Big Mac

Fast food and pronunciation fun: I vould like a chissbourgah

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'Lovely in Lux' Libby dispels the myth that McDonald's is a safe haven for native English speakers abroad. If you want that Big Mac, be prepared to enter a whole new world of pronunciation.

After receiving a comment from my new blogger friend Rachel, in which she directed me to her post about people pronouncing things in French in her bakery (which I can totally relate to – I used to work in a bakery too!), I remembered something I have wanted to share with you for a while now.

It’s the inverse about what she spoke about in her blog – not about Americans pronouncing French words in America, but rather about the French/Germans pronouncing American words in France/Germany.

Does that make sense?

When you move away from the States (or even take a vacation out of the country), McDonald’s becomes kind of a safe haven. Even if you loathed McDonald’s in the States, you find yourself being drawn to it when you’re feeling foreign and it’s an oasis where you can suddenly order food again without a problem, know what you’re eating, and take a break from culture shock.

And maybe if you are just traveling for a couple of weeks, that’s what it is: an oasis; a fallback strategy; Plan B; easy peasy.

McDonald's at Frankfurt airport
A safe haven, straight off the plane at Frankfurt

If you live here as an American, however, you soon realise that McDonald’s is not actually a safe haven, but rather another place where you’ll have to overcome the language barrier. That’s because you can’t order a hamburger with the authentic American pronunciation, nor can you order it with your best textbook French or German pronunciation.

You have to pronounce the word as the French/German mind thinks that the Americans would say it.

Because I got an ‘A’ in lesson planning in college, I’m going to do the right thing and give you a 30-second pause to wrap your brain around that before moving on to an example.

[Please pause for 30 seconds.]

Okay. Here’s an example. (I’m going to use German as my target language, because I obviously have much more McDonald’s experience in Germany than I have in France.)

Let’s say I go to McDonald’s and want to order a hamburger. (I love hamburgers!)

My first instinct would be, because I am an American in McDonald’s, to say, “Ich hätte gern einen Hamburger,” (pronounced American, so ‘HAM-berrr-gerr’).

This would elicit laughter from my husband, his friends, and probably the person standing behind the counter.

Big Mac
A 'Bick Meck', please.

So I realise this and correct myself. Obviously I can’t say it with the American pronunciation because I’m not in America, so I say it with my best German pronunciation:

Ich hätte gern einen HAMBURGER” (which is the same word as a person who is originally from Hamburg, which I believe is the hamburger’s namesake, pronounced ‘HAAHM-booah-gah’).

This, also, would elicit laughter from all bystanders.

So what’s an American girl to do?

I’ll tell you: pronounce it as in English, but with the mindset of a German who thinks he/she can speak English.

Which basically means you have to live in Germany and become German before you can even properly order a friggin’ hamburger at McDonald’s. Crazy, huh?

Yes, the correct pronunciation of ‘hamburger’ at McDonald’s in Germany is ‘HEMM-boarg-ah’, which is how the Germans think the Americans say it.

Bet you never learned that in German class, did you?

This same technique applies to other McDonald’s items.*

A Big Mac is neither a ‘Big Mac’ (American pronunciation), nor a ‘BEAK MAAHK’ (German pronunciation), but rather a ‘BICK MECK’.

A Cheeseburger is a ‘CHISS-boarg-ah’.

This phenomenon also takes place at other American restaurant chains, such as Subway, Starbucks, KFC, and Burger King.

Luckily, most of the workers at McDonald’s are actually foreigners themselves, so they have no idea if you’re saying it right. Heck, they just hope they can understand you at all. But still, in striving for complete and total integration, you'd like to get it right.

Now at this point, your seventh grade science teacher would have given you a pop quiz, three hours of homework, and started right off with the next lesson, which is ordering food in Luxembourg, which (as we all know) is definitely more advanced than ordering food in Germany or France (where there’s only one major language).

But I think I’ll be the ‘cool teacher’ today and organise a pizza party and do that lesson tomorrow instead.

Your homework? Go to McDonald’s. Order something. Savour the ease of it. The simplicity. Rejoice in being a native speaker in a native land.  (Maybe.)

To be continued…

P.S. Anybody else hungry for McDonald’s now?

*But fries are ‘Pommes’, which is actually incorrectly pronounced French (the Germans say ‘Pumm –ess’ rather than the French ‘pumm’). So that doesn’t follow the rule.

Reprinted with permission of Lovely in Lux.

 LibbyLibby is a Wisconsin, U.S., native who has been living in Luxembourg for nearly ten years. Her first impressions as a new expat were featured on her blog, Lovely in Lux. She has since started a new project for those dealing with the loss of a loved one at

Photo credits: Frankfurt airport McDonald's by UggBoy (photographer without borders); Big Mac by pointnshoot (both

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1 Comment To This Article

  • TheExpatresse posted:

    on 14th April 2010, 13:54:03 - Reply

    We have had endless hours of good fun being corrected by French friends on how to pronounce things like "Elvis Presley" and "The Beatles." I wish I could transcribe it. Very funny.