Wednesday, April 2, 2014

It shouldn't be so damn hard to pronounce words and names

Back in junior high school I learned that non-word "ghoti" can be pronounced "fish."
  • gh = f, as in touGH
  • o = i, as in wOmen
  • ti = sh, as in naTIonal
This is an important demonstration -- and warning -- that English is not a phonetic language. Both British English and American English pronunciation is often very different from what the spelling implies. And the spelling may imply different things.



Ambiguity is rampant.
  • "Ough" can be pronounced at least five ways.
  • "Lead" can be pronounced two ways.
  • "Read" can be pronounced two ways.
  • "Do" can be pronounced two ways.
  • "Greenwich" can be pronounced two ways.
  • "Newark" can  be pronounced two ways.
  • "Houston" can be pronounced two ways.
  • "Unionized" can be pronounced two ways. (Or maybe more?)
  • "Sean" can be pronounced two ways. (Or maybe more?)
  • "Fiend" and "friend" don't rhyme. 
  • "Fluff" and "rough" do rhyme.
  • "Witch" and "which" are pronounced the same.
  • "Bake" rhymes with "break," but "break" doesn't rhyme with "beak" and "beak" rhymes with "peek."
  • "Bread" is pronounced like "bred" and also rhymes with "said."
  • "Said," of course, does not rhyme with "plaid." 
  • "Made" rhymes with "played." 
  • "Wad" rhymes with "rod" but doesn't rhyme with "bad."
  • "Bade" is pronounced like "bad," not like "made."
  • "Yolk," "croak" and "joke" rhyme.
  • You can take a brake, make a brake and break a brake.
  • "Mobile" in Alabama is not pronounced like "mobile," but "mobile" is usually pronounced "mo-bill," like "Mobil" -- the gas brand.
  • "Mobile" is sometimes pronounced like "mo-byle" -- but not like the "mobile" in "automobile" (mo-beel").
  • "New Orleans, Louisiana" is pronounced differently by natives and visitors.
Warning to Writers: if you think there is a chance that readers will mispronounce an ambiguous heteronym like "read," structure your text so the reader is led into the proper pronunciation and meaning.


Confusion is also rampant.
  • In the 1985 James Bond movie, A View to a Kill, Bond poses as James St. John Smythe (but the name is pronounced "sin-jin-smythe")

In junior high school, I was taught that there is no improper way to spell a proper noun. By extension, there is apparently no improper way to pronounce an improperly spelled proper noun. Basketballer Isiah Thomas pronounces his first name as if it was properly spelled: "Isaiah."

Flexible pronunciation seems to be particularly pervasive with genital-sounding Germanic names.

The German word "koch" means "cook" and is properly pronounced "kawch" (you may have to be German or Jewish or German-Jewish to say it right). In Germany, Martha Stewart might be known as a Koch. (I don't remember if there is a female form.) Americans named Koch seldom pronounce their name authentically.




  • Sam Adams Beer boss Jim Koch pronounces it "Cook."
  • Former New York mayor Ed Koch preferred to rhyme his name with "crotch."
  • The billionaire Koch brothers prefer "Coke."
  • I don't know of any Koches who are called "cocks."

The "ei" vowel combination is very common in German words and names. Although I studied German for just one semester and it was long ago, I do remember some of the rigid rules. "Ei" is pronounced like an English "long i."
  • A beer stein -- even if filled up by Jim "Cook" -- is pronounced "stine."
  • The German word for "one" is "ein."
  • The German word for "fine" is "fein."
  • The German word for "wine" is "wein."
  • The German word for "white" is "weiss." 
  • The German word for "small" is "klein" -- and I've never heard it pronounced "clean." 

I've also never heard anyone say "beer steen," but the creator of the classic monster was called "Dr. Fronkensteen" in Mel Brooks's Young Frankenstein. Composer/conductor Lenny was always "Bernstine," but lesser sharers of the surname are content to be "Bernsteens." Author R L Stine spells his name the way he wants it to be pronounced.

Sometimes there are regional variations -- even within the same family! A New York "Bernstine" may move east and become a Connecticut "Bernsteen." Similarly, a New York Kaufman ("Cowfman") may become a Connecticut "Cawfman."

Some names have the deadly e-i combo twice, in two syllables. It gets very confusing. I've heard "Weinstein" pronounced "winestine" and "winesteen" -- but never "weenstine" or "weensteen."

Anthony Weiner, the disgraced mayoral-wannabe from New York City, chooses to violate the Germanic linguistic tradition and mispronounces his name as if it was really spelled "Wiener." Apparently he prefers to be thought of as a hotdog or a penis -- not a crybaby.



Former Congressman Weiner once cried at a press conference. Perhaps he picked up the habit in Washington from the Speaker of the House, John Boehner. "Boehner," by the way, is pronounced "bayner" -- not (ha-ha) boner).

By the way, the German "ie" combo is supposed to be pronounced like a "long e." Oscar Mayer gets it right. His wieners are properly pronounced like Anthony mispronounces "Weiner." Oscar's last name, by the way, is pronounced "myer" -- not "mayor."

And, oh yeah, former meathead Rob Reiner is not "reener." And Professor Albert Einstein was not "eensteen." And 34th U. S. President Ike was not "eesenhower."

Spanish words are frequently mispronounced by Americans and Brits.
  • In the USA, "Rodeo Drive" gets a proper "ro-day-oh," but cowboys compete in an improper "ro-dee-oh."
  • Born to the right of the big pond, chef Robert Irvine pronounces "taco" as "tack oh."

French gets butchered, too, particularly place names such as Quebec and Paris.

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