Nathanael Green's Blog

An advertising copywriter, novelist, and freelance writer's brain goo.

Do You Talk Like Alex Trebek?

with 29 comments

Alex Trebek sans mustachio.

Alex Trebek sans mustachio.

I have a confession to make: I have a bit of the Alex Trebek Syndrome.

I’ll explain more in a minute, but first, listen to this link, which will start a sound clip automatically.

This is from the movie I Love You, Man, where the main character, Peter, pronounces the name of his favorite movie in a decidedly un-American way. Maybe Chocolat should be said the way he insists, but what about other foreign words?

Do you go to a bakery and ask for a KWAsahn?

(You know what it sounds like, so stop rolling your eyes at my attempt to type out a French pronunciation.)

You probably wouldn’t do that unless you were traipsing through Pah-ree. So most Americans will ask for a kruh-sahnt, even knowing that it’s a French word, and probably knowing how they pronounce it.

Sometimes we do put on that foreign accent …

And when we do, this is the Alex Trebek Syndrome. (I didn’t coin the term, but I don’t know who did.) If you’ve ever seen Jeopardy, you know that he pronounces foreign words and phrases with their native accent. For instance, he’ll give an answer about Puerta del Sol and for just those three words, you’d swear he was actually from Madrid.

People do this kind of thing with foreign words all the time. Sometimes it’s meant to be humorous (Target, the store, being pronounced Tar-zhay), sometimes it seems appropriate, and sometimes it’s ridiculous.

Melbourne, Melbin, Cologne, and Köln

As an Australian friend once pointed out about my American accent, I’m inclined to pronounce every letter but the final e in Australia’s Melbourne (Mel-born). Yet, the people who actually live there shorten it significantly to something like Melbin with only a hint of the l.

If there’s such a thing as a correct pronunciation, I’d give the nod to the natives’. Yet most Americans don’t say Melbourne, Glasgow or Manchester the way the locals do. But maybe that’s because it’s all English anyway, so why say place names differently than any other words you have in common?

But what about places where English isn’t the main language? And I’m not just talking about Paris and Mexico becoming Pah-ree and Mehico. Often, the natives have a completely different word, not just a different pronunciation for their little slice of Earth (this is called an exonym):

Moscow in Russian is something like Moskva. The Japanese call their homeland Nippon. The city of Cologne in Germany (Deutschland) is Köln.

So here’s my confession

I tend to pronounce German words in English with my best German accent. For instance, there’s a particular (and particularly delicious) beer that’s brewed only in Cologne called kölsch, after the German name for the city.

It’s a mostly unknown beer in America except among beer connoisseurs and brewers, who’ve anglicized its pronunciation so they don’t have to deal with that pesky little umlaut over the o. They say kolsh; I say kölsch with the vowel sound we don’t have in English.

Sometimes it makes me feel like an obnoxious know-it-all, but at the same time, saying it any other way just feels completely unnatural. Though I do call the city “Cologne.”

It seems to me that there are no hard and fast rules, but the more well established the word in English, the less likely it is to be subject to Trebekification.

So what do you do?

What are your own personal criteria for different pronunciations? Do you talk about your latest trip to MAH-thrid or Madrid? If you wanted the chicken at a fancy restaurant, how would you order croquette de volaille? Or gyros?

Written by Nathanael Green

October 22, 2009 at 10:06 pm

29 Responses

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  1. Dear Nathanael

    Please forgive me emailing you in such a seemingly cold fashion. You seem to share my love of language and I wondered if you might like a mutual link to my English word website:

    or my Foreign words website:

    with best wishes

    Adam Jacot de Boinod

    Adam Jacot de Boinod

    October 23, 2009 at 4:36 am

    • Adam,

      Thanks for stopping by! I’m always happy to meet a fellow linguaphile.

      It looks like you’ve got some interesting things on your site. I particularly like the idea that predictive texting is creating textonyms like “book” for “cool.” I actually just tried it on my own phone, but mine still chooses “cool;” and that saddens me more than it really should, I think.

