are trying to speak Spanish, whereas Brits anglicize them) – but as far as the OED's lexicographers knew, at least, this wasn't the case for "bruschetta" at the time they wrote the entry.

  21. biagio said,

    October 5, 2012 @ 7:31 am

    If I were to pronounce it the Italian way (I'm Italian), would the guys beyond the counter grasp it?
    Since it is an Italian noun, I guess I wouldn't be able to fake a decent "English" version of it…

  22. Alon Lischinsky said,

    October 5, 2012 @ 7:42 am

    @biagio: I'm not Italian, but I find hard to Anglicise Italian culinary terms nevertheless. My attempt at a compromise (roughly, /tʃɑˈbɑ.tə/) seems to be easily understood by counter staff on this side of the pond.

  23. Mr Punch said,

    October 5, 2012 @ 8:03 am

    @ Lazar – The Portuguese-speaking community in New England is a very diverse (but surprisingly united) one, with people originating on the Portuguese mainland and the Azores joined by large numbers from Cape Verde and Brazil, and some Angolans. A good deal of linguistic variation is to be expected – I usually see "chorizo" on menus, but often hear something different.

  24. Martin J Ball said,

    October 5, 2012 @ 8:06 am

    @Alon Lischinsky: which side of the pond?

  25. Vanya said,

    October 5, 2012 @ 8:15 am

    "when they are pronouncing Spanish-origin proper names such as "Nicaragua", Americans pronounce them virtually as though they are trying to speak Spanish, whereas Brits anglicize them"

    A small minority of Americans do that, and they are often mocked by the rest of us. There was a Saturday Night Live skit on that theme a few years ago. I'll grant that the trend is probably on the upswing, but adopting pseudo Spanish pronunciations for Spanish origin names is still not that common in most US social circles.

  26. Matt Weber said,

    October 5, 2012 @ 8:35 am

    On the up side, this seems like an overall win, since the staff has memorized your order.

  27. Brett said,

    October 5, 2012 @ 8:36 am

    @Mr Punch: When I used to frequent the "Portuguese-speaking" restaurants in the North suburbs of Boston, I don't think I ever saw anything but "chorizo" on the menus. This was around 2000, when I lived in a neighborhood with a large Brazilian population. I thought this was very interesting, because (as you said), the more recent Brazilian immigrants had settled into and become a part of an already existing Portuguese community. Thirty years earlier, my father had lived not far away, when it was considered a European Portuguese neighborhood.

  28. Bobbie said,

    October 5, 2012 @ 8:46 am

    When chipotle first became a popular ingredient at a well-known fast-food restaurant, the people behind the counter had no idea how to pronounce it. Chi-POT-el, CHIP-o-tell and so on.

  29. Richard said,

    October 5, 2012 @ 8:53 am

    It did take me a while to find the mistake in the sign. I was having more trouble with "As we are a franchise owned institutional location" and why that excludes them from accepting coupons. Unless, of course, they do _accept_ coupons, which is to say that they _do not except_ them. Clever.

    As to ciabatta, in the south, we've always had Jack in the Box commercials for ciabatta (/chə-ˈbä-tə/), so I've never heard anything different.

  30. Laura said,

    October 5, 2012 @ 8:58 am

    Many years ago, someone I went to a sandwich shop with pronounced ciabatta as something like [kia'baʔa] (I'm from Newcastle, north-east England, where /a/ is frequently not reduced to schwa). She got her sandwich though, no problem – perhaps they were used to her.

    Regarding the sign, I had a significant delay processing the noun pile-up at the end and consequently didn't spot the error for quite a long time.

  31. Laura said,

    October 5, 2012 @ 8:59 am

    Not a noun pile-up, is it, sorry. Whatever we're going to call the equivalent modifier pile-up that that is an example of.

  32. Ellen K. said,

    October 5, 2012 @ 9:03 am

    Correction (to my previous post). T might or might now be flapped with first syllable stress (or second with chee-uh- as two syllables). But -tah as the last syllable means it's not a schwa, so no flapping.

  33. M (was L) said,

    October 5, 2012 @ 9:06 am

    I like ciabatta, especially on "panini's."

  34. Heather Revanna said,

    October 5, 2012 @ 9:09 am

    Jack in the Box apparently pushed the pronunciation (and spelling) of ciabatta a few years back. (Nod to Richard.)


    I only learned about this when a friend from a state where they have Jack in the Box was imitating the ad over and over until he realized we had never seen it. Witnessing someone spell ciabatta repeatedly is amusing.

