Greetings everyone, it’s time for another thursday post. But not another sauce review.
Unlike the last two thursdays, this post isn’t about a product but it is inspired by one: The Dorset Chilli Shop’s chipotle extract. Because that one little bottle changed the way I talk.
It came labelled with the ancient aztec name of it’s chilli, “Chilpōctli”, which turned out not to be pronounced the way I thought.
So today we’re looking at pronunciation. At how to say the names of your favourite chillies and why they’re pronounced the way they are.
First up, let’s start where it all began. With the chipotle:
This chilli is actually a smoked jalapeño, not a pepper of its own, and that is reflected in its name. The word “chil” is nahuatl (an aztec language) for hot pepper, while “pōct” means smoked. Add “li” – A common noun ending with little meaning – and you get either “chilli” or “chilpōctli”.
But, just as nahuatl isn’t pronounced nah-hwa-tul (it’s naa-wal), these words aren’t said quite the way they look.
Aside from the ch, the first consonant in a group in this language is generally “unvoiced”. You make the mouth motion for it but not the sound, meaning that its only affect is on how you enter the second one. This can be difficult to do but don’t worry. You can get a very similar result from just ignoring them.
Doing so turns the word into “chipōtli” – Something pretty close to the word we know – and it only gets closer as we discover that they didn’t have a short i sound. Both those i’s are actually an “ee”. Reshortening the first and turning that last one into an “ay” is simply a slight spanish twist.
But there is one last oddity. That little line over the o.
Known as a “macron”, this symbol extends the vowel sound, changing this “o” like the e in “note”.
What we end up with is “chip-oat-lay”.
But we should probably look at the pepper our chipōtlé is made from, the jalapeño:
The jalapeño is a weird one, in terms of the way its name developed because, while it too comes from the aztec, it took a rather more indirect route to get where it is today.
The chilli itself has been grown all over mexico but its name is spanish for “from jalapa”, the capital where it was most commonly traded. A city sometimes spelt with an “x” in place of the “j” but pronounced with a “h” either way.
A city which, in turn, gets its name from the nahuatl for sand and water, “xāl” and “apan”.
Interestingly, the macron here seems to have been lost before the pepper ever got its name and the way in which the “e” has evolved from an “a” tells us that it’s more the short version as well.
But, again, we have a non-standard symbol to explain. That little squiggle over the n, known as a “tilde”. This spanish addition is what makes it “ha-la-pen-yo” instead of “ha-la-peh-no”. It adds that y-like sound between the n and its vowel.
Unfortunately, non-spanish speakers commonly drop this symbol, making it hard to distinguish between the “ny” sound in jalapeño and the pure “n” in habanero.
So let’s talk about how that pepper’s pronounced:
The habanero as a variety is thought to have originated in the amazon, but, like the jalapeño, its name comes from where it was most commonly traded. From havana in cuba.
The slightly different spanish dialect used there at the time has given it a different suffix to the jalapeño but it still means “from havana”, a place who’s name originally used something between a “b” and a “v”.
Plus, as we saw above, the “h” sound in spanish comes from a “j”. The “h” itself is silent.
But what completely baffles me here is that word ending. For reasons I do not understand, both english and spanish speakers say the “ero” in “habanero” just like the “aero” in “aeroplane”, despite no obvious language patterns to cause that.
But anyway, it’s most accurately pronounced “a-√a-nair-oh”, with that square root symbol being a stand in for its ambiguous consonant. Go ahead and pronounce it as a “b” if you like, though, and do be aware that many english speakers aren’t fond of haitch-dropping, even if it is completely with precedent here.
“ha-ba-nair-oh” is the most widely accepted spelling among english speakers, even if it isn’t the most accurate.
Now, while we’re speaking spanish, let’s look at some of the common ají chillies from peru:
Among these are the ají amarillo, ají rojo, ají limon (more commonly known as the lemondrop) and ají habanero but we’re going to skip over the last of those.
The aji habanero is simply another ají pepper, with a strength (but not sensation or flavour) similar to a habanero. Farmers mashed the two names together haphazardly when first describing this pepper and they’ve caused a fair bit of confusion with it since.
The aji habanero is in no way related to any genuine habanero strain. It’s just got that name tacked on.
But you’ll still need to know how to pronounce the first half:
Not “ah-hee” with a normal “a” but “ahh-hee”. One with a longer than normal exhale that resembles the sigh of satisfaction when your bath water is just right.
