Tuesday, September 1, 2015
On Pronunciation and Pedantry
As not everyone is familiar with the International Phonetic Alphabet I have here used phonetic spellings which I hope will be immediately clear to American speakers.
The entire world has decided it must learn English which is certainly convenient for us Americans with our peculiar national antipathy to the study of foreign languages. Yet it still happens, especially to those who have managed to catch some fragments of a liberal education in this era when all school (including higher education which ought properly to concern itself with pure research) is made into vocational school, that one desires to use a word or phrase or name in another language. In the pronunciation of foreign names there is no consistent rule of usage, and when no standard of propriety exists, the choice become a matter of style, though, of course, style taken far enough impinges on propriety.
I once read a piece in public that mentioned the church of St. James in Prague, naming it Svatý Jakub in my best imitation of Czech tones. A listener questioned my usage – I don’t really speak Czech -- and my only defense was that my pedantic side preferred to approximate local pronunciation. That occurred at a reading that drew a literary crowd, but even an American in the midst of academic Francophiles would be unlikely while speaking English, to pronounce France’s capital any way other than “Pear-iss.” Yet France’s third largest city, which a Londoner would cheerfully call “lie-uns” (adding an “s” as well as anglicizing) is likely in America to undergo a variety of local impressions of a French pronunciation of Lyon. A little-known location would receive everyone’s best try at its local name. Though even Americans competent in French generally pronounce Montreal without nasalized o, acute accent for the “e’ or a French “r,” but, should the same person speak of the town of Saint-Jacques, it would surely come out “Zhahk” and not “Djay-kweez” as Shakespeare had it in As You Like It. (In the play the character’s last name is deBoys, pronounced as W.E.B. duBois did “Doo-boyz,” not like Blanche “Doo-bwah” in Streetcar Named Desire.) Anyone who calls Hungary’s capital “Booda-pesht” or the Peruvian ruins “Mah-choo Peek-choo” has probably been instructed about the sound during a visit. And, of course, more or less subtle bragging about international travel is an established practice among the educated classes as is the put-upon reaction of those who have not been there and find listening to such correctness as bad as Grandpa’s ordeals during the fifties in watching his neighbors’ slides of the Grand Canyon.
Perhaps the lingering memory of empire allows people in the U.K. to be more confident about pronouncing words in an English fashion. They do, after all, regularly discuss Cervantes’ novel “Dahn Kwicks-ut” and the reader of Byron will find that the meter doesn’t work if he tries to say the name of the hero of “Don Jew-un” as “Whahn.” The editors of the Oxford dictionaries unashamedly declare, “the anglicized pronunciation represents the normal pronunciation used by native speakers of standard English (who may not be speakers of other languages) when using the word in an English context.” France can be equally shameless in its Frenchifying. In the Louvre when I first visited, I saw works by Titien, Michelange, and the like, though a current check of their website suggests that they now use more names that more accurately reflec t the artists’ original languages.
No one, I think, today would speak of “Green-witch” Village, but rather would pronounce the name in approximately the same way they would in referring to the London borough, and Worcester everywhere is, I think, “Wuh-ster,” though not everyone is hip to the Cheshire village Cholmondeley (“Chum-lee”) or the personal name Saint-John (“Sin-djin”). Further, many adopted names are treated differently from their originals. In Illinois there are towns named Peru, Milan, New Madrid, and Pekin. In every case, the residents stress the first syllable of the name while the second receives the accent when speaking of South America, Italy, Spain, or China. For such cases the standard of propriety is set by local usage.
A similar rule applies to personal names the sound of which is always subject to the wishes of their bearers. My mother’s maiden name was Kopecky and I never heard anyone in the family pronounce it other than with the Czech “ts” for “c,” yet surely most Americans would make the “ck” a simple “k” sound. Meeting a Polish-American, one cannot know whether the person’s preference is for “w” as “v” or as an American “w.” And reference to language of origin is far from an infallible guide. I used “High-meh” for a Hispanic student who corrected me, saying his name was “Djay-mee” and I have known a Thérèse (complete with accents when written) who said “Teh-rees.”
