Most difficult words to pronounce in the English language

Pronunciation is one of the most difficult aspects of mastering the language for non-native English speakers. Once or twice you must have come across a word that you thought you were pronouncing right without realizing you're doing it wrong. Your speech recognition software or transcriptionist kept writing the wrong word down and you didn't understand why. Don't worry, you are not alone.

Most difficult words to pronounce in the English

You must have heard the story of the famous philosopher, Jacques Derrida. It was said that in one of his lectures he was talking about 'cows' and after a while, he came back and said he wasn't talking about cows or any other farm animals but was talking about 'chaos' a state of unrest. 

Apparently, the philosopher who is not a native speaker of the English language mispronounced the word 'chaos'. Even native speakers of a language sometimes confuse the pronunciation of words in the language. First, we will tell you the reason people are likely to mispronounce words in the language, and then we'll tell you some of the hard words to pronounce in English while spelling them for you and teaching you how to pronounce and use them in everyday speech. Watching out for these tricky words can help you when using speech recognition or sending out dictations to a transcriptionist. 

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Why does English have so many words that are hard to pronounce?

What is the most difficult English word to pronounce? Have you ever wondered why there are so many words that are difficult to pronounce in the English language and have a hard time when dictating or using speech recognition? There are three main reasons for this. They are:

  1. Loan words - Even though the word class of English is called indo-germanic, English in pronunciation does not look like it. This is only half true because even though English has a few high-brow word inventors, the nature of the language itself allows for it to have so many words that are difficult to pronounce. Up to 80% of the vocabulary of the English language is borrowed from other languages. English is one of the languages that borrows the most from other languages. The languages English borrowed from include Latin, French, Berman, Italian, Spanish, Dutch, Scandinavian, Japanese, Arabic, even Sanskrit, Russian, Hebrew, Persian, Afrikaans, Chinese, and Swahili. Some examples are anonymous borrowed from Greek, loot borrowed from Hindi, guru from Sanskrit, safari from Arabic, karaoke from Japanese, coffee from Turkish, cherub from Hebrew, albino from Portuguese, and landscape from Dutch. Having so many loan words like this naturally leads to the second problem.
  2. Orthography - In simple terms, orthography means the method of spelling in a language and how the spelling is used to pronounce words in the language. For example, in most languages, if you see a word with the letter 'a' you automatically assume the pronunciation is /eɪ/. This is due to the fact that a lot of words written in the Roman script use similar pronunciation schemes. English and most other words written in the Roman script use the pronunciation scheme set forth by the IPA (international phonetic association). A language like English uses the type of orthography known as opaque or deep orthography. Opaque orthography is the type of spelling skin where these words are not pronounced the way they are written. That is the rules of pronunciation change from word to word. And that is to be expected of a language like English that is borrowed from so many languages with so many different spelling rules while trying to stay true to the root word as much as possible. The opposite of opaque orthography is transparent or shallow orthography, where words are pronounced in the manner in which they are spelled.
  3. Your native orthography (pronunciation scheme) - This is primarily problematic for non-native and bilingual speakers of English. A lot of times, people assume the pronunciation of the words or letters in their own language will be the same in the English language. For example, English speakers do not accent or stress the r sound. They usually just stress the sound before it while the 'r' is generally silent. A lot of speakers of Spanish and Russian tend to emphasize the r sound. For example, a Spanish speaker may pronounce the word 'car' as KARR while regular speakers just pronounce it as CAH. Other sounds like TH, Z, and KH offer pronunciation difficulties to learners of the English language. The reason for this is also due to the fact that learning the pronunciation scheme of a language is a part of one's muscle memory and if it isn't easy to retrain muscles to learn new things.

Some of the most difficult words to say in English

Let's look at some of the most difficult words in English for non-native speakers, how to pronounce them, and their etymology or history.