    What I have observed is that many Americans can pronounce ciabatta more or less correctly but can't say Giada like an Italian. Seems the spelling of ciabatta is not interfering with its utterance. But more often than not I hear Giada De Laurentiis referred to as [GEE-ahdah] rather than the Italian [JA-da].

  35. Acilius said,

    October 5, 2012 @ 9:23 am

    Is it possible that the staff knew what you do for a living? I can think of many people who would take great pleasure in making a renowned linguist feel bad about mispronouncing a word.

  36. Robert Coren said,

    October 5, 2012 @ 9:52 am

    On the other hand, it seems to be standard in UK and Australian English (and perhaps elsewhere) to pronounce 'bruschetta' with a 'sh' (∫) sound.

    It's common in the US, too. Drives me nuts.

    I initially read the pictured sign as saying "We do not expect…", which left open the question of what they would do if, surprise, someone presented such a coupon.

  37. Eric said,

    October 5, 2012 @ 10:04 am

    Hmmm,although Americans think of words like chipotle and avocado as Spanish in origin they are actually nahuatl. Do other native Spanish speakers have problems with these words?

  38. Rod Johnson said,

    October 5, 2012 @ 10:05 am

    I once ordered a byrrh in Perpignan and was brought a "biere" by a haughty waiter who apparently assumed that, as I was an American, I was using the word "beer." Getting that straightened out proved to be impossible, and I never did get my byrrh.

  39. Rod Johnson said,

    October 5, 2012 @ 10:09 am

    Oh, and the thing that drives me crazy about chipotle is how universally (hereabouts, at least) it's pronounce "chi-pol-te." There nothing phonotactically difficult about the tl sequence "chipolte"–it's no different from "outlay," for example.

  40. Mark F. said,

    October 5, 2012 @ 10:13 am

    I totally missed the except/accept problem, but I did wonder at first why they needed to tell us that, in addition to not accepting Corporate coupons or Internet coupons, they also didn't accept Einstein Bros Bagels. Their use of commas actually avoided any true ambiguity, but the line breaks threw me.

    Colin – I suspect the apparent "hard t" in people's transcriptions of their own pronunciations has more to do with lack of precision in transcription than anything else, especially since the focus was on the first part of the word.

  41. Chris said,

    October 5, 2012 @ 10:36 am

    You could do a whole post on gyros. Gee-roh? Ghi-roh? Hero? Had an Israeli coworker that said huhh-roh. The h was guttural. That sounded like too much work for me when just ordering a sammich. So now I just point

  42. Jerry Friedman said,

    October 5, 2012 @ 10:46 am

    @Vanya: Even the normal American pronunciation of "Nicaragua" is closer to Spanish than the British "Nic-a-RAG-yoo-a". (Sorry, too early in the morning for IPA.)

  43. Ray Girvan said,

    October 5, 2012 @ 10:54 am

    I did baffle our local cake shop by asking for a Logi loaf (rhyming with "hoagy") – but that was my stupidity for not realising their sign "Logi" meant "Low G.I.".

  44. J.W. Brewer said,

    October 5, 2012 @ 11:35 am

    Just ask for チャバタ.

  45. J.W. Brewer said,

    October 5, 2012 @ 11:37 am

    Google translate gives 脆皮 as the simplified hanzi for "ciabatta" but then retranslates them as "crispy," so proceed at your own risk there, but the katakana come back to the same English starting point.

  46. julie lee said,

    October 5, 2012 @ 11:51 am

    Reminds me of the time my daughter's nanny from North China kept talking about about Li3 Ang2 near my place. (Those are two Chinese words, 3rd and 2nd tone respectively). I kept wondering where it was. Then suddenly I realized she meant Lion Market. Like many Chinese, English words are converted into Chinese characters that are closest in sound, and Lion became Li桃李 Ang (ahng)昂, with Chinese tones.

  47. julie lee said,

    October 5, 2012 @ 11:54 am

    oops, Li 桃李 should be Li李.

  48. Mary Kuhner said,

    October 5, 2012 @ 11:58 am

    People vary hugely in their ability to parse mispronunciations and strong accents, as we see in my department when we have scientific talks by speakers with such accents: not infrequently some proportion of listeners will be completely baffled while others will have no problems. We had a Korean graduate student in our lab whose English was initially very weak, and there was a period of about a year when his labmates could understand him, but no one else could–we had apparently learned how.

