Monday, 2 November 2009

rock law

The Travel section in Saturday’s Guardian had a feature article about Wroclaw [sic], by one Alex Webber, who says he has lived in Poland for the last nine years.
It is surprising, then, that he is ill-informed about the pronunciation of this name.
For the record, its correct spelling is Wrocław (though we mustn’t niggle over the difficulties the British press still has with east European letters such as ł). However its Polish pronunciation is not, as Mr Webber claims, “rot-slav” but [ˈvrɔtswaf], which he could write as “vrot-swahf”. Mr Webber may be right in his claim that (some) Brits call it “rock-law”, i.e. [ˈrɒk lɔː], though I have never heard that myself: in the circles in which I move, people call it [ˈvrɒtslɑːv], and that is what I put in LPD.
Other interesting places mentioned in the article include “Poznán” (should be Poznań) and “Kracow” (should be either the traditional English Cracow or the Polish Kraków). The latter city does have a traditional English pronunciation, too — [ˈkrækaʊ] — to set alongside its Polish name, pronounced [ˈkɾakuf].
All three of these places are also known in English by their German names: Breslau, Posen, Krakau. The first is presumably the source of the surname of the comedy actor Bernard Bresslaw (1934-1993).

20 comments:

  1. Did you contact The Guardian about this? It has since been amended in the online version to "vrotz-waf".

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  2. Still too close to the misleading spelling. "vrawtz-wuff" might be better. Dortswough?

    (I suppose if D or R results in higher chances for a Pole to recognise what's meant will depend on whether or not he expects an Anglicised pronunciation.)

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  3. Even more surprising is that Guardian is prepared to publish this kind of half-baked stuff, especially in an era when Wikipedia is only a click away for writer, copy-editor (if any) and reader alike. Nowadays they have an extra duty to get their basic facts right, when it's so easy to catch them out.

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  4. @Lipman: there are lots of people in the UK whose STRUT vowel is nothing like [a].

    As a Northerner with [a] for the TRAP/BATH vowel, and with some limited experience of the sounds of Polish, "vrotz-waf" seems reasonable to me, and is indeed what I say on the rare occasions I mention the city in question.

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  5. I see your point, but I don't think the Guardian was thinking of a Northern dialect.

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  6. I am a native speaker of Polish. I also think that 'vrotz-waff' is a (very) good approximation of how we pronounce this word. There are no long vowels in Polish, so 'aw' in the first syllable is out of the question.
    Incidentally, I have heard that some people in Wrocław want to promote the name 'Breslau' internationally since it is much easier to pronounce, but it actually stirs anti-German resentment in me.
    A comparative diagram of Polish and English vowels can be found at http://grzegorj.w.interia.pl/gram/en/vowels.html

    Best,

    MG

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  7. No. The comparison you link to in fact confirms what I had written above.

    "vrotz-waff" is good for a Northumbrian or a Pole reading English, but not for the RP reader the Guardian has in mind. If the RP speaker reads "vrotz-waff", a Pole who doesn't know the word in question and isn't familiar with English conventional equivalents will probably hear Włacłew or Włacływ if the second vowel is reduced to schwa.

    Concerning the long vowels in Polish: you mean length isn't phonemic. Still, stressed vowels, even in a closed syllable, tend to be longer (as usual in such languages except for some, eg Standard European Spanish). On the other hand, not only are there descriptions of English that do without vowel length, shifting the distinction to the clearly different qualities alone, but vowels traditionally called "long" can easily be shorter than "short" vowels, depending on the phonetic environment and simply because of the considerable bandwidth of free variation.

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  8. @Lipman
    I take your point regarding vowel length. I admit I didn't think about differential vowel length such as occurs before fortis vs. lenis consonants. In auditory terms, the quality of the Polish /o/ and the English short vowel often spelt with the same letter is rather different. On second thoughts, however, strange as it may seem, I would say that the Polish vowel is closest to the /a:/ sound of 'dark' (sorry for using an ASCII keyboard symbols only).
    As for the first part of your comment, I doubt there is a way of guaranteeing that English readers do not pronounce a particular vowel letter as the schwa. Similarly, I can't see how to convey the message that a particular /r/ sound is trilled rather than retroflex. Would 'wrawtz' help in this regard too?

    MG

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  9. Lipman: why do you think the Guardian has an RP speaker in mind? (Serious question - I don't think it's at all obvious that people even think about different accents of English when they come up with respellings like this.)

    Plus a lot of younger RP speakers will have a TRAP vowel closer to [a] than the traditional position shown on the comparative diagram linked to (hence, presumably, the Oxford dictionary transcription of TRAP as /a/).

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  10. I don't think the Guardian author has anyone in particular in mind, but the unaware model is certainly (mainstream) RP, even if the author himself is a speaker of another dialect. The point is, he probably simply equates the sounds represented by the same Polish and English letter, or more generally, the conventional English substitutes for their distant Continental relations. (Maybe it's cheap Ryanair - today the TRAP vowel drawn nearer the Continental /a/, but still, the contemporary STRUT is nearest, while the TRAP vowel will often be heard as an /e/ type vowel by Europeans.)

