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Food Pronunciation Etiquette

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Have a pronunciation question that's been bothering me for awhile. When discussing a food with a non-English name, but of a language you are familiar, what is the correct balance of accuracy and not sounding pretentious (think of the 'Saturday Night Live' where the news reporters pronounce every Spanish word with an exaggerated accent). In other words, should coq au vin end with a nasal 'n', rhyme with 'van,' or something else?

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  1. Generally, if I know how to pronounce the dish/item in its native tongue, I do so. But I still say Paris - not "Paree", Vienna not "Wien"! Don't know why the latter seems over the top, but it does. That said, I don't know why "vin" would get changed to "van" in an English pronunciation - maybe a better option would be to say "Chicken in Wine Sauce".

    6 Replies
    1. re: MMRuth

      Brazen it out. As long as you let it roll trippingly off the tongue, who cares? ...and let us not get started on correct pronounciation of Chinese food names....

      1. re: Beevod

        French is especially tough for English speakers; the pronunciation of a word is often hard to guess. I think the best thing with any language, if it's a word you're going to be using, is to try to approximate how it sounds to you when a native speaker says it. If it's on a menu, I'll actually ask the waiter how to pronounce it. You may not quite nail it but it's not going to look worse (in my opinion) than making no effort to pronounce it right.

        I think the worst thing you can do with French is assume it will sound French if you just leave a couple letters off at the end of the word.

        1. re: bibi rose

          Like Sandra Lee does ....!

          1. re: bibi rose

            My mother went to her grave thinking that she was pronouncing Chaise Longue correctly because instead of Chase Lounge she was saying Shay Long...sorta half right. She also insisted on saying "Chef Boy-Ar-DAY" for the brand of spaghetti products, and one of her best dishes was green beans Aw Grotten...which she thought meant "with cheese".

            1. re: bibi rose

              If I'm speaking to someone who I know doesn't speak the foreign language in question, then I pronounce the word in such a way that the person can best understand me.

              I live in Spain and whenever I use an English word or name, I say it as a Spaniard would. Case in point: "donut"--ostensibly an English word--but the Spanish pronounce it doh-noose. They won't understand doh-nut. If Homer Simpson can say doh-noose here, then so can I.

              The tricky part is when you have learned another language and lived abroad and then have to go back to your home country and can't remember what the bastardized pronounciation is anymore. I was talking to an American friend recently and I caught myself saying a Japanese word with a Spanish accent. Silly.

          2. re: MMRuth

            There are certain traditional ways in Britain about how to pronounce French terms that sometimes have been adopted by Americans. This further muddies the waters.

          3. I usually pronounce it "correctly" (i.e., in the original language), though I always feel self-conscious ordering when the item is ridiculously long and descriptive (e.g., "pappardelle ai funghi, frutti di mare e salsa di vodka"), or when a perfectly good English translation exists (e.g., "chopped salad" rather than "insalata tagliuzzata").

            One of the funniest things I ever saw in a restaurant was when a Chinese colleague of mine and I were in Fior d'Italia in SF and he ordered a "pera caramellata" in heavily Chinese-accented Italian just to prove to the uppity waiter that he could.

            1. I think your question turns on the "not sounding pretentious" part. I can't begin to speak French, so I can't comment on your specific example, but for me, I try to pronounce things as correctly as I can without feeling like I'm 'showing off'.

              1. "Pho" is particularly bedeviling in this regard. Apparently it's properly pronounced "phah" or something similar (?) but I feel ridiculous even thinking about saying that, so I go with the westernized pronunciation. Then I wonder if the Vietnamese restaurant owners and workers secretly think we're all idiots for getting it so wrong...

                3 Replies
                1. re: DC in DC

                  Here in Seattle there is a Vietnamese place that, I suppose, does provide some pronunciation clues by its name--What the Pho?

                  1. re: DC in DC

                    I've studied or been immersed in about a dozen languages, ands Vietnamese is hands-down the most difficult for me to pronounce correctly. "Pho" I can do; the rest, I usually point and ask the server for help, they teach, I screw it up, we both laugh and life goes on. In about 25 years I've basically learned to say "bun thit nuong" without getting cold water thrown on me.