    On the other hand, I think Victor's deli is pulling his leg. It reminds me of an episode when some friends and I were down and out in Montreal. One morning we scraped together just enough money to go to Arby's (an American sandwich joint), and said, "Ham and cheese please." The waitress replied, "Je ne parle pas Anglais." The next morning we went back and (having prepared for this), said, "Jambon et fromage, s'il vous plait" and the same waitress replied, "Do you want fries with that?"

  49. Ted said,

    October 5, 2012 @ 12:57 pm

    @Heather: Johnny Versace often comes out as jeeAnnie, especially in the UK.

  50. Ted said,

    October 5, 2012 @ 1:00 pm

    @Ray: What the hell is a low G.I. loaf?

    The only possibilities I can come up with are (1) it ranks inferior to a PFC loaf and (2) it gets stuck in your rectum. Neither sounds terribly appetizing.

  51. Ted said,

    October 5, 2012 @ 1:05 pm

    Re Jack in the Box: Try ordering a croissant at Burger King without saying something that's a near-rhyme for "truss hand." I dare you.

  52. Ellen K. said,

    October 5, 2012 @ 1:09 pm

    GI = glycemic index

  53. Margaret L said,

    October 5, 2012 @ 1:18 pm

    "A small minority of Americans do that, and they are often mocked by the rest of us."

    Vanya, what part of the U.S. do you live in? Here in California, anglophones taking a stab at some Spanish is normal and expected these days. Increasingly our friends, neighbors, medical personnel, kids' teachers, kids' friends' parents, colleagues, etc. are native Spanish speakers.

    It is also increasingly difficult to tell who is an anglophone adopting Mexican-Spanish pronunciation, and who is a genuine bilingual. You can't tell just by looking.

    Mocking? Not around these parts.

  54. Brett said,

    October 5, 2012 @ 1:37 pm

    @Ted: I'm not sure whether you're being sarcastic about Versace or not. His first name was, after all, Gianni. However, as somebody who does not pay much attention to fashion news, I had thought (based on hearing his name pronounced) that it was actually "Johnny." Only when his murder propelled his name into the mainstream news did I realize my mistake.

  55. Vance Koven said,

    October 5, 2012 @ 1:41 pm

    Can't let Janet Kwasniak's comment go unanswered. The i after a c in Italian (official Italian, at any rate; there are probably many regional variations) does not change it to an English sh sound but to an English ch sound, as in, um, ciabatta. The sh sound is rendered in Italian by sci, as in lasciare.

  56. ALEX MCCRAE said,

    October 5, 2012 @ 1:55 pm

    @Mary Kuhner,

    As an Canadian anglophone (w/ some basic French schooling), having grown up in Toronto and environs, but for the past three decades calling L.A. my home turf, I can say from anecdotal experience, and still subscribing to, and reading Canada's newsmagazine-of-record, Maclean's, that many street vendors and shop-keepers in Québéc province kind of operate on a very selective, speak-English-or-not-speak-English basis; even though they are francophones, and understand and know how to converse passably in English.

    The personal example in Montreal that you referenced makes that point, loud and clear. I guess, ofttimes, it just depends on the mood, or attitude of the vendor, and perhaps how they initially size up the prospective customer…. whether they have that 'foreigner' air about them, or not.

    Intuitively, one would think that a business-person, constantly dealing w/ the public, in a community where tourism is an important part of the local economy, would make every effort to accommodate their clientele, even if the customer were making a halting effort to speak French, and was having obvious difficulty in making themselves understood. (Where's the "A" for effort, folks?)

    The recent stunning victory of the separatist-leaning Parti Québécois in Québec's early-September provincial election over the long-standing Liberals, under the leadership of the fire-brand pol, Ms. Pauline Marois, IMHO, does not bode well for amicable francophone/ anglophone relations in Québéc, going forward. Ms. Marois' party is bound and determined to doggedly rally for another province-wide referendum vote on Québéc's ultimately opting completely out of Canada, and forming their own 'sovereign' nation. Good luck on that one.

    Thankfully, even in the roughly 75% French-speaking province of Québéc, there is only a small, but admittedly vocal minority, at this point in time, who wish to sever ties w/ the Dominion. (But I digress.)

  57. julie lee said,

    October 5, 2012 @ 1:57 pm

    A friend told me he had a classmate and friend in Illlinois long ago whom everyone called Horse. Only when he read Horse's obit many years later did he know his name was Horace.

