Ten Difficult Words in American English Part 2

Aug 30, 2020

Ten Difficult Words in American English Part 2

8/30/2020

American English pronunciation can be tricky - there are silent letters, hidden sounds, and multiple pronunciations for the same spelling. Even native speakers have difficulty pronouncing certain words! Watch this video to perfect your pronunciation of 10 difficult words in American English, with examples that are up close and in slow motion! The words included in this video are: tour, tourist, rural, mural, squirrel, pencil, awful, felt, aspirin, average.

(Video Transcript)

 

This is the second installment of the video series 10 Difficult Words to Pronounce in English. I chose these words based on the top words that are difficult for my accent clients to pronounce, as well as suggestions from my viewers.

 

How to pronounce the American English word tour

We’ll start with the word tour. Tour. There are a few tricky things about this word. First, let’s look at how it is transcribed on the Cambridge dictionary website. Tour is one syllable, and this transcription uses the OOR R-colored vowel, which is the UH /ʊ/ like in book vowel and the R /ɹ/ sound. OOR. But listen to how I pronounce the UH vowel when I say tour. Tour. It doesn’t sound like the pure UH vowel - it sounds more like the OO vowel. This is because the R sound influences the way the UH vowel is pronounced, and the vowel ends up having more lip rounding than usual. You may also hear native speakers use the OR /ɔɹ/ vowel instead, so it sounds like tore. Either pronunciation is fine, but I use the OOR vowel.  Toooouuurrrrrr. Toooooouuuurrrrrr. Tour. Let’s take a closer look at tour in slow motion.

 

The tongue tip comes up for the True T, then the lips push away from the teeth for the UH /ʊ/ vowel. The lips stay in a rounded position, but they pull back slightly for the R sound, and the tongue pulls up and back for the R. You can’t see the tongue movement because the lips are in the way, but notice how the inside of the mouth is dark as the tongue pulls back. 

 

How to pronounce the American English word tourist

An interesting thing can happen to this word when it occurs in the word tourist. Some people pronounce it as tour plus ist, tour ist. Tourist. Other people pronounce it as tourist, using the OR /ɔɹ/ vowel. And I’ve even heard people pronounce it as ter-ist, almost like they have reduced the OOR vowel into the unstressed ER /ɚ/ vowel. Let’s listen to how Americans pronounce this word on Youglish.com. 

 

I scanned the results from Youglish for unique speakers so you wouldn’t hear the same speaker twice. However, I did include one speaker twice to illustrate that even native speakers change their pronunciation sometimes. This speaker used the OOR vowel in one clip, and then used the ER vowel in another clip. Of the speakers used in these clips, eight used the OOR vowel, two used the OR vowel, and one speaker used the ER vowel.

 

I pronounce this word as tourist. T-our-ist. Let’s take a closer look at the word tourist.

 

The tongue tip comes up for the True T, the lips push away from the teeth for the UH /ʊ/ vowel, just like they did for the word tour. The lips stay rounded for the R sound, but they pull back slightly, and the tongue pulls up and back for the R. Then the tongue comes forward for the IH vowel, and the tip comes up for the ST cluster. 

 

How to pronounce the American English word rural

The next word is rural. Rural. Now, I have to admit, this word is challenging for many native speakers to pronounce correctly. Rural is two syllables, and it has two difficult R sounds plus the dark L sound. RUHR - UHl. RUHR - Uhl. The first syllable is RUHR, and the trick to this syllable is to not move your jaw that much as you say it, and the lips flare out slightly. RUHR., RUHR, RUHR. It’s kind of like a car, revving its engine. RUHR. The Cambridge dictionary uses the OOR vowel in the transcription here, but it’s not the pure OOR vowel - it’s much more reduced. RUHR. And then go directly to the Dark L, uhl, and you should feel the tension here. Uhl. Uhl.  Let’s take a look at rural in slow motion.

 

The lips round into a right circle for the initial R consonant, and the tongue is pulled up and back into the mouth, with the side of the tongue touching the inside of the upper back teeth. Then as I say the UH /ʊ/ vowel, my jaw drops slightly, and my lips also open up just a bit. Then my mouth goes back to the starting position as I say the second R sound. As I come to the dark L, the tongue changes position - the back of the tongue drops low and tenses, and the tongue tip remains down. 

 

How to pronounce the American English word mural

The next word is mural. Mural. This word is two syllables, and it also has the OOR R-colored vowel, but when I pronounce this word, I use the ER /ɝ/ as in bird vowel. And here’s the tricky part - there is a Y /j/ sound, like in the word yes in the first syllable, but the spelling of the word mural does not show it. M yur - uhl. M -yur - uhl. Uhl. Uhl, and remember to feel that tension here when you say the dark L. Uhl Uhl. Uhl. Let’s take a closer look at the word mural.

 

The lips come together for the M sound, and then the tongue moves into the position for the Y /j/ sound, with the tongue high in the mouth and the sides curved up and touching the inside of the upper back teeth. The tip of the tongue is down, behind the bottom front teeth. Then as I say the ER vowel, the tongue pulls back slightly, and the lips push away from the teeth. Then as I move to the Dark L sound, the tongue changes position. The back of the tongue pulls down and tenses, and the tip of the tongue stays down behind the bottom front teeth. 

 

How to pronounce the American English word squirrel

The next word is squirrel. Squirrel. This word also has an R sound and the dark L, and it begins with a challenging consonant cluster - the SKW cluster. It’s two syllables, and let’s talk about the first syllable, skwer. S - k - w - ER. SKWER. SKWER. SKWER. Then you go directly to the Dark L sound, uhl, uhl, uhl, and you feel that sound here, low in the throat. Skwer- uhl. Squirrel.

