Germans can’t say “squirrel”

November 25, 2013 • 4:55 am

Here’s a funny video of ten Germans trying to say the world “squirrel.” All fail miserably, though some, like the guy in the straw hat, do better than others.

I’m not clear, even though I can speak German reasonably well, what about  makes this word so for native speakers.

BTW, the German word for squirrel is “Eichhörnchen.” I’m not sure how one would parse this, as the German for “oak” is “Eiche,” and I think “hörnchen” means “little horned one.” Perhaps a German reader can tell me if this translates into “little horned creature that lives in oaks.”

An equally funny video could be made of French people trying to say the word “owl.” When I worked in France, my colleagues tried to flummox me by making me say the French tongue twister for “locksmith store” (“serrurerie,” and try to roll those “r”s!). But I’d get back at them by asking them to say the simple word “owl.”  All sorts of hilarity ensued as the French twisted their faces into contorted positions trying to say the word. They just couldn’t do it. It always came out in a drawn-out, two-syllable word that sounded like “Ahhhhh-wohllllll”.

Anyway, Germans essay “squirrel”:

Finally, Robyn Schneider has a nice YouTube video (which I can’t embed) giving ten funny or intriguing German words that have no English equivalent. You’ll know at least two of them. My favorite is “Backpfeifengesicht,” which is the first word given in the video. I know many people who have such a feature.

110 thoughts on “Germans can’t say “squirrel”

  1. They don’t do too badly really.

    The proper (i.e. British) pronunciation of ‘squirrel’ does have two syllables. I think Americans often pronounce it with one syllable, to more or less rhyme with ‘girl’, which to British ears just sounds like you’ve been drinking.

    Some Spanish friends challenged me to say “Por la carretera de Reus a Tarragona corre un carro cargado de algarrobas.” I lost.

    1. More difficult-to-pronounce than “squirrel” for Germans: rural, ferrule

      But Germans do ok pronouncing plural, mural, and feral.

      Explain that.

    2. When you pronounce squirrel as “squirl”, you are using the same sound as in “bird”. the -r- sound is a sort of vowel, in fact: you can utter it continuously urrrrrrrr. This turns out to be a rather rare phoneme in the world’s languages; no wonder these fine people have trouble with it.

      The Czechs sensibly consider “r” as a vowel (in some cases – or all?), as in the name of the city Brno “Bur-no”.

      1. Don’t you know, Croatians roll their R’s and consider them to be vowels!!! As in “Hrvatska” (Croatia), or “Krk” (the name of an island).

  2. Some find it hard to say ‘v’s & ‘w’s in the right way though the sounds are in German. A chum used to say ‘uniwersity’. Classic wartime way to distinguish German spies was supposed to get them to recite the nursury rhyme ‘Wee Willy Winkie’. That & the hairy legs under their nuns habits!

          1. Stockings were strictly rationed in Britain in WWII, as both nylon and silk were strategic materials. There was a thriving black market in very expensive stockings.

            So yes, British, and, I daresay, other European women shaved their legs. They would then get a friend to paint a seam down the back of their legs with anything soluble to hand, such as gravy browning.

            For those with a little more cash to spare, fake tan had been around since the 1930s, and when the war started, some companies, such as Max Factor and Elizabeth Arden, started selling similar products as ‘liquid stockings’.

            1. “So yes, British, and, I daresay, other European women shaved their legs.”

              Although one can always find the isolated case, I don’t think it happened much on the Continent until about 20–25 years ago. Since then, women (and men) shaving in all kinds of places has become more common. It’s a fashion which some but not all follow, but there is not the intolerance which exists concerning unshaven women in the US.

    1. Some find it hard to say ‘v’s & ‘w’s in the right way though the sounds are in German.”

      The English w sound does not exist in German. This is a typical example of over-correction: Ve know it’s wrong to ask ver and vich vay Mr Vilson vent, so some Germans over-correct by replacing all English V sounds with English W sounds, even when the English V sound is correct. (German W is of course pronounced like English V. German V is pronounced like English F and German or English PH.)

      Thus, “squirrel” contains the English W sound. It also has it after SK, when it is usually initial in English. Also, there is a schwa sound in the second syllable. This exists in German as well (like in the second syllable of the Chancellor’s last name), but many German speakers might not be aware that it exists in English. Also, there is the confusion between American and British, one syllable or two etc.

      1. Thank you for this explanation. I recall a German tour guide talking about a “willage in the walley”, and I thought of ALL the English sounds Germans might have trouble with, surely v wasn’t one of them. I have been puzzled by this off and on for years.