  58. M (was L) said,

    October 5, 2012 @ 2:19 pm

    @Alex McCrae, Mary Kuhner – my experience in several places suggests that almost any combination of shopkeeper and customer can make themselves understood if they want to; and usually, since they both want to complete a sale, they both want to. Even where spoken language utterly fails, ad-hoc "sign language" usually succeeds. Such is the value of motivation.

    But sometimes they don't want to. If one or the other values something more than the sale, it may not succeed. If it's dangerous to speak with foreigners, or if the tourist is self-conscious, or if the local is huffy about local pride, or a thousand other ifs, that may outweigh the value of the sale. I suppose the young lady at Arby's valued the use of French more than the value of the sale; and I suppose she was confident that her job was not at stake for losing this sale.

    I used to wonder how the native populations of the Americas and the arriving European settlers communicated at all; neither group could possibly, at least initially, have had even a weak translator. Yet in colony after colony, either peaceful trade or war and its attendant ultimatums, surrenders, demands, etc occurred – usually within the first year.

    Then I travelled a little and found myself in the same situation. Then I understood.

    A related question (I think) – how do we understand from context, a word we've never encountered before? Yet we do, and it's not only verbed nouns and or odd tenses, it's whole new terms arising from, say, a technology or a loaning or whatever. Yet we do this easily. How?

    I'm really asking btw.

  59. Ted said,

    October 5, 2012 @ 3:02 pm

    @Brett: Not sarcastic at all — just indicating pronunciation, and indirectly pointing out the parallel between Gianni/Johnny and Giovanni/John.

    BrE seems to universally pronounce Giovanni as Gee-O-Vanni (with "van" pronounced as in "delivery vehicle") rather than the correct, or at least authentic, Joe-Vanni (with "van" pronounced as in Beethoven).

  60. Nathan said,

    October 5, 2012 @ 3:23 pm

    @Ted: BrE seems to do that a lot. I always hear British TV reports saying names like "Obama" with a stressed [æ], instead of the vowel I use, which is farther back. (It's hard for me to describe or transcribe correctly, since I only have one vowel there, having the cot-caught merger and no open o at all. Is it [a] or [ɑ]?)

  61. B.Ma said,

    October 5, 2012 @ 3:51 pm

    @JW Brewer

    脆皮 indeed means crispy (skin), but it seems that some dictionaries have decided to define "ciabatta" in Chinese as "a type of Italian crispy bread". I wouldn't have thought that crispiness was the defining feature of a ciabatta – hence my preferred translation is 拖鞋麵包 (slipper bread).

  62. Ken MacDougall said,

    October 5, 2012 @ 4:35 pm

    Here's some classic British shopkeeper/customer comedy.


  63. Eric P Smith said,

    October 5, 2012 @ 4:59 pm

    Loan words can pose a problem even if they are in very common use. I once asked a colleague over the phone to look up her file on a company which I’ll call “Countrywide Restaurants” – I’ve changed the first word of the name because of confidentiality. She didn’t understand, and the more carefully I enunciated Loan words can pose a problem even if they are in very common use. I once asked a colleague over the phone to look up her file on a company which I’ll call “Countrywide Restaurants” – I’ve changed the first word of the name because of confidentiality. She didn’t understand, and the more carefully I enunciated /ˈrɛs.təˌrɑ̃z/ the more she didn’t understand. When I spelled it for her she exclaimed, “Oh, rest-rints!”

  64. Eric P Smith said,

    October 5, 2012 @ 5:02 pm

    I feared my IPA wouldn’t work! Three syllables in 'restaurants'; the vowel in the second syllable is a schwa; the vowel in the third syllable is nasalised low back.

  65. RP said,

    October 5, 2012 @ 5:05 pm


    You write that BrE has 'Giovanni as Gee-O-Vanni (with "van" pronounced as in "delivery vehicle") rather than the correct, or at least authentic, Joe-Vanni (with "van" pronounced as in Beethoven).'

    Wikipedia says that in standard Italian, an "a" is the open central unrounded vowel /a/ or /ä/ – a vowel which does not exist in the standard varieties of British or American English (although John Wells says "it is well known that the quality of the RP bat vowel has changed since the 1930's. It is now more similar to 'cardinal [a]' than it used to be" [ http://www.phon.ucl.ac.uk/home/wells/ipa-english-uni.htm ] – where, however, /a/ presumably represents the open front unrounded vowel rather than the open central unrounded vowel.

