Thursday, 6 November 2014

Mr. MacGregor

The Director of the British Museum, Neil MacGregor, has been turned into a bit of a National Treasure by the BBC.  After the success of his innovative series, A History of the World in 100 Objects, his exquisitely-enunciated aperçus (no-one is posher than a posh Scot) have become a bit of a fixture.  His latest series, Germany: Memories of a Nation, is taking the "100 objects" approach to German history, and German-ness.  I'm not sure why Britain currently seems to be having a German Moment, but we clearly are, and that suits me fine.  I'm learning a lot about a people I ought to know rather better than I do.

But, the main thing I have learned from MacGregor's programmes is how bloody annoying it is to give every German word and name -- place, personal and corporate -- its precise and proper German pronunciation.  Yes, of course actual foreign-language phrases should be given at least an approximation of their standard pronunciation.  It is very bad indeed to hear the surname of Albert Camus rhyming with "Seamus" on a nationally-broadcast arts programme.  But, there is really no need -- no need at all -- for an English radio broadcaster to pronounce the "r" in "Brecht" in the German manner (a uvular fricative, since you ask).

Now, I have often been guilty of this infuriating sort of one-upmanship myself, but have taken note, and will stop doing it immediately.  I should really know better, as the following two anecdotes will illustrate.

Non-German speakers may not realise that the vowel marked by the letter "a", when "short", is often pronounced rather like an RP English "u".  Thus, a word like "Mann" is pronounced "Munn", and an annoying English-speaking pedant might refer to the writer Thomas Mann as "Toe-muss Munn".  This can get tricky. When I was in the sixth form, we were taught German by a brilliant but eccentric man, whose ability to turn on a sixpence from mischievous fun-filled provocateur to outraged vengeful tyrant could be disturbing.  You learned to read his mood quite closely.  One day, this man -- who was nothing if not a pedant* -- decided we needed to know a little about the philosopher Immanuel Kant.  I think you can probably see where this is going.  Few things are as painful as forcibly-suppressed mirth, so you can imagine the plight of seven 17-year-old boys, as their teacher prowled the blackboard, solemnly intoning on the philosophy of a man whose name, in his fusspot rendering, now rhymed with "blunt".

Later, at university, a non-German-speaking friend, who was studying politics, economics and philosophy, mentioned the difficulty he was having getting hold of something called the "Grundle Gung".  It sounded intriguingly Tolkien-esque to me.  "Grendel's mother" from Beowulf and "Gunga Din" were the only things that came to mind.  Of course, when he showed it written down, it turned out to be the single word "Grundlegung", German for "foundation" or "groundwork", and pronounced rather differently.

My mirth went unsuppressed, that time, but in retrospect I was a little ashamed of having taken such derisive pleasure in another's ignorance.  Not least because there have been many occasions when my own loud ignorance has been quietly ignored in the interests of civility.  As I later realised, to my embarrassment.  Which may be why I'm finding Neil MacGregor's punctiliousness more irritating than I probably should.
O wad some Power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!
It wad frae mony a blunder free us,
An' foolish notion:
What airs in dress an' gait wad lea'e us,
An' ev'n devotion!

from To A Louse, by Robert Burns

No connection that I can contrive, but the
 hawthorn berries are a fine sight this year

* He was the first person I ever heard pronouncing the word "questionnaire" as "kestionnaire", which struck me then as risible, and still does, on a par with those ultra-posh types who put a hard "g" in "margarine".


Struan said...

I fall flat on my face with Romance languages. A conference in La Jolla, CA once had my co-workers helpless with guffaws as I tried to explain where I was headed.

I smirk at folk who pronounce 'Munich' as if it were a German name.

Mike C. said...


It's a minefield, but one where getting blown up can be very funny to onlookers...

I still sizzle with embarrassment, 40 years on, recalling certain seminars where I mispronounced the names and titles of certain key texts. Argh.

Some of these are literal shibboleths -- to name Byron's hero Don Juan in the Spanish manner, or Shakespeare's Jacques in the French, is to expose oneself as an outsider. Which, in my case, I was, so fair enough...


Zouk Delors said...

A friend once recounted the embarrassment of having her tutor question her use of the verb "misle", which she was sure she had often seen written (always in the past tense, it turned out).

Mike C. said...


Seeing things in print, but never hearing them said, is often the culprit. It always gives me a warm feeling of pleasure when Will Self mispronounces "mores" (as in, "widely observed conventions") as "moors" on the radio (which he often does).


Zouk Delors said...

Haha, yes, I've heard that too.