      Nathanael Green

      October 23, 2009 at 9:18 am

  2. Great post! I’ve thought about this a lot, actually, and I can’t decide whether Trebek is being pretentious when he Frenchifies French words. I’m actually in the middle of a two-part blog post on loanwords (and just how much we get when we borrow them). I’ll be sure to link here when I write up part 2, since it’s not only relevant but entertaining.

    So what do I do? I tend to anglicize these terms almost always, whether they’re place names or loanwords. Some aren’t up for debate, like foie gras, which makes you sound like a moron if you pronounce it “foy grass.” But I’ll say Madrid without the Spanish flare, and Paris with an s. Curiously, my Glasgow is Sean Connery’s Glasgow. I’ll bet it’s because Glasgow’s endonym is less “foreign-sounding” in English than Madrid’s or Paris’s.

    Au revoir!

    Kevin Dickinson

    October 23, 2009 at 10:51 am

    • Kevin,

      Thanks for stopping by! And I agree with you: it’s tough to decide whether the foreign pronunciation is appropriate or an indicator of being a knob.

      Interesting you pronounce Glasgow the way you, though I can understand it; making it rhyme with “glass cow” makes me shudder.

      Nathanael Green

      October 26, 2009 at 9:29 am

    • Also – great site, Kevin! How can anyone not love linguistics with tidbits from you like:

      “The reason you speak English, not French, is because Isabella of Angoulême was hot”

      Nathanael Green

      October 26, 2009 at 9:46 am

  3. Thanks Nathanael

    shall we link ?


    Adam Jacot de Boinod

    October 23, 2009 at 12:19 pm

  4. It is SO friggin cool that you wrote about that. I still don’t understand why we call places something different than what the natives call them. Why DO we call it Germany (Germania) rather than Deutschland? My name is what it is and I’d be pretty pissed if someone renamed me because they couldn’t pronounce my name. I think it would be better if we stopped teaching the anglicized names for places and called them by what they are… comes in handy for those of us who actually leave the US.


    October 23, 2009 at 8:02 pm

    • Another thought provoking post, Nate. I was thinking of this very subject just recently. Having just been to New Orleans for the first time this past spring, I know that natives call it something more along the lines of Nahluns, if not an even more succinct Nola. I find that I can’t even quite manage New Orluns, but stick to the rigidly wrong New Or-leans.

      I think this is somewhat related to my tendency to be the last to adopt someone’s nickname or even shortened version of their name. This happens mostly at work where someone will be introduced when new by their full name–Jennifer, Michael, whatever and others quickly shorten to Jen, Mike, and in some cases coin whole new nicknames. But I almost never jump to the more familiar without a lot of familiarity, and I think the similarity is not that I don’t want to sound pretentious, but that I don’t want to assume the familiarity that the more affectionate name implies. And I think that may be the same with cities–it’s like I haven’t earned the right to be on such intimate terms with them yet. So I’ll even pronounce wrong to indicate my ‘foreigner’ status.


      October 24, 2009 at 8:41 pm

      • Seana,

        I never really thought of it that way, but I like the thought that “you haven’t earned it.” And not just with colleagues, but with places.

        I think this is a similar topic to one we discussed a while ago about speaking with an affected accent when you’re abroad. (At what point can an American drop his Rs at the ends of words when in England without looking like a wanker?)

        So maybe it’s an issue of familiarity? If you live in Melbourne for a few years, you can say “Melbin?” Or perhaps it’s more about your audience that news anchors and Alex Trebek must appear in-the-know, so their pronunciation is different, while day-to-day speech requires something with a little less effort?

        Nathanael Green

        October 26, 2009 at 9:42 am

    • Hey, Sis,

      It’s nice to see you here! And I’m glad you liked the topic, and I now understand why you were so upset about all those names I called you that weren’t your own! ;-)

      And that’s an interesting thought that we could use all the endonyms for places to make it easier when we travel. How would that work with places with unfamiliar sounds?