      2. Initial ‘sk’ words in English generally come as loans from Old Norse – skip, skull, skill, scab etc. In Old English the cognates would have had ‘sh’ – ship, sheep, shape, & so on.

        Thanks for correcting me regarding ‘w’ in German. I really knew that! Honest guv!

      3. My German friends struggle with the “Ph” in my name. So do most non English speakers. I can understand why it could be confusing.

      1. French people also have trouble with ‘th’. Even my dear French wife after many years in England still has trouble with ‘thistle’.

        1. Indeed.

          We also have a hard time with the English “H”. I think it has (!) something to do with the way it is taught in France… it is called the “H aspiré” (inspired H) when it should be called the “H expiré” (expired H) and it has confused me for years…
          You can see it when French people try to pronounce it and they try to inspire while saying it which is both hard to do and wrong 😉

              1. I was thinking about the way French people drop the H before I got to this comment. Also interesting is the way some french speakers add an h at the beginning of words that start with vowels. Egg becomes hegg.

              2. My French Canadian friend says “t” for “th”. You should have seen my confusion when she was telling me about her tooth. She hates it if I say anything about her accent (and I only say good things because I think she has a nice accent) because she hates her accent. I find it especially cute when she says she is scared as, “I scare”, which she also writes in instant messages and emails. :). She always makes me proof her work messages when they are important. 🙂

      2. Definitely. The ‘guttural R’ sound is hard for English speakers to learn. It was easier for me to learn from knowing some Afrikaans which uses a similar sound.

  3. Most English speakers cannot pronounce sixth – they say /sɪkθ/ whereas it should be /sɪksθ/ – this REALLY bugs me!!!

      1. Maybe where he lives. Still, it’s pretty ridiculous to say “most English speakers,” when you’ve got groups as varied as Scots, Jamaicans, Australians, New Yorkers, Indians, Texans, etc…

    1. You must speak very slowly to make all those consonants sound. Well done! Does ‘bake beans’ annoy you too? How about ‘blind eight’? ‘Necks day delivery’?

        1. If you chastise someone for saying “duck tape”, you are actually the one making the mistake. The tape was invented to rain-proof ammunition box seams – it shed water like a duck’s feathers. “Duct tape” was thus the actual mispronunciation. In fact you should never use duck tape to seal your ducts, the alternating heat and cold in most attic spaces will cause the adhesive to fail in a year or less.

          1. Yeah but most people don’t *know* it should be ‘duck tape’, they have no idea of the origin of the term. Hence ‘duct tape’ is a far more likely / credible term. Therefore by saying ‘duck tape’ they are indeed being lazy or ignorant, and someone saying ‘duct tape’ has at least thought about it.

            This raises an interesting philosophical question, if you’re right (for the wrong reasons) are you right or wrong? 😉

            1. It is along the lines of octopi. Someone acts superior in the correction, hoping to make you feel foolish, then you hit them with the facts and BAM! their diabolical plan backfires!

  4. According to the German Wikipedia, the “Eich” stems from Indogermanic “aig”, which means “moving violently”, and “-orn” was a suffix in Old German. When the old word meanings became obscure, people made “horn” out of “orn” and identified “Eich” with the tree.

    Zus endez todays lesson. Makes more sense, actually, doesn’t it?

      1. I always thought “Eichhoernchen” arose because when the squirrel hangs off the trunk of the tree, looking around, it looks like the tree trunk has a little horn on it.

  5. Maybe someone could explain why it is so hard to lose a heavy accent if you learn a foreign language after age 20 or so. I’m guessing it has to do with atrophy of certain muscles in throat and face and tongue, but I don’t know. Maybe it has to do with nervous system??

    1. Part of the problem is that the range of noises people can articulate – which is continuous – must be partitioned into discrete phonemes – classes of sounds which all represent the same unit of meaning. As an example; the Irish sort of ‘r’ used in pirate-speak is not really the same sound as the more typical ‘r’, but both belong to the same class of sounds, and the difference between these two types of ‘r’-s is not used to distinguish between different words. This is reflected in how we write both of these sounds with the same symbol.

      The big problem is that the space of possible sounds splits into phonemes in different ways in different languages. One of the classic examples is how Asian languages such as Japanese and Chinese do not distinguish between our ‘l’ and ‘r’ sounds.

      The mapping of sounds to phonemes seems to be difficult to change past early childhood (4-6 years). This does make a bit of sense – the phoneme mapping is more fundamental than, for instance vocabulary, because it is necessary to understand that ‘see’ and ‘she’ are different words, while ‘warrior’ and ‘Irish:warrior’ are the same word.

