Why Can’t Germans Say Squirrel?

Why Can’t Germans Say Squirrel? Linguists Point To Word’s Syllable Structure (VIDEO).

Carlos Gussenhoven, a phonologist — a linguist who studies the sounds used in different languages — at Radboud University in the Netherlands, believes the challenge lies in squirrel’s syllable structure.

Linguists break words into clusters — groups of consonants that have no intervening vowels. In German, “-rl” is an end cluster, Gussenhoven explained. It comes at the end of a syllable, as in the common German name Karl, rather than forming a syllable of its own. Thus German speakers try to translate the two-syllable English word “squirrel” into the monosyllabic German sound “skwörl ” in the same way that “squirm” becomes “skwörm.

But that doesn’t sound quite right, and Germans know it. “Dissatisfied with this result, the German speaker tries to produce a real ‘R,’ of the sort you get in (Rock ‘n) Roll, in the end cluster, wreaking havoc,” Gussenhoven told Life’s Little Mysteries.”

Here is a little proof:

And from an excerpt of Top Gear:

and the best test yet:

However, as the article notes this might not just be confined to Germans as people from all over the world seem to have this problem, as Youtube seems to point out:”No wonder it’s so difficult for Germans to nail the English name. Gussenhoven said “squirrel” is a shibboleth, a word notorious for the way its pronunciation identifies its speaker as a foreigner.”

So what is the key to pronouncing it? Apparently, it is simple, at least for you linguist-types, says Carlos Gustovson:

“The solution is to say skwö first and then Roll. If the speaker then also manages to avoid saying (1) sh for [s] and (2) [v] for [w], and uses the vowel in the first syllable of getan  [German for ‘done’]  instead of (3)ö in the first syllable and instead of (4) o in the second syllable, and (5) makes the r like the English r and (6) the l like the ‘dark’ l of English, the result will be quite acceptable…”

Um, yeah. Okay then. The finer points like this of language are beyond me. I find them interesting, but at a certain point I zone out because it just doesn’t make sense to my brain anymore unfortunately. Maybe once I master German, okay – even basically I will be able to understand that explanation better.

Having just discovered this, I find it is both interesting and funny. I also now cannot wait to try it out on some of my students. I am sure I sound equally silly when I attempt to pronounce the German ‘r’, because I had painfully trained my brain years ago to pronounce the non-English ‘r’ as they do in Spanish, rolling the crap out of it. Unfortunately, in German the ‘r’ is supposed to be pronounced much harder and less ‘roll-y’.

You know, this:

not this:

I’ll get there, just like with practice and coaching the Germans will be able to say squirrel eventually.

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