                    1. re: DC in DC

                      It's actually a cross between "fuh" and "fer", but said though you're asking a question.

                      Now, "phan nem nuong, it bun thit heo nuong cha gio, va it ca phe phin sua da" is a little harder... :-P

                    2. Even after 3 years of high school French, pronouncing "prix fixe" still throws me.

                      7 Replies
                      1. re: Scagnetti

                        Being native French, I can contribute to this:

                        Prix fixe is pronounced: Pree Feex (with the r more guttural than rolled at the front of the mouth like in English)

                        1. re: Louise

                          disclaimer: i speak french.

                          that said, phonetics in french aren't hard for an american - or shouldn't be - it is just our attitude that gets in the way.

                          how hard is it to say prix fixe for an american? what part gives you issues? the "prix" part? Don't we have enough Indy and Nascar competitions to know how to say Grand Prix???? And if you say fixe like fix - no problem - no one will sue you.

                          1. re: rumdrinks

                            I've taken a few beginner French classes, so I know some of the basic pronunciations. But the problem is that I may be thinking in my head croque "messyeur," but when I'm reading it off a menu as I'm speaking, it comes out croque "monsieur." I just shouldn't get the eyes involved.

                            1. re: rumdrinks

                              I disagree entirely. French pronunciation IS very difficult, and if someone is actually TRYING to pronounce something correctly, then it seems obvious that attitude is not an issue.

                              And as for prix fixe, it's the fixe that's a problem for me. X or no x? The e makes the consonnant sounded? or not?

                              1. re: danna

                                Just pretend there's no "e" at the end of fixe and pronounce as in English - fix. If you want to sound a bit more French, make the "i" sound longer, as in "free". :-)

                                1. re: danna

                                  GENERALLY SPEAKING (hold on, got to put on my asbestos suit)... the following consonants are silent at the end of a French word:

                                  h r (after e) s t x z

                                  The following consonants are half-dropped:

                                  b d g p

                                  The following consonants are nasalised:

                                  m n

                                  A vowel following the consonant requires the consonant to be pronounced, GENERALLY speaking. Prix = pree. Fixe = feeks.

                                  If the next word begins with a vowel, generally you pronounce the consonant (it's called "liaison").

                                  poulet à la moutarde = poo LAY tah lah moo tard

                                  Now that you know this, remember that like any language, the "proper" pronunciation often has nothing to do with how it's actually pronounced -- think about "going to" vs. "gonna".

                          2. I struggle with this a lot. Like one of my favorite wines... Chateau Sainte Michelle... I feel silly saying it like an American but I feel silly saying it in French... especially when the liquor store owner looks at you like you're from a different planet!

                            1. Attitude is important here. If you can say it correctly w/out being self-concious about it, then it won't sound pretentious. Don't make a show of it, is all.

                              And avoid the temptation to correct people. Well, unless they insist on mistakingly calling a Welsh Rabbit a Welsh Rarebit. That's inexcusable and deserving of gastromnomic damnation.

                              1 Reply
                              1. re: mod'ern

                                And I always thought the rabbits in Wales were made of cheese....;o)

                              2. When I use a word or place-name from another language, I assume that I am speaking that language for the duration, unless it's a name that has been commonly Anglicized, such as Paris or Brussels. I don't say "Roma" for Rome, but if I'm talking about getting around in Rome I'll try to pronounce Trastevere properly. Same goes for food, or brand names, or people's names...sometimes. My wife pronounces her middle name, which is her mother's maiden name, Gendron, as "ZhahnDROH(n)"; her thoroughly Americanized cousin introduces himself as Carlos "Jendrun."

                                "Cock Aw Vinn" sounds just weird, and let's not even think about how you'd say Tete de Veau!

                                1. Love this thread and come down where most seem to -- using the properly pronounced foreign version if I know it except if there's a conventional English alternative (assuming I'm somewhere English-speaking, of course).

                                  That said, although I can order a croissant sans probleme in Paris, it's my bete noire here in the US. The French pronunciation rarely gets me my pastry, and I end up at a loss for words.

                                  That one (pointing)

                                  Do other hounds have a proven solution to the croissant conundrum?