Yes, everything’s a temperature metaphor with me. I’m sorry.
You’ve probably grown used to that by now but you’ll have to get used to seeing this word, too. It’s incredibly common in the chilli world as it’s actually just the word for a hot pepper in several spanish speaking regions.
Plus, since those regions grown mainly (if not entirely) baccatum type chillies, nearly every baccatum variety has “ají”in its name now, regardless of its origin.
Today’s main three, however, are all peruvian and all follow the same pronunciation rules as a result.
The rojo, as you can probably guess, is pronounced “roe-hoe”, following what we now know of spanish.
And the limon is “lee-mon”, pure and simple.
The one complicated pepper here is the amarillo. Its double “l” is the subject of much internet debate but, while there are many ways to pronounce it and several different ones are actually correct, depending on regional dialects, the most widely accepted is kind of like a cross between “ee” a the consonant form of a “y”.
Or, to put that in context, “ah-ma-ree-yoe”. Though “ah-muh-ree-yoe” is common and equally acceptable.
A word that crops up again when we look at the aztec ancient chillies, the “chilhuacle”.
As was the case with Dorset Chilli Shop’s Chilpōctli above, though, that word isn’t nearly the mouthful that it looks. In fact, you can practically ignore half its consonants.
The first “l” and second “c” are the first to go, as per our first consonant unvoiced rule, but then we can also lose the second “h”. Outside of the “ch” sound, nahuatl lacks any noise for the letter, using it only as a placeholder.
The only voiced consonant between the “i” and “a”, weird as it might sound, is the “u”.
It acts a lot like a “w” here, making the word (roughly, remember, the unvoiced letters aren’t completely ignored) “chih-wahh-lee”.
These peppers come in three colours – Blackish brown, red and orange – named after them in the same way as their similarly-coloured ají counterparts.
The red is rojo, while the orange, having ripened from yellow, is dubbed “amarillo” after its golden midtones. And then we have the negro (“nee-groe”).
The name for the blackish pepper, being the word for black in spanish, has developed some racist connotations out of context. It’s sad that I have to say it but I feel obliged to point out, just in case, that the pepper has no historical ties to slavery or anyone of african descent. It is named purely for its colour and not the colour of the people.
It was a very unique tasting pepper when I tried it so it would be a shame for it to get a bad name over something as silly as a dislike of spanish colour words.
And I can’t leave you on that depressing note so here’s one last pepper. One you all know:
The “ghost pepper”.
I’m sure you can all pronounce those two words but they’re merely a rough translation of its true name. The “ভোট জলকীয়া“, commonly written in english as “bhut jolokia”. Yet, after some thorough research, that doesn’t seem to quite match its assamese pronunciation.
The first word reads more accurately as “baat” or “bahht”, which is most easily explained as being like how some people say “bath” with a long “a” (see “ají”), only with a hard “t” instead of a “th”.
And the second is even further off.
The first consonant is what I like to write as “zh”. A “french j sound” similar to the “s” in erasure.
Then there’s that first “o” – More “oe” than the short form that its english spelling would suggest but not nearly as bad as the second. That one’s a different sound entirely!
An “a”, according to some phonetic spellings of the language but less like one in “hand” and more like the second in “america”.
Finally, the ending is more “kee-yahh” than “kee-ahh” or the “kee-ah” that most people say. A subtle difference but a noticeable one all the same.
Put that together and we get “bahht-zhoe-luh-kee-yahh”.
The way I pronounce chilli names changed a lot as I prepared this post but, if any native speakers disagree with what I’ve written, I am prepared to change my ways again. Just let me know in the comments below or via my contact form.
I am, however, pretty confident that I’ve got my facts right. Enough so that I’ll be making a whole new page up top to keep my newest, most accurate, pronunciations readily available to all.
Thanks for reading!
This would be more informative with guide to pronunciation.
Is the Nauatl Chil pronounced chill or cheel?
Is chilli pronounced chilly or cheelee?
The things are important. How could an essay on words origins omit such info?
Thanks for the feedback, Roy.
I did try to address each unclear phoneme, as it came up, but there were a lot within the chipōtlé’s nahuatl background. So it took a few paragraphs to get to my explanation of its “i” sounds.
As stated in my post, however, both the “i”s in the pepper’s original name were pronounced “ee” since, like many languages, nahuatl lacks the “ih” sound found in english. So, by extension, “chilli” would have historically been “chee-lee”.
I’m sorry that my writing didn’t convey this information as clearly as I’d intended.