I was speaking with client of mine from Colombia a while back. Since Canada was signing a free trade agreement with Colombia at the time, I asked him what Canada exported to Colombia.
“Weed,” he said.
“I don’t think so,” I replied with a smile. “That’s what Colombia exports to Canada.”
“No, no,” he responded. “Colombia doesn’t grow weed so we buy a lots from Canada for our bread and pasta and so on.”
“Oh,” I said, finally getting what he had meant to say. “We export wheat to Colombia and Colombia sends back weed!”
What was the mistake?
First – in case you don’t know – the word ‘weed’ is slang for marijuana which is a recreational drug often smuggled out of Colombia.
The pronunciation confusion was related to the length of the vowel. We lengthen vowels before voiced consonants and shorten them before voiceless consonants. If we don’t release the voiced D or voiceless T, it’s hard to hear the difference there, so we rely on the vowel. When we say ‘weed,’ we say a long ‘eeeee,’ but when we say ‘wheat,’ it is much shorter.