Friday, 3 February 2017

Go Van Go!

The other day I was reading this post on the Language Hat blog (no relation) concerning the pronunciation of the word "loess". Ah, loess! It's not exactly an everyday term, unless you happen to have studied geomorphology at some point in your life, which I do happen to have done, as I had the luck and/or wisdom to study A-Level Geography, having rejected the more obvious third subjects to combine with English and German. My teachers consistently pronounced the word as "lois", which also happened to be the name of a girlfriend at the time, so I quietly let them persist and – to the best of my memory – made no smarty-pants interventions in class to point out that, as loess was a German word, it should therefore more properly be pronounced in the German way.

This was unusually restrained of me. I was an uppity little devil in those days, and enjoyed nothing more than tormenting a class by diverting our teacher down some long and winding rabbit-hole of pedantry; so easy to do, given that any sign of life from the rows of semi-somnolent teens was a rarity. I recall the pleasure of arguing, at exasperating length, that to put a constant figure on a "random distribution" was absurd, sir, because "random" meant it could be anything, didn't it, sir?  I was also reminded recently by an old classmate of how I once embarrassed a hapless trainee teacher in a 6th-form English class by scornfully correcting his pronunciation of "Goethe". Well, the ignorant bugger was asking for it. I mean, Go-eth, really...

But it's a risk we all run, isn't it, when we venture into unknown linguistic territory? It's shaming to be called out on something so basic, and I'm ashamed to have been so arrogant about it in the past. It is not helped, either, by the tendency of those who do not wear their cultivation lightly to over-pronounce any juicy French or German word borrowed into English, like rapprochement or Zeitgeist, or even, in cases of terminal pedantry, questionnaire. I think I may already have shared my bemusement when my partner's father asked for a bourbon biscuit, giving "bourbon" the full-on French treatment. A what? I was doubly baffled, as in our family these biscuits were homophonous with American bourbon whiskey, which I suspect may have been one of my own father's many mischievous jeux d'esprit, absorbed and adopted by us kids as gospel. I'm pretty sure I must also have shared the story of our German teacher holding forth on the philosophy of Kant – or Kunt, as he meticulously pronounced it – which nearly killed an entire 6th form class with agonisingly-suppressed fits of the giggles (hey, we were just 17).

I suppose the simplest "rule" to apply would be a variant of that pertaining to plurals: if it's become an English word, it gets an English plural. It's so much easier simply to add an "s" in the ordinary way. To intone "octopi" or "agendae" may clothe one's bloviations with a satisfying air of learning, but most such are linguistically non-U and, besides, who knows or cares that, by analogy, the "correct" plural of, say, "igloo" would be "igluit"?  Any alternative "rule" requiring foreign-language plurals would come down to a consensus on which languages count, and which don't. And that would come down to which languages a cultivated person (benchmark: a privately-educated middle-class European) might be expected to know. French and German, yes; Latin or Greek, maybe, but increasingly less likely; Hungarian, Chinese, or Yoruba, certainly not.

On the other hand – getting back to pronunciation – it's true that few things sound as oafish as a completely Anglicised version of a borrowed foreign word, so that's not such a safe "rule", either. But, whereas only a self-declared language-snob like me enunciates Volkswagen or Bratwurst in the fully Germanic manner, many things – foreign food-stuffs, for example – do already have an established and generally-accepted halfway-house version. Spaghetti, pizza, and even ciabatta pose no problem to the native English speaker, and only an idiot stumbles over coq au vin, pain au chocolat, or pommes frites. Though tagliatelle and gnocchi are still problematic, and I think it's probably too early (possibly even too late?) to get judgmental about quinoa, chipotle, or even bruschetta.

