Wednesday 17 June 2009

macaronic mondegreens

Paul Tench wrote, in a posting to a listserv I belong to,
I took my mother to try a new Italian delicatessen round the corner from where we live, but she was not feeling very adventurous and opted for a cup of tea, whereas I went for a latte. The Italian waiter got my order: “A cuppa tea ’n’ a latte please”.

Imagine my mother’s surprise when she received a cappucino! (I got my latte!) A neat case of an Italian speaker interpreting colloquial English with “Italian ears”, and probably thinking “These Brits just can’t get their Italian pronunciation right!”

(Just in case anyone’s not sure, the Italian pronunciation of cappuccino is kapputˈtʃiːno. So the phonetic distance from ˌkʌpəˈtiːnə, in noise, is not great.)

This led another subscriber, Jamie Kirchner, to comment
After a pronunciation lesson on aspiration of voiceless consonants, a
Brazilian student of mine suddenly realized why he always got the wrong beer in noisy nightclubs. He would order Killian’s and get Guinness, not just once, but all the time. Apparently amidst all the din, American waitresses and bartenders thought his unaspirated [k] was [g] and would consistently bring him the wrong thing.

And Billy Clark says that when he told his daughter “do your revision” she took this to be “do Eurovision”.

Conversely to Paul’s experience, I remember the possibly apocryphal Londoner many years ago who, going with his girlfriend to a coffee bar and hearing that there was a trendy new drink called cappuccino, ordered two cups o’ chino, one for him and one for her.


  1. At least Mr Tench got his dairy coffee rather than a glass of plain milk, which might well have happened in Italy, though less so in an Italian delicatessen in the English-speaking world.

  2. My (Japanese) wife had the opposite thing in the UK back before the days of Starbucks (those were the days...)

    "cappuccino please"
    "Cuppa tea. Okay love"
    "Ah, no. Cappuccino"
    "Cuppa tea?"

  3. On two separate occasions, one a year after the other, I visited the German town of Bingen and ordered, at the local Pizza Hut, a Spezie (basically a mixture of cola and orange soda). On both occasions, I got a large beer. I don't recall the brand of beer, so till this day, I have no idea what caused the confusion.

  4. I can remember one occasion in which a drink that I named in conversation was mistaken for a completely different drink for phonetic reasons. I mentioned solo, a brand of lemon soft drink, but it was mistaken for cider.

    The phonetic context is that I am an Australian who does not have the holy/wholly merger, and was talking to an Australian who does have that merger. Consequently my "o" in "solo" is not coloured by the following "l", and is therefore relatively fronted in comparison to an "o" that is so coloured.

    (BTW, for technical reasons I have to jump through hoops in order to post a comment here.)

  5. (Pizza) Hut being pronounced [hu:t] in Germany, as far as I know, ie Hut = English 'hat', which smoothly fits the logo.

  6. @Kilian: How did you pronounce Spezi (spelled without e, btw)?


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