Life’s Little Mysteries investigates why the Krauts have this problem.
Carlos Gussenhoven, a phonologist â€” a linguist who studies the sounds used in different languages â€” at Radboud University in the Netherlands, believes the challenge lies in squirrel’s syllable structure.
Linguists break words into clusters â€” 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 “skwÃ¶rl ” in the same way that “squirm” becomes “skwÃ¶rm.”
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 [said].