Posted by: patenttranslator | November 19, 2011

Zeitgeist Is Not Pronounced with the Same “Z” as the “Z” in Zebra


I like it when people who speak English or any other language use foreign words or even whole sentences to make a point. There probably was a time when native English speakers were able to use Latin quotes to demonstrate their considerable education and erudition, but I could count on the fingers of one hand incidences of such erudition that I was personally able to experience here since I came to America in 1982. One finger would still be left over.

I find it puzzling, however, how often talking heads on American TV use two or three (some as many as four) foreign words or expressions in their English to demonstrate the incredible range of their knowledge of foreign languages and cultures and stuff.

By my count, the most popular foreign word on American talk shows in the last three decades has been the German word Zeitgeist.

I remember that I was a bit shocked when I heard George Will, the highly influential conservative Washington Post columnist, pronounce it incorrectly (with a “z” as the “z” in zebra) in mid eighties. Decades later, George Will still likes to say Zeitgeist whenever a somewhat suitable occasion arises and he still has no clue how this word is pronounced in German. As far as I can tell, this word is perceived as a foreign word in English and it is hard to tell how many native English speakers understand what this word means.

When I hear on German or French TV an educated German or French person mispronounce English words which they use in their native language, and I don’t mean English words that already became a part of the German or French language, again to demonstrate their incredible breadth of knowledge of foreign languages and cultures and stuff, it immediately destroys my first impression of their cultured Hochdeutsch German or beautiful French accent, and I start seeing them for what they probably are – namely total morons.

I suspect there are many German and French native speakers who will have a similar reaction because they actually know how English words are pronounced.

But the same principle is not applied to native English speakers. In America, it does not matter at all how much you butcher your pronunciation of foreign words because nobody knows how these words should be pronounced anyway. What matters is that you know half a dozen such words or expressions and throw them around as much as possible to demonstrate your incredible knowledge of foreign languages and cultures and stuff.

The second most popular foreign expression that is used in American English, again, based on my informal, personal statistics, is the ubiquitous sentence “Cherchez la femme!“, which is always pronounced as “shershay la fem” (“femme” pronounced as the “fem” in feminism). Now that Bill Clinton has been out of office for almost a decade, it is mostly so called liberal talking heads on American TV who pronounce “femme” as “fem” when discussing allegation of sexual harassment, adultery and other minor peccadillos of the current crop of a highly entertaining freak show of Republican presidential candidates.

Personally, I would cut some slack to speakers of languages such as Chinese or Japanese which are based on a completely different standard for pronunciation. Because Japanese has only 5 vowels and 14 consonants, it is much more difficult for Japanese speakers to learn how to pronounce sounds that don’t exist in their language. The different variants of the “mixed vowel” in English seem to cover a wider range of sounds than all the vowels in the Japanese language combined.

But Japanese people mostly use foreign words in their Japanese only when these words have already become a part of the Japanese language, which means that the pronunciation of these words has been modified to make it possible for native Japanese speakers to pronounce them, for example as in アルバイト (arubaito from German “Arbeit”, which means part-time work in Japanese), or セクハラ (sekuhara from the English words for “sexual harassment”), which is a particularly good example of how Japanese assimilates foreign words called 外来語 (gairaigo) in Japanese.

But a native English speaker does not need to have an operation performed on his or her (usually his) vocal cords to be able to pronounce “Zeitgeist” or “femme” correctly. All he needs to do is pay some attention and make some effort to learn a few words in a relatively simple foreign language, including the correct pronunciation. With a few exceptions, most of the sounds that exist in German exist also in English, and to a lesser degree, this is true also about French.

My final thought on this subject in this post is really depressing because it is probably true. It may be fashionable to be able to throw around a couple of French or German words when you are a talking head on a  talk show on American teevee. But if you dare to pronounce foreign words correctly, you could be perceived as somebody who really knows something about those deviant foreign cultures, possibly because you like learning about things like foreign languages and cultures and stuff, which would be simply un-American.


  1. […] Zeitgeist Is Not Pronounced with the Same “Z” as the “Z” in Zebra ( […]


  2. They would have to be mad like me.


  3. No. Zeitgeist entered the English language as a loanword at least 150 years ago. In formal writing it is not formatted in italics which means that it is accepted as a word in English, not a foreign word. It has developed it’s own English pronunciation and to use the German pronunciation when speaking English would be incorrect.


  4. Right.

    Similarly, to pronounce “Cherchez la femme” the way French people pronounce it would be incorrect as well because knowing anything about foreign languages is simply un-American.


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