      Just as a side note, I believe that if you go way back, a lot of names for peoples was pretty simple. For instance, most endonyms for Native American tribes simply mean “the people” while their names for other tribes will be more descriptive, like the Sioux getting their name from the Algonquin for “snake” or “enemy” (though through a roundabout way).

      Also, English isn’t the only language that uses exonyms for other places. Doesn’t French have a different name for Germany that isn’t related to the Latin Germania? Any French-speakers to help me out with this one?

      Nathanael Green

      October 26, 2009 at 9:37 am

      • Nater,

        If memory serves, the French word for Germany is l’Allemagne. No idea where that comes from.

        Brian O'Rourke

        October 26, 2009 at 10:43 am

        • Thanks, Brian. My French is only slightly better than my Tagalog, of which I know nothing at all.

          That’s an interesting one, and now I remember why it stuck out in my head. As a Romance language, I’d think it would have come from the same root as Germania in Latin, but it doesn’t appear that way. According to the website devoted to the Purest of Truths, Wikipedia, it’s from a group of Teutonic tribes that lived near the Main River, called the Alamanni:

          According to Asinius Quadratus (quoted in the mid-sixth century by Byzantine historian Agathias) their name means “all men”. It indicates that they were a conglomeration drawn from various tribes.

          Sounds to me like it was originally of Germanic origin and Latinized, perhaps? It’s tough to find an etymology of a French word in English.

          Interestingly, this different Wikipedia article lists six main sources as roots for different names for Germany, while including a few extraneous and terribly interesting instances–like the Navajo name coming into existence only in the 20th Century and meaning “Metal-Cap-Wearer Land.”

          Interesting, yes, but absolutely true? … I still raise my eyebrow at any info taken from Wikipedia.

          Also notable is the fact that searches for “names of _______” for other countries yielded no results; only for Germany.

          Nathanael Green

          October 26, 2009 at 10:56 pm

  5. […] for places on a map, but Nathanael Green has written up a brief, entertaining post on them called “Do You Talk Like Alex Trebek?” that I recommend checking […]

  6. Interesting, yes, but absolutely true?

    See, you have the wrong approach with wikipedia – and you’re unnecessarily snarky – the main derivations and the relative explanations : Deutschland, Duitsland from 1) Germany, Germania from 2) Allemagne, Alemannia from 3) Németország, Niemczy from 5) are absolutely correct
    if you have doubts or you think some parts may be inserted jokes or you need absolute certainty on the particulars all you have to do is a supplemental google search – something that should be done even to check information taken from “real” Encyclopedias, which, according to periodic reviews, are often just as full of errors.

    In some cases using the original words over the translation would reek of affectation: so it’s always Londra, Colonia, Parigi instead of London, Köln, Paris. Re: loanwords I pronounce them correctly but with “domesticated phonetics” – adapting vowel sounds and accents, otherwise the speech rhythm would be disrupted.


    October 27, 2009 at 11:12 am

    • I did like, though, how when I heard him speak, Salman Rushdie would go without a pause from Oxford educated English to pure Indian pronunciation when pronouncing an Indian word. It sounded right, where I suppose it would sound very fake if I did the same thing, even assuming I was capable of it.

      “Londra” has a nice ring to it.


      October 27, 2009 at 1:00 pm

      • Seana,

        Londra does sound nice, doesn’t it?

        And it’s impressive how some people lapse smoothly into a different pronunciation. I wonder if this goes back to your idea of having to earn it, though?

        Nathanael Green

        October 27, 2009 at 6:23 pm

        • Yes, I think it does. However, I also think Marco is right when he talks about the switching back and forth between languages being jarring. Even with the most effortless fluency, the effect is to take you out what is being said for a moment, if only to think, wow! he’s good! It strikes me that one of the main aims of language is to be transparent and to be merely a vessel for meaning, somewhat like text is.


          October 27, 2009 at 6:31 pm

        • That’s a great point, Seana, re: the point of language being clear communication.

          But that begs the question that transparency is the point of language. (I’m thinking here specifically of politicians. ;-)

          Also, it brings up a really interesting question of form and content. Does form impact the content, or are they independent?

