Colombia ~ Columbia ~ Colombo


Colombia is a country in the extreme north of South America, pronounced with the second syllable like the surname of the actor Herbert Lom.

British Columbia is a province of Canada, and the District of Columbia is where the US capital city is to be found. These are both pronounced with the second syllable like the Scottish word for a chimney – lum.

However, the capital of Sri Lanka is spelt with -o- like the South American country, but pronounced as if spelt like the Canadian province and American District.

No wonder they are so often confused.


  1. Wikipedia says that the name of the capital is locally pronounced [ˈkoləmbə], and is a borrowing into Sinhalese and Tamil from Portuguese, which in turn borrowed it from Classical Sinhalese. I do not know where the stress falls in other European languages. Penultimate stress may reflect analogy with one of the other two (both ultimately from Cristoforo Colombo, of course), or if it is particular to English, the general English rule “When in doubt, use penultimate stress.”

    The discrepancy between Columbia and Colombia ultimately goes back to the Proto-Western-Romance vowel shift. If Columbus was indeed from Genoa, though, he apparently would have pronounced his name [kuˈɹuŋbu], but this must be a further sound-change in Ligurian specifically.

  2. Colombia, in my experience, is typically pronounced the same as Columbia, and for that reason is often misspelt as Columbia.

    I’ve never seen Colombo (often pronounced Columbo as in the detective series, including by Sri Lankans) confused with either of them.

  3. Looks like the schwa letters dropped out of my posting. Colombo is [‘[email protected]@], writing @ for schwa.

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