Where this all does become a bit of a car-crash is in the pronunciation of foreign names. Particularly in these days when so much information is digested in printed form or on screens, and rarely heard said out loud. Even then, it seems that even the BBC's Pronunciation Unit has lost its once-powerful grip on correspondents. It's very annoying to hear, say, Münster (Germany) turned into Munster (Ireland) by some overpaid monolingual reporter, and coverage of football's Premier League is an anarchic feast of exotic names declaimed in half a dozen different ways by excitable commentators, but very rarely in any version the player's mother would recognise.

Which is not to say that getting it right is easy. My most humbling experiences in this regard have been recent trips to the Netherlands and to Portugal. Both of these countries have languages that, on the page, closely resemble those of their bigger neighbours: it's not hard to make sense of a Dutch or Portuguese document, armed with a basic knowledge of German or Spanish. But hearing them spoken out loud, or attempting to conduct even the simplest dialogue from a phrase-book, are on a very different plane of difficulty. With the exception of Danish and, I suppose, English, few other European languages have developed such a gulf between orthography and orthoepy*. Frankly, I gave up trying to grapple with it: that part of my brain went offline years ago. So, given the footballing prowess of Portugal, Brazil, and the Netherlands (not to mention Senegal or Serbia or the other 60-odd nationalities represented in the Premier League), it's not surprising those commentators are struggling.

Where this gets truly problematic is in the fields of literature and art. Here, high social status and downright wilful ignorance achieve a bizarre union. Basically, throw a brush at a list of painters' names and you will likely hit some mispronunciation venerated by tradition, one which you will have heard said a hundred times in that unchallengeable posh register that says, Trust me, I know what I'm talking about. Velazquez? Degas? Renoir? Breugel? Munch? All "wrong" but rendered "right" in the mouth of a connoisseur like Kenneth Clark. And what about poor old Vincent van Gogh? I have no idea why the American cultivated classes have convinced themselves this fellow's name must be "Van Go". It's not as if Dutch sailors and merchants didn't make it across the Atlantic. The British "Van Goff" isn't a whole lot better. For a good discussion of this conundrum, see the BBC Pronunciation Unit's effort here. Basically, there's a lot to be said for abandoning the shibboleths of class and cultivation and accepting, as a matter of principle, that other ways exist, and are (in the main) simply different and not "wrong". It's enlightening to hear how "wrong" a German scholar's reading out loud of Latin sounds, for example. However, if you insist on sticking with "Go-eth" this will irretrievably mark you out as an ignorant bastard.**

I suppose, looked at one way, it could all be seen as just another form of imperialism: to take something difficult and "foreign" and turn it into a palatable travesty, something the Irish, Welsh, and Scottish have had to put up with for a long time. Though it has to be said that whoever came up with the complex orthographic system for the Gaelic languages must also shoulder some of the blame. Your name is ... Let's see ... Caoimhín Seanchán? No?  Oh, Kevin Shanahan ... Sorry! From, uh, Tír Eoghain? Ah, Tyrone! Of course... Obvious, once you know.

But, looked at another way, it's just what people do. You say Firenze, I say Florence; you say Londres, I say London; you say Osutoraria, I say Australia. You also say Abū al-Walīd Muḥammad ibn ʾAḥmad ibn Rushd‎, whereas I say Averroes; and I see it says here Drake, el pirata de la Reina Isabel I, which I interpret as Sir Francis Drake, hero of the Spanish Armada. You get the picture. We all accommodate each others' differing sound systems and frames of reference into our own, but with an inevitable twist, which is the only sensible thing to do and the most genial form of inclusivity, and surely far better than continually calling each other out as the dreaded and eternally-wrong "other". Though the "pirate" thing is a bit near the knuckle, if I may say so, señor.

* No, I'd never come across that word before, either. Ironically, it is given five acceptable variant pronunciations by OED...
** Hungarian names are an interesting test case. How many culture-snob points does one lose, I wonder, for not knowing photographer Moholy-Nagy is pronounced something like "Mahoy Nodge"?


Chris Rusbridge said...