Words that have become thoroughly naturalized in English often acquire a new accepted sound. Still, for my part, I would rather hear “root” than “rowt” 66 because the word is French in origin, and likewise “neesh” and not “nitch.” Most people pronounce the Italian segue as “seg-way” -- but the striver who thinks it French and says “seeg” sounds not more sophisticated but less.
Indeed, over-correction is a greater hazard for certain overreachers. One hears talk of people having a “tett-ah-tay,” though of course the final “t” deserves to sound the same as the initial one. I once worked for a Spanish man named Javier who always responded though perhaps with a faint air of contempt hovering about his nose, to a colleague who regularly addressed him as “Havy-ay,” which must have sounded properly Continental, though the fact is that in Spanish all letters (with the exception of initial “h”) are pronounced.
The issue is doubly present for a classicist since written as well as spoken forms vary. The pronunciation of Greek and Latin changed, of course, over time, both as languages spoken and studied, even apart from popular pronunciations. If one called Julius Caesar “Kahee-sar” it would at least lead to an understanding of the origin of Kaiser and Czar, but no one calls him that. “Kick-ero” the orator? It is not likely to gain favor. And, as for the spelling, in recent years it has become far commoner to use Greek transliteration, for instance Bakkhos instead of Bacchus, Aischylos for Aeschylus, etc., but does anyone really want to say Platon and Omeros in English? The extremely punctilious might choose to begin Sappho’s name in the Aeolic manner, not with a sigma but with a psi, yet to call her Psappho introduces a distracting defamiliarization.
For those interested in Chinese culture the multiple questions of spelling as well as pronunciation are similar. Many first became accustomed the widely used Wade-Giles transliterations which date from the Victorian period and remain widely known. We read Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching, Chuang Tzu, and the poetry of Li Po and Tu Fu. The introduction of the Yale system during World War II influenced language learners but not the general reading public. Now, however, hanyu pinyin is the standard, and those names have become Lǎozǐ, Zhuāngzǐ, Dàodéjīng, Li Bo (or Li Bai in a more recondite literary usage) and Dù Fǔ. Confucius derives from neither of these Romanization systems but rather from a Latinization like Erasmus, Columbus and Linnaeus.
Foreign phrases can also pose questions. The beautiful former home of Frederick Franck is called Pacem in Terris which I say with a hard “c” in spite of the fact that the phrase is derived from church Latin and everyone else says “Pah-tchem.” Greek scholars would prefer to hear “the many” rather than the solecism “the hoi polloi.” It is a statement of a sort even to use the foreign words. We always say laissez-faire (never “let-work”) and double entendre (probably maintaining the French pronunciation apart from the final “r”), while “free verse” is far more common than its original vers libre and received ideas has beat out idées reçues.
With no accepted standard of usage, each speaker or writer defines an individual profile in the use of foreign words and phrases. For everyone there is a tipping point where the appeal of exotic sounds and erudition starts to seem bumptious and annoying; from the other direction, the borderline would be when the natural and unpretentious begins to seem ignorant. My own preference, while no more systematic than anyone’s, leans low in the direction of original spelling and pronunciation, but then I also like original sources and full documentation. A carelessness about a name might cast doubt on all else in the passage, while I fancy something like a genuine German “r” will cast an air of authenticity over fiction and fact alike. Still, my scruples in these matters may ill accord with my casual, colloquial, or subjective comments, but it is through such inconsistencies that personality takes shape.
And today virtually everybody will be put off, as no one would have been a century ago, by an author presenting an untranslated Latin tag in a rhetorical move with only the most highly speculative returns. In spite of that I might remind the reader what the great Venutian wrote:
Dulce est desipere in loco.