      This is again a problem in Japanese, which has no native ‘see’ sound, such that their loanword ‘assassin’ is rendered ‘asashin’, and native Japanese speakers have trouble telling ‘fruit’ and ‘flute’ apart (as loanwords, these are distinguished by a trailing ‘s’).

      Exactly -why- the mapping of sounds to phonemes is so rigid in adulthood while acquiring new vocabulary is rather straightforward, is an open question.

      1. Thank you. That helps. My former wife grew up in Germany, but spoke a lot of English at home to her American mother. She was as fluent as anyone can possibly be in two languages. One thing I noticed: when we went to Germany, it took her about a day to reactivate her German phonemes, whereas it took me, a native American, about three or four days, at which point I began thinking in German. It seems as if, there’s some rewiring going on in the brain. There are people who use three or four languages very well every day, so we know what humans are capable of.

  6. According to etymologists, Eichhörnchen has nothing to do with an oak or a horn. In old German, the word would have been something like ‘acvern’ or ‘ekerken’. This is perhaps echoed in the Swedish work ekorre or even the French ecreuil. The Wikipedia sez that the first part goes back to an Indogermanic root (aig) meaning ‘move about swiftly’. Later, the common form became Eichorn (without the double h for ‘horn), which you can still find in surnames. So there was an assimilation to resemble similar sounding words, Eiche and Horn, because it was something that apparently made sense and fitted with the animal. The diminutive Eichhörnchen only arose in the last 200 years, it is only mentioned in Grimm’s Dictionary very briefly with a reference to ‘Göthe’.

    Interestingly, the other name for this animal is Eichkatze (oak-cat), which possibly evolved after the oak had made its way into the ‘Eichorn’. Eichkatze (pronounced Oachkatzl) is still the prevalent term in Bavarian, where the ultimate test for a foreigner is whether they can say “Oachkatzlschwoaf”

    1. Another bit of possible folk etymology: The German name for “wolverine” is “Vielfraß”. This roughly translates as “glutton” and has led some to believe that this animal eats a lot. Actually, it comes from Swedish “fjällfräs” which means “mountain cat”. (In modern Swedish, it is “järv” and “cat” is “katt”.) However, its name in other languages does reflect its appetite, but these might have been influenced by the German folk etymology.

      By the way, “Falter” (Lepidoptera) doesn’t come from “falten” (to fold) but rather from “flattern” (cognate to English “flitter”).

    1. To summarise – some red squirrels have been found to have antibodies to the disease that grey squirrels have hitherto been spreading – so it seems that some reds now have resistance, and their population could recover.

      (OT but I think the same may happen to humans and things like Aids.)

  7. As a German I, too, do find it awkward to say ‘squirrel’. The other way round I have found that non-native speakers find it hard to say “Streichholz” (a match); I can imagine that it indeed might be tough to pronounce an H after the CH if you’re not accustomed to it.

    As for the name itself: I don’t have a clue about its etymology but we use the word “Hörnchen” in a wider sense, too. “Hörnchen” is our word for the family Sciuridae and thus we have other kinds of “Hörnchen” like “Streifenhörnchen” (eq. chipmunks, genus “Tamias”).

    1. Weird – I speak the language most closely related to German, Dutch. I don’t have any problem with pronouncing either “squirrel” or “Streichholz”.
      But besides the Dutch (and then only those living north of the big rivers) no European can pronounce words like Scheveningen, schaar, scherp correctly. Neither can any other native English or French speaker in the rest of the world.

  8. I would think Chinese speakers would have an even worse time with “squirrel”, what with the consonant clusters and the r and l sounds!

  9. Many millions of years ago, on Candid Camera, an interviewer asked people who lived in the American South to pronounce the words “oil” and “all”.

    They sounded identical. L

      1. I recall a funny bit on NPR some years back in which a journalist had spliced together clips of Bob Dole repeatedly mangling the word “presidency”. Apparently he couldn’t pronounce the name of the office he was running for.

      2. Carter had graduate training in reactor technology and nuclear physics and worked for Rickover in the nuclear sub program and he still pronounced it “nucular”.

  10. Jerry, if you think that “Hörnchen” means “little horned one” then you either can *not* speak German “reasonably well”, or you see religious conspiracies everywhere (or possibly both). Kidding.