    In Spanish phonology too, Wikipedia has the only "a" sound as the open central unrounded vowel that most of us don't use in English. Of course, I'm sure this varies dialectially in both Spanish and Italian. But is it any more correct or authentic to pronounce a Spanish or Italian "a", which should be /ä/, as /ɑ/ than to say it as /æ/ or /a/? Americans seem to tend to go for /ɑ/ in these cases while Brits go for /æ/ or /a/ – as in the Giovanni example, or as in many (but surely not all) Brits' pronunciations of the first two a's of "ciabatta".

  66. Ted said,

    October 5, 2012 @ 5:50 pm

    @RP: A very interesting question, and thoughtful commentary.

    To my ear, /ä/ sounds closer to /ɑ/ than to /æ/ or /a/. That may be accurate — i.e., both the US and British pronunciations are errant, but one is closer to the reference value than the other. But you may be right that they're both equally far off, only in different directions.

    If that's right, I wonder, would it be because my ear is infected by my pronunciation (or the pronunciation that is familiar)? Or would it rather be that my ear infects my pronunciation, so that what I actually say (or imagine in my head) for /ä/ is not what I believe it to be but something that I'm accurately placing closer to /ɑ/?

  67. Jimbino said,

    October 5, 2012 @ 6:20 pm

    What Americans did to "Schiavo" almost killed the poor woman; Anthony Wiener can't (or won't) pronounce his own name correctly and neither can Juan Williams.

    I haven't heard a person pronounce Don Juan or Don Quixote correctly in either Spanish or English in 50 years, though most manage "quixotic."

  68. M (was L) said,

    October 5, 2012 @ 7:24 pm

    Much as it pains me to speak up in support of Anthony Wiener, it's his name. He can pronounce it any way he likes.

  69. Steve Kass said,

    October 5, 2012 @ 8:57 pm

    RP: A lot of sources say there's no open central unrounded (Italian "a") vowel in American English, but I'm skeptical.

    There may be no American English words where [ä] – or however you want to write it, IPA not being any help here – is a sole vowel in a syllable, but I think [ä] does exist in AmE, as the initial vowel of some diphthongs. (Spelled without a, by the way.)

    Examples are five and cow/vow/etc. American English singers learning to sing Italian can often produce a good Italian a vowel if asked to sustain one of these English words on a long note.

  70. David Morris said,

    October 5, 2012 @ 9:32 pm

    As an ESL teacher, I am regularly intrigued by how robust some mispronunciations are, but also on many other occasions, just how little it takes to mispronounce one word – either as another existing word, or as something non-exisiting. The worst situation is when a student says, out of the blue "What does 'asdfghjkl' mean?" Without any context, it's usually impossible to say.
    Sometimes context is a great help. One student said "I ate Madonna for breakfast". (To which I thought "Lucky Madonna".)

  71. maidhc said,

    October 6, 2012 @ 3:31 am

    Mary Kuhner: I believe that businesses in Quebec are legally required to initiate conversations in French. They even have inspectors going around to check. Although after the first encounter it is up to the owner to continue the conversation in whatever language.

    Personally I found the language issue in Montreal so charged that it was a relief to head out into rural Quebec where no one speaks English at all, so you just do what it takes to communicate. Me with my high school French with some monolingual Francophones got along a lot better (and I learned some new words) than with those people in Montreal who can speak English but prefer to talk in fast slangy Joual.

    My other recent urban experience was in Gatineau. There it seemed that shopkeepers would only speak French to you, but if you did your best to respond in French, they were OK with it. They would even sometimes resort to English if there was no other way to communicate.

    I think Montreal is a fabulous city, but because of its history I think the language issue is more complicated there than it is elsewhere in Quebec.

  72. maidhc said,

    October 6, 2012 @ 3:41 am

    Andrew: Anywhere in the Western hemisphere it would be something like CHO-REE-TZOH, not CHO-REE-THOH.

  73. Rod Johnson said,

    October 6, 2012 @ 7:48 am

    Huh? I've never heard it with the affricate in the US. CHO-REE-ZOH or CHO-REE-THOH, depending on how "authentic" the speaker is being.

  74. Faldone said,

    October 6, 2012 @ 8:14 am

    Eric said:

    Hmmm,although Americans think of words like chipotle and avocado as Spanish in origin they are actually nahuatl. Do other native Spanish speakers have problems with these words?

    Avocado and chipotle are the Spanishized versions of the Nahuatl ahuakatl and xilli poctli respectively, so should give native Spanish speakers no problems.

    Jimbino said:

    What Americans did to "Schiavo" almost killed the poor woman; Anthony Wiener can't (or won't) pronounce his own name correctly and neither can Juan Williams.

