We were at our favourite Greek resturant in Munich, speaking English with our Greek waiter.
"There you are!" he said, as he presented my meal.
"Thank you," I replied.
He smiled. "It's so nice to hear someone who can pronounce theta. Nobody in Germany can do it."
Of course, he didn't say Germany. He said "Dzermany".
Flourishing a perfectly-voiced dental fricative, I added. "That's right."
A gentleman from Barcelona piped up from the next table. "Other languages use theta, too" he corrected us. "Don't be thilly."
"Without doubt," I replied, " but nobody sticks the tip of his tongue up to his front teeth and blows like a Greek or an Englishman." I basked in the word teeth.
A nearby German became quite piqued.
"Sagen Sie mal", he asked, "sind Sie Französisch?" Tell me, are you French?
"Nein, ich bin Französisch nicht," came my reply. No, I'm not French.
Of course, I didn't say ich. I said "ick".
He sneered. "Ha! That was the worst ich I have ever heard. Your nicht sounded like a chihuahua trying to shit."
"Harumph" I grumbled, in my best English.
He chortled over his spanakopita. "Oh, you Englishy types with your thinking and your theories and your thumbs! But none of you can say ch!"
I shouted to a Scotsman across the room, easily identified through his kilt and tam o'shanter. "Hey Jock, wazzup!"
"Och, laddie..." he began.
"That's enough, thank you." I said, and turned back to the German chap. "See? English speakers can ach and och like the best of you."
"You're completely wrong!" he replied, with a directness the world so admires in his countrymen. "Any one can make a ch when it follows a nice rounded vowel like an ah or an oh. But not when it follows a delicate sound like an ee or an ih that you actually have to make with your mouth and not your throat already."
He had a point. One can sound consonants in different ways. Think of the humble L. It sounds a bit different when you use it to say line and when you use it to say hall. This is known as a "light-L" and a "dark-L" respectively. .
We English native speakers hear the two Ls as the same. Polish—a fiendishly complex tongue—actually uses separate letters for the two sounds. Natives of some other languages can struggle with one L, and not the other.
My husband, whom you may recall is Japanese, has mastered the light-L. I often hear him say a perfect let's take the lift, with none of the R/L confusion that afflicts speakers with an Asian mother tongue. Not so the dark-L. Should you meet him in a hotel, don't ask him where the ballroom is. Nor should you discuss the movie star, Errol Flynn. Nor require him to use the word uncontrollable.
Conversely, it's the light-ch that gives us English speakers trouble. We end up saying ich—a common sound in German—as an ish or an ick. It mainly occurs at the end of syllables. Which gave me an idea.
"OK, Mr. Gescheithosen. You may think you're pretty smart, with your lippy th at the beginning of words. So tell me. What do you enjoy at the end of a hard day?"
"A bath," he replied.
Except he didn't say bath. He said "bus".
"Perhaps you have a particularly nice ride home, so I'll allow that", I said. "But here comes the clincher. Say the word clothes...in one syllable!"
"Clozes." he fumed.
Others around him tried to help. "Clothis", interjected a lady from Berlin. A gent from Schwabing tried "Clodzes". A fine attempt came from a rural Rosenheimer with a "Clozzess".
Ha! Our Greek waiter merrily celebrated by putting his tongue up to his incisors and letting out a big "Thththththththth!" .
I joined him in a jolly "Ththththththththththth!", too. Soon, all the English speakers in the room pitched in with a nice big, long "Thththththththththththth!". Except for the Scotsman, who was arguing over his bill.