    Hörnchen is cacographically derived from “Eichhörnchen” which itself comes from the Indogerman root “aig” (approximately: “swiftly moving”) plus (I guess) a diminuative. Through the ages, that transformed into “eichorn” (sic!) and then “Eichhörnchen” (with added 2nd h). As the indogerman root disappeared into oblivion, a new meaning “Eichhörnchen” was assigned to the word, and “Hörnchen” became the German name for this whole family of rodents.

    And now, would you please post a video of Americans, saying “Eichhörnchen”?

    1. Well, this American can say it fine, I assure you. I can do the gutteral “ch” in both places, and I of course know that o with an umlaut is pronounced in a way similar to “er” in English.

      1. These are both “front CH sounds” because they follow front vowels, not back vowels. So, they are not pronounced like the CH in Bach. The front-CH sound does exist in English; it’s the first sound in the American pronunciation of “Houston”. Exactly.

        Yes, ö is vaguely like the “e” in an unstressed “er”. But only vaguely. Worse are Americans walking around saying “Gerthe ist schern” and thinking they are speaking without an accent.

      2. I am very good with German (I have a whole story about how I infiltrated a group of Germans who thought I was German). I suck now because I’ve forgotten most vocabulary. This is my reward for having dyscalculia. 🙂

        However, squirrel is a native word. Maybe English speakers don’t say it correctly either.

          1. What! The italian “scoiattolo” (skoy-AHT-taw-law)has the same etimology (just checked): from Latin “scurius”, “scuriatulus” (dim.).

            Funny that such different-sounding words have the same origin (écureuil, squirrel, scoiattolo).

            1. Were you sci curious about the sciurius or only curious about the scurius (how vulgar)? 😀

              OMG I felt like I was channelling Ant when I wrote that!

          2. … and while we’re on about hard-to-pronounce words, how the hell does a non-Frenchman pronounce that?

            (I’m reminded of Inspector Clouseau (Peter Sellers)’s incredible pronunciation of ‘swimming pool’…)

        1. Concise OED gives the etymology as:
          Middle English, from Anglo-French esquirel, Old French esquireul, from Romanic (inferred) scuriolus, diminutive of Latin from Greek skiouros, from ‘skia’ shade + ‘oura’ tail.

  11. Being geopolitical of mind, time for me to reveal some unlikely things about German Americans.

    Founding fathers missed by one vote making German the official language!

    There were (are) more German immigrants to the US than English and Irish, but they have often felt the need to conceal their language and identity.

    A German American told me that he was a boy soldier for Hitler, and that the Nazi salute had an unexpected use. If you salute an approaching American bomber, and it releases its bombs where you are pointing, then you will be killed. Another told me that he had been to London many times, only to bomb it! I talked of my bombed childhood home in London and offered to give him the bill. (Brits and German-Americans get along really well)

    German Americans brought great gifts to the USA; particularly their flare for engineering and technology, and their persistence in developing complex technological solutions. I think that the Mars ‘Curiosity’ may be owed to German Americans. Extraordinary achievement!

    I hope for the continued revival of German-American clubs in the US, drawing upon their love of bands, beer and shared tables for outdoor dining. And thank you for the greatest gift of all, – German music. The three ‘B’s. Beethoven Born in Bonne. Respect for the German American clubs…

    Finally an English joke about Germans.
    ‘They are a cruel people; their operas last for five hours and they have no word for ‘fluffy’!

    That greatest of German comedians, Henning Wehn, says that after years of effort to establish his career as a German comedian, he took his biography to his publisher who asked what the title of his biography would be. Henning proposed ‘My Struggle’, but his publisher said that the title had been used before. And it had been done better!
    (‘Mein Kampf’ of course)

      1. That’s as may be. But the amendments to Urban Myths often go on to become new Urban Myths. See Wikipedia passim. The fact remains that some had plans to make German the official language. Recently, there were German moves to make German the second language of the European Union, replacing French.

        At the time of the entry of many new countries to the European Union, French President Chirac summoned various Foreign Ministers to Paris to discuss how they will begin teaching French as the second language in the Baltic and other Eastern European States. The meeting reportedly broke-up with laughter.

    1. Hah, fascinating, didn’t know that one.

      Concerning creatures with horns like Jackalopes wikipedia says that a possible origin of the myth may be these creepy virus infections which produce hornlike tumors. Very creepy.