    In my youth I knew a family named Chiaro. They pronounced it /'ʃaɪ roʊ/. We have had a few years to Americanize out family names and several opportunities to change them for purely political reasons, but we haven't quite managed to reach the heights of Featherstonehaugh.

  75. Ellen K. said,

    October 6, 2012 @ 8:36 am

    Actually, if it's Mexican chorizo, which is the only kind available around here (Kansas City, USA), neither CHO-REE-ZOH nor CHO-REE-THOH would be authentic. One's an anglicization (voicing the z), the other is using a Spain pronunciation rather than a Latin-American pronunciation. CHO-REE-SOH. Or, more like CHOR-REE-SOH or CHUH-REE-SOH when said in English. (That is, either a schwa or an R-colored vowel in the first syllable.)

  76. Jerry Friedman said,

    October 6, 2012 @ 10:31 am

    The RAE lists avocado only for the Philippines and defines it as aguacate. Presumably avocado was Spanish once, but it hardly is now. (Another word is palta, used in Peru, Chile, Uruguay, and Argentina, it says.)

    I say "chor-EE-so", but I often hear it with a /z/. I can't remember hearing it with a /ts/ or a /θ/.

    @Faldone: The fact that chipotle is a hispanicization doesn't mean Spanish speakers can pronounce it according to the standard rules of their language, as so few Spanish words have syllable-final stops. The common word doctor is notoriously often mispronounced, for instance. I feel sure most Mexicans have no trouble with chipotle, but I don't feel sure at all about speakers in other countries.

  77. Robert Coren said,

    October 6, 2012 @ 11:10 am

    I too cringed every time I heard that pronunciation of "Schiavo", but my impression is that was actually how the family pronounced the name. As @Faldone's example shows, Americans descended from immigrants from non-English-speaking countries often Anglicize the pronunciation of their surnames. The Boston Red Sox have a long-time radio announcer named Joe Castiglione, and he, like everyone else, pronounces his last name /kæ-stɪg-li-'oʊn/ (not sure about that /ʊ/, actually). I'm not about to try to tell him that he "should" say /ka-sti-'ljo-nɛ/.

  78. Rodger C said,

    October 6, 2012 @ 11:16 am

    @Jerry Friedman: I'd always heard that avocado was a Peninsular Spanish "corruption" of aguacate in the direction of abogado 'lawyer.' Why the Spanish should regard lawyers as edible is another question.

  79. Rodger C said,

    October 6, 2012 @ 11:17 am

    Or perhaps they regard lawyers as oily.

  80. Ken Brown said,

    October 6, 2012 @ 3:02 pm

    @Chris – here in London "gyros" is pronounced "doner".

  81. Rodger C said,

    October 6, 2012 @ 7:48 pm

    @Steve Kass: Whose American English? I pronounce five with a distinctly lower vowel than cow.

  82. John said,

    October 6, 2012 @ 10:46 pm

    (totally didn't spot "except"… ashamed of myself)

    I'm more baffled by the central vowel than the "chuh/chee-uh" thing. "chee-ah-butt-uh"? I say it chuh-BATT-uh, and I can imagine someone saying it see-uh-BATT-uh, chee-uh-BATT-uh, or kee-uh-BATT-uh, but I can't imagine pronouncing it without an [ae] in the middle.

    Unless you were stressing a completely different syllable (chee-AH-butt-uh? CHEE-ah-butt-uh?), in which case no wonder they were baffled; "what the hell is a Chiarbeter?" "Sorry, is it Cheer-butter?"

  83. John said,

    October 6, 2012 @ 10:53 pm

    @Robert Coren: I read the book Catch Me If You Can before I saw the film, and in my head Frank Abagnale's name was "Ab-a-nya-lee" (which I thought *was* slightly Anglicised, but it sounded more realistic than a 100% Italian pronunc.)

    Then I saw the film. The man's name made me wince every time it came up — Ab-ag-nail. Argh. And I thought Cor-lee-own was bad.

  84. John said,

    October 6, 2012 @ 11:12 pm

    (Triple post) – I just remembered how I used to be unable to pronounce "croissant" in (my native) British accent, and had to affect a French one just for that word, which (a) was awkward and (b) sounded pretentious. I've settled on CWA-son (with more or less of a French /r/ depending how much I can be bothered) but it still seems to get funny looks sometimes. No idea how I'm "supposed" to say it…

  85. Victor Mair said,

    October 6, 2012 @ 11:35 pm


    If I had known enough to put the primary stress on what we are considering to be the third syllable, I too would have pronounced it something like -BATT-, as you suggest. Unfortunately, and I don't know why i did this, I put the primary stress on the CHEE- part, so that third syllable came out unstressed and sounding like -but-. Mind you, I took a semester of Italian in college, but that was a full 40 years ago.

