By José Geraldo Gouvea

englishWhat are the hardest English words for Brazilians to pronounce? Well, the answer could be funny. For one think that the most hellish English word of all is “fifth“. All “th” words are problematic for a Portuguese speaker, because neither [ɵ] nor [ð] exist in our language (the first is usually reduced to either [s] or [f] depending on context and the second is usually changed to [d]). However, “fifth” is particulary difficult because it has “th” following an “f”. I never met any Genesis fan who could say “Firth of Fifth” passably (me included).

Added paragraph: A friend of mine suggested “world” (which I had impossibly forgotten), and it brought up a series of other words that are as hellish as “fifth”. “World” is difficult (no  Brazil will ever pronounce it correctly, period) because it had a sequence of three consonants (Brazilians are especially cumbersome to pronounce these) and because “rl” appears (in the Brazilian ear, both of these English consonants sound too close to be easily told apart, so they tend to be merged into one). An average Portuguese speaker from Brazil will always struggle to tell apart “world” and “word”.

Added paragraph: For the same reason “world” is difficult, we have “gnarled”, “grizzly”, “pearl”, “myrtle” (sorry Moaning Myrtle), “turtle” and many more.

Another problematic series of words are these minimal pairs, which Portuguese speakers can’t properly pronounce because the vowels are not distinguishable in our language. Words ending in dental stops (t and d) are also difficult. Notice here we have material for lots of jokes:

a) sheep and ship

  1. b) sheet and shit
    c) heat, head and hit
    d) seat, seed and sit
    e) beat and bit
    f) feet, feed and fit
    g) leek, lick and leak (former Uriah Heep’s drummer Lee Kerslake was often pronounced like “Licker’s Lake” by a friend of mine)
    h) meat, meet, mead
    i) beaker and bicker

This sentence is a tongue-twister for most Portuguese speakers: “English is tough, but I thought I could it through thorough effort though”.

Minimal pairs distinguished by “sh” and “ch” fricatives are difficult for Portuguese speakers because the variation between these sounds is dialectal.

  1. a) ship and chip
    b) deep and Jeep
    c) dick, dig, tick

There can be more, but these are mine.

* José Geraldo Gouvea is a Brazilian fiction writer and former history teacher.