                                  11 Replies
                                  1. re: Dizzied

                                    A hard "C" followed by a French "R" followed by a sound kinda like "wah"...almost impossible for the non-Francophone mouth to enunciate. You can really hurt yourself trying. As the ONLY non-Francophone in this part of the family, I've defaulted to something on the order of "kwah_SAH(nt)", the (nt) sound being not so much a sound as a semi-enunciated glottal stop...if that's at all clear.

                                    1. re: Will Owen

                                      Exactly the same pronounciation that seems most common around the Bay, and always produces the desired result.

                                      1. re: Shep

                                        That pronunciation had been my default in Boston, but doesn't always work. Problems. This morning I pointed.

                                        1. re: Dizzied

                                          Well, yeah, if the counterperson doesn't understand French, or English, or Spanish, or any Romance language, or any Indo-European language, or any language from one of France's former colonial "possessions", or possibly any language at all. That happens a lot.

                                          I have guys (native anglo Californians) working for me who speak and understand perfectly well, but are unable to write in any known human script.

                                    2. re: Dizzied

                                      What about Croy-s-ant?

                                      I tend to vary my pronunciation depending upon where I'm ordering the croissant - now that I think about it though, can you get a decent one somewhere where they don't understand the proper pronunciation. Now that's food for thought.

                                      1. re: MMRuth

                                        Thanks for the additional pronunciation -- eek.

                                        Yes, it is possible to get a decent croissant in places that can't pronounce them -- there's a local bakery in Boston that makes quite nice croissants and sells them to a variety of other merchants, few of which seem to employ counter help capable of pronouncing their goods.

                                        1. re: Dizzied

                                          Or SPELL them - in Nashville we were used to seeing half a dozen attempts at spelling croissant, some fairly close, some ridiculous. One that's probably still there is over a concession window of a building at the State Fairgrounds: "CROSSISSANTS". It's one of those movable-letters signboards, but it went up about ten years ago, and last time I was there it was too.

                                      2. re: Dizzied

                                        Point and grunt method works well for me.

                                        1. re: Dizzied

                                          lol! i thought it was: qwaa-zan

                                          1. re: Dizzied

                                            Reminds me of the time during a fancy Sunday brunch (Mother's Day, IIRC) when the croissants were delivered to the table. I blurted out - in my most exaggerated redneck voice, I should add - "Hey! Lookit all them fancy biscuits!"

                                            mrs. ricepad was mortified, and my brother nearly blew croissant chunks out his nose.

                                            1. re: Dizzied

                                              Order your sandwich on rye?

                                            2. I try to pronouce words as accurately as I know how but if I have no idea what a language sounds like, will just pronounce it all as if it were English. Did this in an Ethiopian place once and the waitress told me that I wasn't half bad. That made me happy.:)

                                              1. So, at the carryout joint, how do you pronounce "gyros"?

                                                4 Replies
                                                1. re: Connave

                                                  "yee-ROHSS", approximately.

                                                  I do admit to getting annoyed at people who say "a gyro sandwich". The word is "gyros", it's not plural.

                                                  1. re: Das Ubergeek

                                                    Seriously, now.

                                                    Assuming you were ordering from someone who cared, would you simply ask for "a gyros"?

                                                    1. re: Shep

                                                      "A gyros sandwich." I know, am I not the most anal-retentive person ever?

                                                      1. re: Das Ubergeek

                                                        Aah, if you were that bad, you wouldn't eat take-out fast food, especially not sliced from an exposed rotisserie right out there in the open and all.

                                                2. i've always heard it pronounced "coh-oh-va"

                                                  1. ...another one is 'gyro'. i was told the correct way to pronounce it in greek is 'ear-ro'. but the few times i've said it in greek restaurants (and there are tons here in nyc) all i get is puzzled looks from the waitstaff. so i just keep saying 'jye-ro' and everbody understands exactly what i want...go figure

                                                    3 Replies
                                                    1. re: furryabdul

                                                      I go to a little restaurant owned by a Greek family and I've listened to all of them pronounce it and they pronounce it "euro."

                                                      1. re: furryabdul

                                                        "Euro" will do the job. A Greek guy who once owned a Greek restaurant said it is like "year" with an O on the end -- pronounced year-o. But I have gotten funny looks from waitstaff also, which probably just means they are local kids who have not yet had it explained to them.