  86. Alec said,

    October 7, 2012 @ 1:52 am

    RP: A lot of sources say there's no open central unrounded (Italian "a") vowel in American English

    Is this why it often seems to me that Americans are talking about "Los Vegas" (as in the place where what happens there stays there)?

  87. Victor Mair said,

    October 7, 2012 @ 7:26 am

    It would seem as though what Alec just said, following up on what RP noted about "no open central unrounded… vowel in American English" was operative on my instinct not to stress that syllable. I think that I also wanted to show that I was aware of the need to pronounce the first syllable in an Italianesque way, not as CHAI-, and so put the stress on that syllable.

    To be honest, I've always felt uncomfortable about having to say "ciabatta". However, until the episode at Einstein Bros, I guess that I never really had to say it out loud, but only pronounced it in my head. The Wawa shop two blocks up Spruce Street allows me to order by pushing buttons on a touch screen. I'm pretty sure that if I had been forced to speak the word "ciabatta" to order one at Wawa, they probably wouldn't have understood me either. After all, we're dealing with the West Philadelphia American English version of an Italian word, which means that it's a very complicated linguistic situation. Next time I see Bill Labov, I'll ask him for his view on the matter.

  88. Thomas Thurman said,

    October 7, 2012 @ 3:38 pm

    David Morris: What was "Madonna", in the end?

  89. Sandra Wilde said,

    October 7, 2012 @ 4:48 pm

    When i lived in Tucson, radio commercials pronounced the convenience store chain Laviccio's as la-vicky-os. I think it's confusing for english-literates to be sure about how to pronounce the c's and following letters in Italian. For instance, is the "i" in ciabatta unpronounced because it's just there because an a otherwise follows the c and makes it hard, or is it pronounced because the sound is there and the c is automatically ch because it's followed by an i?

    For that matter, i assumed that the store is La-veechee-os, but is it la-veech-os, and how would you know? This is now driving me nuts.

    Btw, why wouldn't the bagel place sign just say, "we're a franchise so we don't take the chain's coupons. Sorry" probably wouldn't sound legal enough.

  90. M (was L) said,

    October 7, 2012 @ 9:36 pm

    It is almost certainly la-vicky-os, if their own commercials say it that way.

    It's their name, they can pronounce "Laviccio's" as "Throat-warbler-mangrove" if they want to.

    Names are special that way.

  91. Brian T said,

    October 8, 2012 @ 7:59 am

    "Colin, I would argue that sch is usually pronounced SH in English, due to it being most commonly found in German names." Except for the most common sch- word, school, not to mention schedule, schizophrenia, scheme and schooner (we won't open the can of Schism brand worms). So there's plenty of opportunity for English-speakers to recognize sch- as having a "sk" sound — at the beginning of a word. When sch- appears midword, however, it IS exceedingly likely to be pronounced sh. Show an American "school, schizo, scheme, schetta" and then "preschool, bioschizo, antischeme, bruschetta," and the pronunciation no longer seems so alien.

    Wendy's, the fast food chain, recently introduced a "bruschetta chicken sandwich," and I was thrilled to hear that the TV commercials use the correct pronunciation.

    As for chee-uh-battah and gee-anni, the source of the problem is that people think the letter i is there to provide its own syllable. It's not. In both cases, the i exists only to moderate the consonant sound, changing cabatta (kah-bah-tah) to ciabatta (cha-bah-tah) and ganni (gah-nee) to gianni (jah-nee).

  92. Ellen K. said,

    October 8, 2012 @ 10:28 am

    Maybe more to the point, sch is usually pronounced SH in words the English speakers/readers sound out instead of already knowing how to say them. Even if those words are mostly names rather than regular vocabulary words, still, we are used to sch being SH when sounding it out.

    Oh, and, on the sch = SH, there's the British pronunciation of schedule.

  93. chris said,

    October 8, 2012 @ 4:22 pm

    sch is usually pronounced SH in English, due to it being most commonly found in German names

    And Yiddish loanwords. Although I'm not sure how the total distribution of sch-pronunciations works out, since Brian correctly points out some pretty common words with "sch" pronounced as "sk" rather than "sh".

    The fact that it can go either way makes the mistake pretty understandable, ISTM.