  12. OED Online –
    “The pronunciation /ˈskwɪrəl/ is not recognized by the earlier lexicographers of the 19th cent., who vary between /ˈskwɛrəl/ and /ˈskwʌrəl/ ”

    And the name comes from its tail –
    ” < Anglo-Norman esquirel, Old French esquireul, escureul, -ol, etc. (modern French écureuil), = Provençal escurols, Spanish esquirol, medieval Latin (e)scurellus, scurellius, scuriolus, diminutives from popular Latin *scūrius, for Latin sciūrus, < Greek σκίουρος, apparently < σκιά shade + οὐρά tail"

    1. I thought squirrel was a native word all this time. I know for sure Raccoon is; I think it means “little bear”.

  13. Eichhörn sounds like acorn to me, but what do I know. so maybe “little acorn”

    Also, we southerners say Skwerrl, but the yankees say square-rule.

    I guess we’re just nuts…

  14. They’re also called Eichkätzchen (diminutive of Katze) apparently.

    Germans also have difficulties with words like “throat” and “clothes”.

    I’m a native English speaker but live in Germany. It took me about 5 years to say the name of the city Würzburg without people instantly cracking up. I also avoid saying anything about Friedrichstrasse whenever possible!

  15. It seems to me that this phenomenon whereby one loses the ability to distinguish phonemes not found in one’s native language past early childhood is a good example of our lack of free will. As the hearer’s brain changes based on auditory input and output, he eventually no longer has the free will to hear or speak in certain ways.

  16. ‘Zwetschgendatschi’ is another word, which is a tongue twister even for most Germans. A Zwetschgendatschi is some sort of plumcake and a Bavarian speciality – only available in fall, when the plums are ripening.

  17. I love language and pronunciation threads.

    If anyone wants to have some fun, go to Youtube or Vimeo and find some videos with dialog in Georgian. Listen for the odd popping sounds that occur now and then. The phonology folks (or is that pholx?) still aren’t in agreement on just what these are, and different English linguistic sources describe them differently.

    And as for consonant clusters! Georgian may win hands down with გვფრცქვნი gvprckvni (“You peel us” meaning “you are ripping us off”)

  18. I thought squirrel in German was

    Nussenmunchenbeast. Anyway, I think it would be more interesting to hear them try to say ‘thunder’ and ‘flash’

  19. It always breaks my heart when I hear a German 4-year old pronounce their R perfectly, because I know I’ll never be able to do it, even if I practice for a million years.

    When I was a teenager I did lawn work for a lady who was two when she came over from Germany. She spoke Midwest English perfectly. However, her sister, who was seven when they arrived in the U.S., still had a very noticeable accent.

    1. As far as I have been able to figure out, mostly from Steven Pinker and a variety of anecdotes, the cutoff is at 4-6 years; when learning a new language, older children will never get rid of an accent noticeable to native speakers, younger children will acquire the language perfectly.

      This phenomenon is particularly noticeable, as in your example with, siblings of different ages moving to a new country – thanks for sharing. There is probably a lot more details to this story, but I haven’t been able to wrap my head around it.

  20. When my older daughter was little, she pronounced it (I’ll attempt this phonetically) “skwoo-loo”. Which we all found completely adorable.

    And then her little sister trumped her, pronouncing it (I’m not kidding, this is really how she said it) “queer”. We all tried never to laugh when she said it.

    But her pronunciation of “skunk” was even ruder; I won’t share that here.

  21. In US English there is one less phoneme than in English English. The ‘mercans pronounce ‘box’ and ‘barks’ identically.

      1. I am talking about pronounciation. US: box and barks are pronounced ‘bux’ UK: box is pronounced ‘boks’ and barks is pronounced to rhyme with ‘sharks’.

    1. “Dawn” and “Don” are the same pronunciation in Canada/US. My mother tells me I my pronunciation is wrong all the time (she’s from NZ). 🙂

  22. Apparently the British can’t pronounce squirrel correctly either = at least, all of my American friends say that I can’t.

    I also once ordered chocolate swirl ice cream and the shop assistant thought I had asked for chocolate sqirrel ice cream. (I was a bit irritated by this and asked her whether she really believed I wanted chocolate squirrel ice cream. In any case, the only two flavours were vanilla and chocolate swirl so she could have taken an educated guess at what I had said!)

  23. Hey – I have just stumbled on this site and what a delight it is. Perhaps because of my Scottish upbringing (and a few years spent in Bavaria) I don’t *think* I have any trouble pronouncing these shibboleths but I need to try the out on my German lodger to be sure. I foresee and evening spent drinking whisky and saying odd words with no sentence structure. I was particularly pleased by the idea of “r” as a sort of vowel. That makes sense to me, so I spent a few minutes saying “Brno” just for fun. How we laughed.

    Bring it on, fellows, bring it on. 🙂

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