This is a lovely piece which I really enjoyed, been there, got a lot of scars! I

"I suppose the simplest "rule" to apply would be a variant of that pertaining to plurals: if it's become an English word, it gets an English plural. It's so much easier simply to add an "s" in the ordinary way. To intone "octopi" or "agendae" may clothe one's bloviations with a satisfying air of learning, but most such are linguistically non-U and..."

liked these examples because a site proclaiming itself as the English Oxford Living dictionaries says:

"Although it is often supposed that octopi is the ‘correct’ plural of octopus, and it has been in use for longer than the usual Anglicized plural octopuses, it in fact originates as an error. Octopus is not a simple Latin word of the second declension, but a Latinized form of the Greek word oktopous, and its ‘correct’ plural would logically be octopodes."

Likewise agenda is already plural; so often you see references to "agendum 4", so I guess agendae is definitely a step too far!

But this from someone forced by the consensus of our project to treat data as singular, at least as a verb subject (not that I really liked the alternative either). And in my yoof, when I learned most words by reading them, I remember the howls of laughter that followed my question one evening "What is an arch-ipp-el-ARGO?"

And you're so right about spoken dutch, extraordinary. And isn't it odd how various languages are so different in their intonation that one can have a pretty good stab at identification without even hearing any words... but I'm rambling!

Zouk Delors said...

Actually, although that's a correct transliteration of Abu Al-Walid etc., it still isn't pronounced like that: there would be various elisions and interpolated vowels in speech.

Florence (as well as the names we use for Turin and many other northern Italian towns and cities) is the French name.

PS Don't forget; it's "the spaghetti are ready."

Anonymous said...


we Germans struggle with the pronunciation of our language ourselves. Make one of the natives of the states south of river Main pronounce "Duisburg" or "Oer-Erkenschwick" or "Bad Oeynhausen" - you have a fair chance that he screws up. On the other hand, my grandmother in Darmstadt, for example, used to pronounce "Pfungstadt" like "Poong-sht". A "Prussian" from somewhere north of the Main probably won't "get it".

Best, Thomas

Andrew Sharp said...


The van in the title reminded me of the moment I knew I'd be getting my PhD (back in the days when all you had to do was produce an acceptable thesis) and the external examiner pointed out that I'd put a reference to a paper by Van Bogaert (a very pleasant Belgian colleague) under V rather than B.

The stuff about place names could equally apply in the UK. You say Bradford they say Bratfud, we say Weaverthorpe they say Warethrop, We say Helmsley they say Hemsley. My favourite is the local pronunciation of Uttoxeter as Utcheter.

Mike C. said...


Ah, yes, Dutch vans versus American vans...

As for local pronunciation, there's a whole other post there. For example, my cousin lives near Happisburgh ("Haysbra") in Norfolk, not far from my sister who lives near Wymondham ("Windum")...


Martyn Cornell said...

… and yet Wymondley.

The most annoying ones are those where, if you pronounce it correctly, everyone else in the Anglophone world thinks you're a thicko who's getting it wrong (yes, it really IS "TuranDOT)", although this means I once had the huge pleasure of putting down a wine snob who tried to "correct" my pronunciation of Moët & Chandon. (What did he think that diaresis was doing there, ffs?)

Mike C. said...


Wot, "Wimmley", you mean? ;)

It's a minefield, isn't it? The word "shibboleth" springs to mind... But the pleasure of being "right" cannot be denied, however, especially when faced by some preening snob.


Zouk Delors said...

People fall into one of two groups: those who pronounce shibboleth with the stress on the first syllable, and those who stress the second.

Mike C. said...


Well... With three syllables, each capable of being stressed, three vowels, each capable of several different versions, plus people able and not able to manage "sh" and people able and not able to manage "th", the possible combinations are rather more than two, I think... But only *one* will get you past the guards into Gilead.


Zouk Delors said...

They shall not pass! (their citizenship test)

Zouk Delors said...

I wasn't happy with the word interpolated in my comment, above, but couldn't think of a better one. It seems to me now, that may be epenthesised. (Thanks, Shed.)