If someone pronounces "pizza" as /piːzə/ instead of /pitsə/, we'd surely raise an eyebrow at them. But few people (that I know personally) mind when we pronounce "tagliatelle" with a hard G (I wasn't even aware that this was 'incorrect' until recently.)

So the question is: are there consistent and observable processes that happen when we borrow loanwords into another language? Or is the process of change seemingly arbitrary? I imagine there must be some cultural differences involved, seeing as Americans often use a more native pronunciation of words like "fillet" /fɪleɪ/ whereas Brits say /fɪlɪt/. But other than that, I don't know why it is we keep some features of the native pronunciation (like the /ts/ in pizza) and lose others.

  • 2
    Foreign sounds are more likely to be kept if they're easy for English speakers pronounce and hear, and more likely to be lost if they're hard to pronounce or hear. Aside from that, a major factor is ignorance of foreign language spelling conventions (Polish names and words are particularly prone to being mangled). The only foreign languages that most English speakers have some understanding of how to pronounce based on the spelling are French and Spanish. And even this understanding is often incomplete, causing alternative pronunciations to arise (such as /kuː də grɑː/ for "coup de grace"). Commented Jul 11, 2016 at 22:29
  • But a lot also depends on people's knowledge of foreign spelling. I've heard people pronounce "chorizo" and "meze" with /ts/ for the 'z' (presumably because 'pizza' and 'piazza' have that; and maybe 'zeitgeist' figures there as well, though some people pronounse that with /z/ at the start). The /g/ in 'tagliatelli' I suspect is that most people just don't know that 'gl' is /lj/ in Italian, even if they know that 'lasagne' has /nj/ in it.
    – Colin Fine
    Commented Jul 13, 2016 at 17:03
  • Wait, it's chorizo not supposed to have a ts in it? That's how I always pronounce it
    – Lou
    Commented Jul 13, 2016 at 18:55
  • The "z" in Spanish is pronounced /ɵ/ in Spain, and /s/ in Latin America. The closest sound in Spanish to an English /z/ is the "s" in desde. Commented Jul 17, 2016 at 18:18

2 Answers 2


Well, sure, there are consistent and observable processes in borrowing, and it is mostly a complicated and obvious matter. What does a borrower know about the original pronunciation of a word? He can't carry over into his own pronunciation features he doesn't even know about. Has he ever heard the original pronunciation? Does the word have an alphabetic spelling, and has the borrower seen it? Does he know anything about the original language (perhaps he's bilingual). Does he care whether his own pronunciation resembles the original in any way?

The only specifically linguistic ideas that seem relevant are those based on Roman Jakobson's theory of implicational universals presented in Child Language, Aphasia, and Phonological Universals. A naive English speaker hearing the German pronunciation of "Bach", [bax], may be expected to pronounce it as [bak], because changing [x] to [k] is a natural way of adapting the pronunciation to English, since English does have /k/ but does not have /x/ in its phoneme system.

  • English does have /x/ in its phoneme system, but it's a marginal segment, and some speakers use it more frequently than others. Commented Jul 20, 2017 at 2:01

There are two reasons, I think, why English speakers respect the Italian pronunciation of pizza(1) but mangle that of tagliatelle.

First, as it has been mentioned, all the phonemes, and combinations of phonemes, in pizza exist in English. But the phoneme that Italian graphs as "gl" (/ʎ/) doesn't exist in English, or exists as a mere alophone of /l/, as in some pronunciatioms of "million".

But this, by itself, shouldn't have precluded a closer aproximation of the Italian pronounce of tagliatelle, such as pronouncing the "gl" as /l/ or /j/.

So, second, there are words that are borrowed in an oral context, and words that are borrowed in a literary context. The former tend to emulate the pronounce of the word in its original language, as close as the phonetic system of the borrowing language permits. The later tend to be pronunciated as required by the ortographic rules of the borrowing language. It seems to me that pizza has been imported into English from its spoken form, while tagliatelle has been imported in its written form.

(1) Mostly; the Italian pronunciation of pizza, if I am not mistaken, is /'pit.sa/ rather than /'pit.sə/.

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