  1. Phenomenon: This is a word for describing something that is hard to explain especially when it is spiritual or mysterious in nature. It is pronounced as fee-no-me-non. According to the MacMillan dictionary, it is derived from the Greek words 'phainein' meaning 'bring to light' and 'phainesthai' meaning 'to appear'. It is more directly derived from the Late Latin word 'phænomenon', which is also from the Greek 'phainomenon' meaning 'that which appears'.
  2. Surfeit: This word means an excessive amount of something. It also means to be greedy or to overindulge in something. It is similar to the words ’surplus’ and ‘suffice. It is pronounced as sur-fit. According to Etymonline, it is from the old French word, ‘sorfet' excess; arrogance'.
  3. Forte: First thing, this word has two different meanings and pronunciations. It is usually pronounced as either for-tay or fort. Meaning one is a musical instruction to play loudly. That is pronounced as 'for-tay'. It is borrowed from that French word, ‘fort’ meaning the strongest point of a sword blade. The second meaning is strength. That is pronounced as 'fort'. This one is assimilated from the Italian word ‘forte’ and Latin ‘fortis’; they both mean ‘strong’.
  4. Draught: This word has several meanings. It could mean a board game, a type of beer, a gust of wind, the act of pulling a load, an animal that pulls a heavy load, and the act of drawing. Luckily they all have the same pronunciation. It is pronounced as ‘draft’. It is derived from Old English dragan ‘to draw, drag’.
  5. Worcestershire: This is a type of sauce made of soy, vinegar, and garlic. It is pronounced wos-tas-sheh. People tend to mispronounce it as wor-cest-er-shi-er’. It is named after its place of origin in Britain.
  6. Onomatopoeia: This word that is so complicated to spell is used to mean words that sound the way they are spelled. Examples are creep and splash. It is pronounced on-o-mot-o-pee-a. It is from the Greek onomatopoiia which is the making of a name or word as an imitation of a sound associated with the thing being named.
  7. Synecdoche: This is a figure of speech that uses a part of a thing to mean the entire thing. It is pronounced as see-nek-do-kee. It is from the Greek word synekdokhe that means to put a whole for a part. It’s funny that the original word means the opposite of the modern usage.
  8. Camaraderie: This word means friendship, companions, equality, and brotherhood. It is pronounced as kah-muh-rah-duh-ree. It is derived from the French word ‘camarade’.
  9. Demagogue: This word means a person who can compel people to react to their speeches and support their usually bigoted opinions. It is pronounced dem-a-gog. It is borrowed from the Greek dēmagōgos that means 'Popular leader,’ or ‘leader of the mob,'
  10. Epitome: This word is usually the epitome of bad pronunciation. The word means a prominent example of a trait. It is pronounced as eh-pit-uh-mee. It is from the Latin, ‘epitome’ that means to cut short.
  11. Anemone: This means a marine animal that looks like a plant. A.k.a sea anemone it also means a type of flower that is similar to the buttercup. It is pronounced as ah-nem-oh-nee. It is from a Greek word that means ‘flower of the wind’. Anemone - from the buttercup family, this wild, colorful plant may look hard to say for any person unfamiliar with gardening. It's pronounced '.
  12. Colloquialism: This means a word that is used in everyday conversations and not official contexts. It is pronounced as kuh-loh-kwee-uh-liz-uhm.
  13. Hegemony: This means the dominance, authority, leadership, or influence of a dominant social group or country over another. It is pronounced as heh-jeh-muh-nee. It is created from the Greek word, hēgemonia meaning ‘leadership, and the authority of one city-state over a number of others’.
  14. Knell: This is the sound of a bell to indicate the death of someone important. It is pronounced as nel. Don't ever pronounce it as knel (with the k). It is from the old English word ‘cnyll’, a sound made by a bell when struck or rung slowly.
  15. Gnat: this is a small insect that bites people. It is pronounced as ‘nat’, similar to kneeling; the g sound is silent. It is from the proto-Germanic word, ‘gnattaz’.‘
  16. Mauve: Meaning, a light purple color. There is a video of a popular rapper pronouncing it wrongly. It is pronounced as mohv. The word has its roots in the old French word, mauve and Latin malva they mean mallow.
  17. Quinoa: It is a grain-like seed that people eat. It is one of the first foods they called superfoods because it has so many nutrients. It is pronounced as keen-wah. It is not pronounced kween-o-ah. It is from the Spanish spelling of the Inca word ‘kinua’.
  18. Quixote: This is the name of one of the most popular books and characters in literature. The name is ki-ho-te. The book is written by Miguel de Cervantes. Now let’s see what happens when it is an adjective.
  19. Quixotic: This is used to describe a person that is ostentatious, or unnecessarily grandiose. It is pronounced as kwik-sot-ik. As you can see the pronunciation is anglicized and it has an English version.
  20. Squirrel - this is obviously a rodent that climbs trees and likes acorns. The word is pronounced as skwir-rel. The problem with this word is that German speakers may find it difficult to pronounce the 'rl' sound. They have a tendency to say 'skwörl. It is borrowed from the old french escurueil meaning ‘squirrel; squirrel fur’.
  21. Alzheimer's: This is a disease that affects the brain as one grows older. This makes a lot of even English speakers call it all-zai-mers or some incorrectly pronounced it as old-timer's disease. It is pronounced alt-zai-muhz. It is named after a Berman neurologist, dr. Alois Alzheimer.
  22. Penguin: These are a breed of flightless birds that live in the south pole. They swim and hunt for fish. The name of these cute birds is one of the hardest words to pronounce for speakers. They are pronounced as peng-win. We don't know for sure where the word originated from.
  23. Jewelry: This is a word for describing personal ornaments, such as necklaces, rings, or bracelets, that are typically made from or contain jewels and precious metal. It is pronounced as jool-ree. It is derived from old French ‘juelerye’.
  24. Often: This has a problem with native speakers too as Americans, like to pronounce it as 'Off-uhn', While the Brits add the 'T' And call it 'Oft-uhn'. Don't worry, both pronunciations are correct. You are free to use it the way you like.
  25. Colonel; a colonel is an officer in the army. The other ‘o’ is silent and usually pronounced like an ‘r’; the word is pronounced ker-nul. The word is derived from middle french, where it is pronounced like an 'L'. When nonnative speakers come across the word for the first time, it usually causes some discomfort especially for those whose cultures pronounce the ‘r’.
  26. Chaos; as a final word, let's look at chaos, a word that means confusion, disorder, crisis, and hopelessness. It is pronounced as kay-hus. It is derived from the Latin chaos, or Greek khaos; it means 'abyss, that which gapes wide open, that which is vast and empty’.


As you have read through our list of some of the hard English words to pronounce especially for English learners. We hope those words go from difficult words to familiar friends in your vocabulary. You have to remember that there are no complicated words, there are only unfamiliar words.

As you are learning how to pronounce English, familiarize yourself with these 26 difficult words to pronounce and your journey using the language will be smoother. Always remember to use them and kindly correct your friends who speak it wrong with love. 

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