  94. Nelida said,

    October 8, 2012 @ 4:40 pm

    @Richard: "except" should be "accept", of course. Good for you, thought nobody would finally comment on it…

    @Eric: avocado in Spanish is actually "palta". Chipotle is actually non-existent in my neck of the woods (Montevideo, Uruguay).

    As to giabatta: Cultured speakers would pronounce it here the Italian way. Less educated speakers would go for the Spanish phonetics: "gee-a-bahta".

  95. Colin said,

    October 9, 2012 @ 1:51 am

    Regarding Yiddish words imported into English, it seems the letter shin has been randomly transliterated as either 'sh' or 'sch', without any clear rule behind it.

    Other Italian words with 'c' in them, like 'Chianti' or 'prosciutto', don't seem to cause the same level of disagreement among English speakers. (The pronunciation is Anglicised, but using more or less the closest sounds available according to English phonology.) Maybe 'bruschetta' is being influenced not by any spelling convention, but by the superficially similar English word 'brush'?

    As others have mentioned, 'gyros' is always a challenge when moving from one non-Greek-speaking place to another. Around here they spell it 'yeeros', which at least gives some idea of how they pronounce it.

  96. Stefano Taschini said,

    October 9, 2012 @ 5:26 pm

    Well, pronouncing ciabatta as "cheer butter" does change the word's rhythm quite a bit. That's probably what confused them, rather than any variation of the vowel's quality in the penultimate syllable.

    With reference to Janet Kwasniak's comment, I'm afraid Marcia is not an Italian name at all, but Latin, and a fairly old one at that, as Ancus Marcius is the traditional fourth king of Rome, in the 7th century BC.

    The closest name to Marcia in Italian is Marzia, spelled with a zed. As for the word "marcia" itself, it can either be an adjective meaning "rotten" or a noun meaning "march", as in "being on the march".

  97. Ellen K. said,

    October 9, 2012 @ 11:07 pm

    Note to British commenters: When us Americans say cheer and butter, we give those words a nice rhotic pronunciation. So none us (except perhaps the few non-rhotics left in New England) ever pronounce ciabatta like cheer butter. Though some might pronounce it like your pronunciation of cheer butter.

  98. Alon Lischinsky said,

    October 10, 2012 @ 6:41 am

    @Jerry Friedman: my native dialect, like Nélida's, has palta, but I've heard avocado even though I've never been to the Philippines.

    Estimating frequency is hard because of homography with the past participle of avocar ‘take over a case from a lower court’, but CREA has at least one recent instance from Spanish literature: “Robert Robards pide su menú: ensalada de avocado, una hamburguesa doble, patatas fritas”, from Vázquez Montalbán's 1991 novel Galíndez.

    As to chipotle, I don't think it poses too much of a problem to the average speaker. The /tl/ consonant cluster is by no means common in Spanish, but neither is it especially rare; think of atlas, atlántico and related words. (/otl/, on the other hand, is only present in Nahuatl loans.) That said, there is a tendency to reduce it to /t/ in rapid speech, the same that gave us ocelote (< Nah ocelotl) or tomate (< Nah tomatl ‘tomatillo’).

    @Martin J Ball: the right one (meaning ‘Eastern’, not ‘correct, accurate’, obviously).

  99. Bloix said,

    October 10, 2012 @ 3:08 pm

    "Names are special that way."

    That's a modern conceit and it's not widely accepted even in the US.

    If you live in Florida and your name is spelled Schiavo people are going to call you "Shy-vo" and you're going to go along with it, if you want to keep your job.

    But if you move to northern New Jersey you're going to start saying "Ski-YAH-vo" pretty quick.

  100. James Iry said,

    October 11, 2012 @ 1:08 pm

    Since American mangling of non-English words, "chipotle" and Jack-in-the-Box ads have been discussed already, this is now on topic


  101. Ben said,

    November 29, 2012 @ 10:09 am

    "It did take me a while to find the mistake in the sign. I was having more trouble with "As we are a franchise owned institutional location" and why that excludes them from accepting coupons. "

    Franchises are required to pay royalties on corporate coupons so penny-pinching franchise owners will sometimes forego the coupon goodwill by not accepting any coupons but their own homemade 'pons to save a buck.

  102. Kathleen said,

    January 31, 2014 @ 4:04 pm

    In regard to the name pronunciations, a family I knew of in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan pronounced their name (Schiavo) skee-ahvo or even with a hard y sound before the a. As for Anthony "Wiener", his name is actually Weiner. He pronounces it wiener for some unfathomable reason.

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