                                                        1. re: Spudlover

                                                          It's funny, up here in Southern Ontario I've never heard the pronounciations "Euro" or "Jye-ro" used. Yearo's what we're used to up here.

                                                      2. a
                                                        Amuse Bouches

                                                        If I am in a french restaurant ordering from people who might actually be from France, I will pronounce it correctly (and I have a decent accent) -- Cwoke mih siuh (it's so difficult to spell phonetically), cwoahssan, etc. If I am in a deli and I want my sandwich on a croissant, I will order it on a crahSAHNT. Being in Southern California, I generally use the Americanized pronunciations of Mexican things that have a standardized pronunciation -- guacamole instead of hooacamolay, burrito instead of boorritttoh, but if I'm ordering something that hasn't been Americanized, I'll at least attempt to pronounce it correctly (Molay instead of moley.)

                                                        1. proscuitto. with the o or without the o??

                                                          13 Replies
                                                          1. re: rumdrinks

                                                            I think this was discussed a while back and the consensus was that Italians pronounce it with the "o" (pro-shoo-toh, sort of) while Italian Americans, especially from the Sopranos region, pronounce it without (breh-zhoot).

                                                            1. re: Kimm

                                                              "especially from the Sopranos region"

                                                              LOL! But damned if most or all of us don't know where you're talking about. :-)

                                                              1. re: Linda W.

                                                                Jersey, baby. North Jersey.

                                                              2. re: Kimm

                                                                Well, if you're going to go into the Soprano's region, that opens an awful lot of fodder. I still cringe whenever I hear someone pronounce manicotti as "man-ee-cott-ee" even though it's perfectly reasonable based on the spelling. We never bought them. Grandma made them, and if I were to have tried to figured out the spelling as a kid based on the only pronunciation I knew, it would have been something along the lines of "manigutt".

                                                                But since we're heading into Italian words, the one that actually drives me nuts is when someone orders a panini.

                                                                1. re: Bunny-Bunny

                                                                  Heh. I found myself at the farmer's market yesterday telling one of the vendors I needed salt pork for my "pasta fazool" recipe. (AKA pasta e fagioli)

                                                                  1. re: Bunny-Bunny

                                                                    Just as annoying, and just as incorrect, are the people who ask for "a gelati". For some strange reason, I have found that young Italian-Americans are very prone to this mistake, so I have to assume that they have not learned the language of their ancestors--or have not learned it very well.

                                                                2. re: rumdrinks

                                                                  It depends. If you're from anywhere north and east of Baltimore, you probably pronounce it without, but properly it's pronounced with.

                                                                  This goes for lots of things -- ricotta ("ree-gawt" --when I hear someone from Minot say "ruh-KAAAAAAH-duh" I want to scream), mozzarella ("moot-za-dell"), sfogliatelle ("shfool-ya-dell"), fettuccine ("fet-too-cheen"), peperonata ("peb-roh-naht"), to name a few.

                                                                  In New Haven, CT, they even have "a'pizza" which is "uh-beets".

                                                                  1. re: Das Ubergeek

                                                                    I just saw Rocco on some weird channel (soap opera?) doing a cooking demo and he kept saying "reh COT a", I was really shocked.

                                                                    1. re: Das Ubergeek

                                                                      Actually, I have been researching the correct pronuncation of Sfogliatelle. In Italy, it is pronounced (SFO-YA-TELL-EH). The F is pronounced, as in the LL and E.

                                                                      At the Jersery Shore and other parts of "Jersey" it's pornounced (SHVOY-YA-DELL). Which almost sounds like the Jewish. It's kind of a ghetto version, like the rap star 50 cents pronounces his name as (FITTY-cent).

                                                                      That is why an episode on the Sopranos years ago used the getto version: (SHVOY - YA - DELL) when the store was being robbed by a thug. It was in the scripted that way with the ghetto version for a reason.

                                                                      italian pronunciation


                                                                    2. re: rumdrinks

                                                                      The NYTimes had an article a year or so ago, about how Italians (from Italy) think it's really low class to drop the last vowel, and they are horrified when they come to New York and hear how things are pronounced.