          Separately, if language is just a vessel for meaning, what exactly do we get from any text? Particularly with the spoken word, the meaning we take from any sentence is certainly more than its semantic content. The inflection, situation and so many other things come into play to give us a much broader meaning than the literal content of the words. So how does a jarring accent affect that?

          Nathanael Green

          October 27, 2009 at 6:41 pm

    • Oh, I don’t disagree that Wikipedia is an invaluable resourse. And while any source should be double-checked, I still think Wikipedia’s more suspect simply due to its ever-changing nature.

      Brian O’Rourke posted once about Wikipedia and linked to this article about the site’s 15 biggest blunders. Most of which are fairly humorous or simply malicious.

      Plus, I wouldn’t put it past some of my friends to change this entry just to screw with their word-nerd friend.

      Nathanael Green

      October 27, 2009 at 6:21 pm

  7. I often watch German Tv . Germans use a lot of English loanwords, and strive to pronounce them correctly. The effect is very jarring – it’s like when you hear hip-hop and the music is suddenly interrupted by a sample from a completely different record.


    October 27, 2009 at 4:05 pm

    • Marco,

      I’ve noticed the same thing, and it certainly is jarring. When this happens, it puts me in just the opposite position than what I talk about in this post. For instance, Germans will use the word “Jobs” from the English. But instead of pronouncing it like a German word beginning with a J (i.e. like a Y in English making it “Yobs”), they try to pronounce it as we do in English. But it tends to come out like “Chobs.”

      In this instance, I feel like it’s a foreign language, and they do have a German word for jobs, so my best bet is to do as the Romans do. So I’m an American left pronouncing English loanwords with a German accent.

      Nathanael Green

      October 27, 2009 at 6:31 pm

  8. Good point about those obfuscating politicians…

    I actually don’t think language is always supposed to be invisible–I was oversimplifying. And of course I’d rather hear Salman Rushdie’s Hindi than not. And poetry, and many other uses of language do want to call attention to themselves. They want you to stop and look at the words themselves.

    So maybe it’s too easy a parallel to draw to text, which you actually have to be able to look ‘through’ in a sense to read the words. But then the visual look of text does matter too. We notice without noticing we do. Usually.

    In common speech, though, I think we usually do not want our listener to be thrown into a quandary by the way we pronounce “chobs”. We simply want to get the chob of communicating done.


    October 27, 2009 at 6:51 pm

  9. Sorry, my response to your last comment seems to have appeared above your comment.


    October 27, 2009 at 6:53 pm

  10. Yo Marco –

    Are you one of the original designers of wikipedia or something?


    Brian O'Rourke

    October 28, 2009 at 8:54 am

  11. Are you one of the original designers of wikipedia or something?

    Good as Wikipedia is, it’s Uncyclopedia that is the real deal.

    According to Asinius Quadratus

    For example, even if I did know that the derivation was correct, Asinius Quadratus (“Dunce-y Squared”) gave me pause. So I googled and it seems that it was his real name, poor sod.

    Re: my previous point the effect is not so much mispronunciation – even a correct pronunciation can halt the natural flow.
    In the case of Italian/English, for example, the vowel qualities are different, accents fall in different positions, and in Italian even unaccented vowels are pronounced more markedly than unstressed vowels in English. This contributes to a different speech rhythm, and the intrusion of a foreign word disrupts it. Every language has a different rhythm – I can recognize Polish from Czech, even if I know neither and they’re closely related.

    Londra does sound nice, doesn’t it?

    Well, d’oh! Everybody knows Italian is the most melodic language. The secret? Everything sounds better with a vowel at the end.


    October 28, 2009 at 1:25 pm

    • Marco, you are going to have to fight the Spanish and possibly the Japanese for the most melodic title, I think.

      Although I can barely speak it, I do love the sound of French, with all its smothered endings.

      The Marcopedia might turn out to be a slightly scary thing…


      October 28, 2009 at 9:49 pm

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