Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Non-English name pronunciation etiquette

The nomination of Sonia Sotomayor has brought this issue to the forefront. Here's Paul Campos of Lawyers, Guns, & Money:
On the more general point, I think the correct etiquette in these situations is for the non-native speaker of the language from which the name is derived to try and fail to pronounce the name as it's pronounced in the person's native language, and for the person to ignore the mispronounciation. That's what I do anyway (in both directions).

4 Comments:

OpenID jdm314 said...

I don't know. I think there's a happy medium. Of course the pronunciation of Chinese names by Olympic announsers does drive me crazy: of course they get them wrong, that is to be expected. But they could get them a lot closer without much effort if they had a minimum training in pin yin. E.g. one frequently hears zh pronounced like the s in pleasure, or, worse, like a normal english z, when in fact the closest sound in English is j.

On the other hand it drives me crazy when people try to "correctly" pronounce foreign place names that already have an accepted english pronunciation. For instance, why say ee-RAWN (or, worse, ee-RAWN-ee-unn), when we don't say frãhnss?

And we get all worried about calling places by old "colonialist" names like "Peking" or "Burma," but how offended are we by the fact that the Chinese call us Meiguo instead of America? (The Japanese sometimes say America--easier to write foreign words in Japanese afterall--but they're just as likely to say Beikoku. Meiguo at least means "Beauiful-land," whereas Beikoku means "Riceland") How offended are the Germans that everyone calls them... um... something other than Deutsch?

Does anyone care that only the Junta wants us to say "Myanmar"? Or, at the risk of contradicting myself, that it is properly pronounced something like MYÃH-mah, not MEE-ahn-marrrr? I know that most English speakers find mya- a difficult combination, and need to add an epenthetic vowel, but these people say kee-OH-toh, right, not KEE-oh-toh (though I guess I could see a comic hillbilly saying tha ;) )

Futher reading:

* http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Names_of_Burma
* http://www.languagehat.com/archives/000467.php(unfortunately the original comments to this post, which were quite good, were irrevocably destroyed by some computer or other, which is why it seems to start with LH complimenting himself)
* http://www.languagehat.com/archives/002889.php

Um... oh right, all this has very little to do with Sotomayor, doesn't it. Well, to be fair it's lot like there's a lot in that name to trip up English speakers, unless you insist on pronouncing that y as a [ɟ]. Or are there really people who can only pronounce it "sod-a-mayor"?



And at the risk of contradicting myself, if we're going to "update" placenames, can't we at least do it right

7:51 PM, May 27, 2009  
OpenID jdm314 said...

Oops. Bad, bad editing! Sorry.

7:53 PM, May 27, 2009  
OpenID ai-meilian said...

I guess my take on it all is: it's best to make the attempt, even if failure is inevitable. But only *gentle* correction should be applied when the inevitable happens. But applied it should be, IMO. It's really no different than quirky English names, like Worcestershire or Aloysius: there's an orthography-to-pronunciation mismatch; one way of pronouncing the name is going to be (at least approximately) correct, and others wrong.

After all, why should Aloysius be able to correct someone about how to pronounce Worcestershire, but not his own name? ;)

6:29 AM, May 28, 2009  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

With regard to "Myanmar," I always want to say "Mallomar," like the cookie.

Fortunately, it's not the sort of thing that comes up too often, at least for me. If it did, I would probably use "Burma" to get around my particular idiosyncrasy.

10:27 AM, June 05, 2009  

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