                                                                      1. re: coll

                                                                        I took Italian for two years in college (not that it did any good); our teacher, a native of Rome, was scrupulous about pronouncing every syllable of each word. It sounded nothing like the Italian spoken by the mostly Abruzzese old-timers around the neighborhood. She always said, "First learn to speak standard Italian; then if you want to speak dialect it's up to you."

                                                                        1. re: Shep

                                                                          Ha! I learned all my "Italian" words from Abruzzese old-timers, as you say. I think my pronunciations must be horrible. But, at least I can say Italian words with flair.

                                                                      2. re: rumdrinks

                                                                        Proscuitto... everywhere but Brooklyn and the Bronx, it has an "o" at the end, same with mozzarella

                                                                      3. Having lived in France and Italy, here are a few hints from my experience.
                                                                        In the US, outside of some élitist circles, it is considered very pretentious to intersperse foreign words into an English conversation.
                                                                        This Coq au Vin is van
                                                                        Boeuf Bourguinon is beef burginyon.
                                                                        The idea is to communicate what you want to say in a way that the people you are speaking to understand clearly.
                                                                        There are some words that have entered into the vernacular, like croissant. kwasant

                                                                        1 Reply
                                                                        1. re: FLEUR

                                                                          ***The idea is to communicate what you want to say in a way that the people you are speaking to understand clearly.***

                                                                          THIS. Times ten.

                                                                        2. Two particular issues I have found:

                                                                          1. When trying to speak in the native language of the listener, I find often they get confused because they *expected* me to be speaking English. For example, I used to cashier in fast food when I was younger, and occasionally we'd get Spanish-speaking folk who couldn't communicate well. I'd switch over to Spanish to make the ordering process easier, and occasionally I'd get someone who would look at me like I was speaking Greek or something, and keep shaking their head and repeating, "No e-spik Eenliss!" They absolutely could not parse that I was speaking to them in their own language.

                                                                          2. I found that Spanish-speaking men, in particular, can be very impressed when they find a pretty woman speaks their language. VERY impressed. I once ordered at a Mexican restaurant entirely in Spanish, and throughout the entire meal, one by one every single one of the employees, cooks, and staff, managed to have business in the dining room so they could catch a glimpse of that girl who speaks Spanish. It was quite uncomfortable.

                                                                          So, being a white American, I generally try to order in the way the person in front of me expects me to order, but without entirely embarrassing myself. I also tend to avoid making it known I speak Spanish if I think the (male) attendant might pay me a little too much attention. I can't bring myself to say jal-a-pee-nos, but I don't lay it on thick either. A simple hal-a-peñ-os, with a slight "Am I getting this right?" look usually does the trick. (But if the attendant seems genuinely pleased that I can pronounce things correctly, or rightly guesses I can speak the language, I'll go ahead and pronounce things as best as I know how.)

                                                                          1. I always chuckle when I hear "chai tea." What, tea tea?

                                                                            3 Replies
                                                                              1. re: pine time

                                                                                And a spin off of this... when something is served WITH au jus. "With with juice?" Agh!!!

                                                                                1. re: velochic

                                                                                  You might want to dip into this monster thread:

                                                                                  "With au jus" = with with the juice

                                                                              2. I often have this problem with "poutine" ; it seems to come off as pretentious when using proper French pronunciation outside of Quebec.
                                                                                Otoh, I just cannot Anglicize Greek words. If they don't know what I'm talking about when I pronounce it correctly, no big, I'll point to what I what.

                                                                                3 Replies
                                                                                1. re: Jasz

                                                                                  and it's a little TOO easy to pronounce 'poutine' as something *completely* different! (Kind of like how French broadcasters struggle with the pronunciation of Vladimir Putin's name!)

                                                                                    1. re: DeppityDawg

                                                                                      Putin, as it is spelled in non-cyrillic characters, is an impolite word in French. So French newspapers spell it differently, and they try to differentiate his name from the word.

                                                                                2. The problem with correct pronunciation is getting people to understand you. I speak French fluently (I'm a translator), and my perfect pronunciation of "haricots verts" is completely wasted on the guy working the produce section of TJ's in Manhattan, who only understands an Americanized pronunciation. I end up feeling like an idiot, and end up having to ask for the "French green beans".