I always pronounce the Vietnamese soup pho as “foe.” My friend says I’m being culturally insensitive and should make an effort to get it right (she says it’s “fuh”). But people always understand me, so what does it matter anyway? —Fuhgeddaboudit
Diane Cu, cocreator of the blog White on Rice Couple, says that Vietnamese words are tricky because Vietnamese is a tonal language, with “four or five” main tones and many more regional ones. Although the more common pronunciation of pho is “fuh,” some regions pronounce it more as “foe,” and others in two syllables, Cu says, with a rising tone on the first syllable and a falling tone on the second. Because of the tonal variation, Westerners also struggle with the phrase banh mi. Some erroneously pronounce it as “bang me,” Cu says. Unfortunately, since I couldn’t nail the pronunciation even after hearing it five times, I can’t explain it to you.
There are also regional variations in the pronunciation of Italian food words, says Judy Witts Francini, owner of Divina Cucina, a cooking school in Florence. One difference is that the last syllables of some words, such as mozzarella and braciole, are not pronounced in the south.
But you need not fret too much about regional nuances. The important thing is that you try. At an ethnic restaurant where the servers are from that country, it’s good manners to strive for authentic pronunciation of a foreign food word, as a sign of respect for the culture. If you’re worried about mangling the language and insulting the server, that’s what the numbers on the menu are there for. And you can always ask your server how to pronounce it—so when you return, you’ll be a pro.
That said, there is such a thing as going overboard. If you pronounce “spaghetti” with a flourish or “Croissan’Wich” with your best Parisian flair, then—as Chowhounds have pointed out—you’re going to sound laughably affected.
Typically, the foreign words you’re allowed to take Anglicized liberties with are the ones that wind up in English dictionaries. But what if you don’t have a dictionary on you when placing an order? Sometimes you can just use common sense. As Jesse Sheidlower, the Oxford English Dictionary’s North American editor at large, says, if it’s “on the menu at the Olive Garden,” then chances are it’s as good as white bread.