Notes from West London · Word of the week

Word of the week: chocolate

Happy Easter to you. We’re all back on the chocolate. As every native English speaker knows, the word “chocolate” has two syllables. It’s chock-lit, or chock-luht, or even chahk-lert, never choc-oh-late.

My brother and I were discussing this last week when he was over for the 20th Anniversary of my mother’s death. He has lived in Spain for over 30 years and has spent much of that time teaching English to Spanish children. Despite all his efforts there are still thousands of Spanish children and adults who say “choc-oh-late” instead any two-syllable alternative.

As you may know “Chiclet” is a popular type of chewing gum in Spain (it takes its name from “chicle”, the Spanish word for a component in chewing gum). “Chiclet” (pronounced Chick-let, with a silent or near-silent “t” at the end) has become shorthand for gum for many Spanish speakers. Over many years he has tried to persuade his students to say “chocolate” in the accepted English way with the following suggestion:

“Say Chiclet.”
“Chick-le(t).”
“Now say chock-lit.”
“Choc-oh-late.”

This can go on for some time, and still not get the desired result.

In all the major European languages, or at least the ones that I’m familiar with (English, French, Spanish, German, Italian), the word for chocolate derives from the Aztec xocolatl, via Spanish. In all of its non-English forms the second “o” is pronounced: chocolat in French (you might have seen the movie, starring Juliette Binoche), chocolate in Spanish (pronounced with four syllables: choc-oh-lah-tay), Schokolade in German, cioccolato in Italian. In my experience native speakers of all four languages are unable to pronounce the English form correctly.

Last year, in this piece (“100 songs to learn a language”), I wrote about my brother’s use of the Gerry and the Pacemakers song “I like it” in his lessons to emphasize the use of the word “it” in English. “Do you like it?” is a correctly formed question. “You like?” is not. “Yes, I like it very much,” is a correctly formed answer. “Very much I like,” is not. Perhaps if he included this song (“Sweet Like Chocolate” by Shanks & Bigfoot) in his lessons his students might pronounce the subject of this piece correctly. Although it got to #1 in the UK in 1999 and was a Top 10 in Australia, New Zealand and Ireland, it did not reach the Top 10 in any European country. If it had done so maybe millions of Europeans would now be able to pronounce “chocolate” with two syllables, like the rest of us.

 

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