English is a mixture of (Old) French, Latin, Greek and Anglo-Saxon. Many words still retain some remnants of their original pronunciation, which makes it hard (for learners of English) to guess the correct pronunciation just by looking at their spelling. In this article, we shall explore the most common words of this kind.
Note: This article is based on my detailed book about pronunciation mistakes in English (PDF version).
beige /beɪʒ/ – the name of this colour is of French origin and inherits its French pronunciation.
heir /ɛə/ (UK), /ɛr/ (US) – a person who inherits something from someone else. It comes from Old French and so the “h” remains silent; it sounds exactly the same as “air” and “ere” (meaning “before long”).
lingerie / ˈlænʒəri/ (UK), /ˌlɑːn(d)ʒəˈreɪ/ or /ˈlɑn(d)ʒəri/ (US) – in British English, pronunciation of this word remains close to the original French one; there are several other options in American English.
column /ˈkɒləm/ (UK), /ˈkɑːləm/ (US) – whether it is a column of text or a column in architecture, the pronunciation still retains some influence of its French origin. It is not /ʌ/ as in “colour” /ˈkʌlə(r)/, and there is also no /juː/ as in “volume” /ˈvɒljuːm / (UK), /ˈvɑːljuːm/ (US).
tapestry /ˈtæpəstri/ – although a rolled up tapestry resembles a tape, its pronunciation does not.
papyrus /pəˈpaɪrəs/ – the word comes from Latin, but the pronunciation is now completely an English one.
coup (d’état) /kuː (deɪˈtɑː)/ – a coup (or a coup d’état) is a sudden, illegal and often violent change of government. As is apparent both from its written and spoken form, it comes from French.
accessory /əkˈsɛsəri/ – there is a common mispronunciation even among native speakers when it is pronounced with /əˈsɛ-/, without /k/. However, the /k/ is there even in the original French word, and there is no reason not to say it also in English.
suite /swiːt/ – meaning a set of rooms (in a hotel), a set of matching pieces of furniture, a certain type of musical composition, or a set of related computer programs, this word is pronounced exactly the same as “sweet”.
lineage /ˈlɪniɪdʒ/ – the line of descendants from an ancestor. It comes from Old French “linage”, which originally comes from Latin “linea” (line). While the pronunciation of “i” in “line” had changed in English over time, the one in “lineage” had not.
hiatus /haɪˈeɪtəs/ – it would be hard to get the pronunciation of this word which means “a pause in activity when nothing happens” right just by guessing.
Abelian /əˈbiliən/ or /əˈbiljən/ – just another word for “commutative” in mathematics, named in honour of Niels Henrik Abel /nils ˈhɛnrɪk ˈɑbəl/, not after Abel /ˈeɪbəl/, the second son of Adam and Eve.
algae in the (US) usually /ˈældʒiː/, in the (UK) usually /ˈælɡiː/ – very simple plants growing in water. Notice the /iː/ at pay attention especially to the British pronunciation.
angina (pectoris) /ænˈdʒaɪnə (ˈpektərɪs)/ – severe pain in the chest caused by partial blockage of arteries.
covet /ˈkʌvət/ – a verb meaning “to want something very much”. It has nothing to do with a cove (/kəʊv/ (UK), /koʊv/ (US)) which means “a small bay”.
chic /ʃiːk/ – what is chic is fashionable or elegant. The word is borrowed from French and retains the original pronunciation.
crescent /ˈkrɛsnt/ or /ˈkrɛznt/ – a figure looking as the first or the third quarter moon: ☽. It is also used as a symbol of Islam.
crescendo /krəˈʃɛndəʊ/ (UK), /krəˈʃɛndoʊ/ (US) – although both “crescent” and “crescendo” originate in Latin “crescere” (to grow), the latter one was borrowed to the English musical terminology from Italian and means “increasing in loudness”. Its pronunciation is very close to the Italian one.
gizmo /ˈɡɪzməʊ/ (UK), /ˈɡɪzmoʊ/ (US) – a nonsensical placeholder name for a device which one doesn’t know the proper term for. Don’t pronounce it with /dʒ/ at the beginning! Otherwise you could get a few funny looks as people would understand it as “jizm of” (“jizm” is a slang word for semen).
lozenge /ˈlɒzɪndʒ/ (UK), /ˈlɑːzɪndʒ/ (US) – a diamond-like figure: ◊. The last “e” is silent and there is no /oʊ/ in it.