 

Let’s look at the word squirrel in slow motion.

 

The lips are neutral at the beginning for the S sound, and the tongue tip is up. Then the tongue pulls back for the K sound, and the lips round for the W sound. The tongue moves up and back for the ER sound, and the lips stay in a rounded position. Then for the Dark L, the tongue changes position. The back of the drop drops and tenses, and the tongue tip is down behind the bottom front teeth. 

 

How to pronounce the American English word pencil

The next word is pencil. Pencil. This word is tricky because it has the dark L sound at the end, uhl, uhl, uhl, and you should feel that the sound comes from here, in your throat. Uhl. Uhl. Pencil. P EH N suhl. I feel the dark L sound here, and the back of my tongue feels tense. You might also be able to see this part of my throat move down as the muscles tense. Uhl. Uhl. 

 

Let’s take a look at pencil in slow motion.

 

The lips come together for the P sound, then the jaw opens for the EH vowel. The tip of the tongue is down, and the middle part of the tongue arches up towards the roof of the mouth. Then the tongue comes up for the N sound, then down for the S, and then the back of the tongue drops for the dark L sound.

 

How to pronounce the American English word awful

The next word is awful, another word with the Dark L sound. This word can also be tricky because of its spelling. There’s W in the spelling, but you don’t pronounce the W. The vowel here is AH /ɑ/. AH. AH - fuhl. AH -fuhl, and again, feel the Dark L in the throat. Now, let’s quickly talk about the tongue tip during the Dark L sound. Sometimes the tongue tip can come up to the roof of the mouth, just behind the upper front teeth. And sometimes the tongue tip can go down, behind the bottom front teeth. It just depends on the word and the context. Sometimes with this word, I’ve noticed that my tongue tip comes up when I say it. Here’s the word awful with my tongue tip up. Awful. And here it is when my tongue tip down. Awful. It’s nearly identical. 

 

Let’s take a look at awful in slow motion.

 

The jaw drops for the AH vowel, then the upper teeth touch the bottom lip for the F sound. Then the tongue pulls back and drops low for the Dark L. And in this example, the tongue tip comes up for the Dark L, but remember that it can either be up or down.

 

How to pronounce the American English word felt

The next word is felt. This is another example of the Dark L sound, but this time the Dark L is part of a consonant cluster, LT, uhlt. Felt. F - EH - L - T. Felt. And because this word ends in a T sound, the tongue tip may be up for the Dark L in preparation for the T that comes next, and this might be the easier way to pronounce the Dark L in this context. Or the tongue tip can be down for the Dark L. Just focus on the back of the tongue, and make sure the tongue is low and tense, uhl, uhl, uhl. 

 

Listen to what happens to the final T sound in felt in this sentence: I felt like saying no. The T sound was unreleased - that means, I didn’t allow a puff of air to come out when I made the T sound. The tongue tip can come up to the roof of the mouth when you say the T sound, especially as the mouth prepares to say the initial L sound in like, but the air for the T sound is not released. I usually pronounce the phrase felt like using a glottal T for the T in felt. Felt. Felt. Felt like. And in this case, the tongue tip will usually stay down for the Dark L. 

 

Let’s take a look at the word felt in slow motion.

 

The upper front teeth touch the bottom lip for the F sound, then the jaw opens and the middle part of the tongue arches up for the EH vowel. The tongue tip is down. Then the back of the tongue drops low for the Dark L. And in this example, the tongue tip comes up for the Dark L in preparation for the T sound. 

How to pronounce the American English word aspirin

The next word is aspirin. Aspirin. The tricky thing about this word is it looks like it should be 3 syllables, but it’s only 2 syllables: ASS - prin. ASS-prin. Aspirin. There are two letter i’s in the spelling of aspirin, but the first one is dropped completely. This process is called vowel syncope, and it happens when an unstressed syllable or sound is dropped from a word. There are many words in American English that have been affected by vowel syncope, like chocolate and business. Aspirin is another one of those words.

 

Let’s take a closer look at the word aspirin.

 

The jaw opens and the lips pull back for the AA vowel, then the jaw closes and the tongue comes up for the S sound. The lips come together for the P sound, then push away from the mouth for the R sound. The tongue pulls back for the R. The lips pull back for the IH vowel, then the tongue comes up for the N consonant.

 

How to pronounce the American English word average

The last word we’ll look at today is average. Average. Listen to how I pronounce it: Average. Ave- ridge. Only two syllables. But the Cambridge dictionary has average transcribed as three syllables in its first listing: av-er-age. Av-er-age. Then lower on the page, Cambridge includes the 2-syllable transcription.

 

So which one is it? Average as 2 syllables, or av-er-age as 3 syllables? Let’s listen to how Americans pronounce the word average on Youglish.com.

 

Out of the first 10 videos, 100% of the people pronounced it as average, as two syllables. So I would recommend that you also pronounce average as two syllables - this is a much more natural pronunciation. Let’s take a closer look at the word average in slow motion.

 

The jaw opens and the lips pull back for the AA vowel. Then the bottom lip comes up to meet the top front teeth for the V sound. The lips push away from the teeth for the R sound, and the tongue pulls up and back. Then the lips pull back for the IH vowel, and the tongue comes forward. The tongue tip comes up for the J sound, and the lips push away from the teeth.

 

I hope this video helped you to pronounce these tricky words in American English! Thanks for watching, and let me know which words are difficult for you to pronounce - I might use them in my next video!