Life's Little Mysteries

Why Can't Germans Say 'Squirrel'?

These creatures pose difficulties for Germans.
These creatures pose difficulties for Germans. (Image credit: S.Cooper Digital | Shutterstock)

"Squrrrrr … skraaaawl … squirruh … SQUOOW!"

As YouTube videos all but prove, Germans have a really hard time pronouncing "squirrel." After nailing the "squ-," chaos ensues.

In an episode of the British TV show "Top Gear," host Jeremy Clarkson jokingly suggested that asking people to pronounce the word would be a surefire way to identify undercover German spies. "No German, no matter how well they speak English, can say 'squirrel,'" Clarkson asserted.

Exceptions to the rule notwithstanding, why is the name of small, bushy tailed rodents so difficult for the Deutsche?

Carlos Gussenhoven, a phonologist — a linguist who studies the sounds used in different languages — at Radboud University in the Netherlands, believes the challenge lies in squirrel's syllable structure.

Related: How do squirrels remember where they buried their nuts?

Linguists break words into clusters — groups of consonants that have no intervening vowels. In German, "-rl" is an end cluster, Gussenhoven explained. It comes at the end of a syllable, as in the common German name Karl, rather than forming a syllable of its own. Thus German speakers try to translate the two-syllable English word "squirrel" into the monosyllabic German sound "skwörl " in the same way that "squirm" becomes "skwörm." 

But that doesn't sound quite right, and Germans know it. "Dissatisfied with this result, the German speaker tries to produce a real 'R,' of the sort you get in (Rock 'n) Roll, in the end cluster, wreaking havoc," Gussenhoven told Life's Little Mysteries.

He outlined the steps a German should take to pronounce "squirrel," and boy, does it sound like no fun.  

"The solution is to say skwö first and then Roll. If the speaker then also manages to avoid saying (1) sh for [s] and (2) [v] for [w], and uses the vowel in the first syllable of getan  [German for 'done']  instead of (3)ö in the first syllable and instead of (4) o in the second syllable, and (5) makes the r like the English r and (6) the l like the 'dark' l of English, the result will be quite acceptable," he wrote in an email.

No wonder it's so difficult for Germans to nail the English name. Gussenhoven said "squirrel" is a shibboleth, a word notorious for the way its pronunciation identifies its speaker as a foreigner. [Why Do Americans and Brits Have Different Accents?]

Jessica Williams, a linguist at the University of Illinois in Chicago who studies second language acquisition, said that, based on YouTube, the issue may not be confined to Germans. "I notice that there are plenty of other videos that say the same thing about Arabic and Farsi speakers," she said.

Go on, then, native English speakers: Say "squirrel" and be proud.

Follow Natalie Wolchover on Twitter @nattyover. Follow Life's Little Mysteries on Twitter @llmysteries, then join us on Facebook.

Natalie Wolchover

Natalie Wolchover was a staff writer for Live Science from 2010 to 2012 and is currently a senior physics writer and editor for Quanta Magazine. She holds a bachelor's degree in physics from Tufts University and has studied physics at the University of California, Berkeley. Along with the staff of Quanta, Wolchover won the 2022 Pulitzer Prize for explanatory writing for her work on the building of the James Webb Space Telescope. Her work has also appeared in the The Best American Science and Nature Writing and The Best Writing on Mathematics, Nature, The New Yorker and Popular Science. She was the 2016 winner of the  Evert Clark/Seth Payne Award, an annual prize for young science journalists, as well as the winner of the 2017 Science Communication Award for the American Institute of Physics.