    That's fine in everyday life, especially for names - when I talk about Hamburg, I certainly don't pronounce the vowels the German way - but it isn't helpful when you explicitly teach the native pronunciation.

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  11. I'm not sure what you mean by "the unaware model is certainly (mainstream) RP, even if the author himself is a speaker of another dialect".

    There is a paper with some discussion of whether [a] (in this case in Danish) is perceived by English speakers as TRAP or STRUT at http://www.phon.ucl.ac.uk/ptlc/proceedings/ptlcpaper_33e.pdf

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  12. David Marjanović4 November 2009 at 23:47

    Still too close to the misleading spelling. "vrawtz-wuff" might be better.

    Well, "aw" would be misleading for most Britons; in RP, it's very close to [o] (much closer than to [ɔ]), and for many people with similar accents it actually reaches it.

    Concerning the long vowels in Polish: you mean length isn't phonemic. Still, stressed vowels, even in a closed syllable, tend to be longer

    This is a strong effect for Russian, but much less so for Polish. I agree that "aw" would be too long here.

    (Of course, "o" would be seriously misleading for Americans, and "aw" would be the best option for them.)

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  13. JHJ,

    I meant whether the author of that article is a speaker of RP or of another dialect - when he uses the English orthographical tradition to transcribe something, he very probably implies (contemporary, mainstream) RP sounds. Simply because it's the standard and it wouldn't help the readers when he implies a regional, let alone a Polish, accent without telling.

    The paper is interesting - thanks! - though not surprising. It doesn't discuss "whether [a] (in this case in Danish) is perceived by English speakers as TRAP or STRUT", though, but only the case of English, and the very special vowels of Danish can't be generalised at all.

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  14. Sorry, meant to say "only the case of Danish", of course.

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  15. David,

    I was aware of the [o] quality of MRP /o/ &c. and I stand by what I wrote above.

    What does Russian vowel length have to do with the issue? Of course there's a considerable difference inside Polish, as you'll realise when you imagine a Polish accent in English or even in drawled Austrian German, and of course the English |aw| can be pretty short, especially in a syllable closing in a voiceless consonant, where it also tends to be more open.

    Foreigners often underestimate how far back the English "short o" is, mostly because of the spelling, and, to a degree, because of its bandwidth.

    I don't have the time to comment concerning GA.

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  16. Lipman,

    On the first point, I disagree: as I said before, I really don't think they think much about how people with accents other than their own are going to perceive their respellings, and if they hear the Polish pronunciation of Wrocław as "vrotz-waf" (as I'm sure many British English speakers do) then I don't think they're likely to start adjusting the vowels in the way you seem to be suggesting.

    On the second point, yes Danish vowels are somewhat unusual, but I got the impression from that paper that the Danish vowel they refer to as TAK (and which had a 3:1 ratio for TRAP over STRUT in their experiment) is a low central [a] much like the Polish vowel in question.

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  17. JHJ,

    your first point is about two issues. The first is whether a non-RP writer for a nationwide paper will (unknowingly) base a transcription on his or her regional accent, and I just can't imagine so. A journalist who's speaking cockney at home won't transcribe a Danish stød as -tt- because in his accent -tt- is a glottal stop, and he won't transcribe a postvocalic [w] in a foreign word as an L.

    The other issue is whether speakers of BE accents will hear Wrocław as "vrotz-waf". I'm quite sure most won't under ideal circumstances, ie when they don't know it's a Pole who's speaking, they aren't familiar with the name and so on. One shouldn't understimate the power of convention, and not only do we naively "know" that Europeans have the same short a sound, only they pronounce it a bit differently, but many are of the opinion that /ʌ/ is a sort of an oo sound, and that it doesn't correspond to any foreign sound at all, which isn't true today.

    I'm confident that when you ask a Pole to say the Polish word bat ('whip'), and you tell an English person to listen to this English voice reading an English noun, most will say it's the English butt, not bat.

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  18. I guess we're going to have to agree to disagree on this.

    (Your last point would make for an interesting experiment along the lines of the Danish one, though.)

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  19. David Marjanović6 November 2009 at 00:51

    What does Russian vowel length have to do with the issue?

    It's just an example of a language where what you wrote – that, in languages without phonemic vowel length, stressed vowels tend to be longer – is true, and much more so than in Polish.

    Foreigners often underestimate how far back the English "short o" is

    Do you mean how open it is? Or do you mean the added pharyngealization, or both?

    I'm confident that when you ask a Pole to say the Polish word bat ('whip'), and you tell an English person to listen to this English voice reading an English noun, most will say it's the English butt, not bat.

    Just for the record, I agree.

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  20. Open, of course, not back. Sorry.

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