Friday, 17 December 2010


Jürgen Trouvain emailed me:
In the last days and weeks I've stumbled over the pronunciation of the Wikileaks activist Julian Assange in German media. Here it is common to pronounce it "the French way" as [a'sãʃ] (with the final consonant devoiced as usual in German). I wonder whether Australians and other native speakers of English also use a nasal vowel in the second syllable or whether they use [ɑn] instead - as indicated on the Wikipedia page. Any hint?

In reply I told him that British newsreaders, too, mostly seem to attempt a French-style nasalized vowel. What I hear on the radio and TV news is generally aˈsɑ̃ːʒ or something similar.

As with other French names, though, we also see some degree of anglicization through
  • reduction of the first vowel to ə;
  • replacement of the nasalized vowel by a sequence of vowel plus n;
  • use of an affricate rather than the fricative ʒ; and
  • confusion about which of the French nasalized vowels is involved.
So we also get things like əˈsɑːndʒ, aˈsɒnʒ, æˈsɔ̃ːʒ, əˈsæ̃ʒ.

As we know, standard French has up to four distinct nasalized vowels, conventionally represented in IPA as ɛ̃ œ̃ ɑ̃ ɔ̃ but in practice pronounced more like æ̃ æ̃ ɒ̃ õ. In BrE-accented French they usually come out as nasalized versions of English æ ʌ ɒ ɒ respectively. That is, we tend not to distinguish cent-sang from son-sont, though unlike many French people we do distinguish brin from brun.

When we actually borrow French words and names into English, though, a further confusion seems very typically to happen. We confuse the front nasalized vowel, French ɛ̃, with the back one, French ɑ̃ ~ ɔ̃. Thus lingerie, French lɛ̃ʒʀi, is often pronounced in English as ˈlɒnʒəri rather than the more accurate ˈlænʒəri.

It is this confusion (or the same confusion in reverse) which has enabled Steve Bell to pun on Mr Assange’s name and the French word for a monkey, singe sɛ̃ʒ. He draws both him and his lawyer as simians.


  1. Indeed, here in the US, I usually hear "lingerie" pronounced [ˌlɑːnʒəˈɹeɪ], as if it were "langeré". This makes makes me sad, and while I never have call to say it, if I did, I would insist on saying [ˈlænʒɚi].

    As for "Assange", I pronounce him [əˈsɑːnʒ], which I consider to be a standard mapping of French vowels for AmEng.

  2. I think lingerie is usually pronounced /'lɒnʒəreɪ/ in BrE, as if it were from French */'lɑ̃ʒəre/ (which we'd have to spell *langeré.

  3. Is 'Assange' a French name? Not according to this profile in the New Yorker:

    "The name Assange is thought to derive from Ah Sang, or Mr. Sang, a Chinese émigré who settled on Thursday Island, off the coast of Australia, in the early eighteen-hundreds, and whose descendants later moved to the continent."

  4. The discussion at

    gives more details of the Ah Sang/Assang/Assange family. As someone said, it's one of the rare surnames (other than Aboriginal of course) that originated in Australia.

    There's never been anyone with the surname Assange in France (since 1891 anyway).

    Chinese origin names starting with Ah have mostly been treated as pseudo-Irish here, rather than pseudo-French. I used to have a student O'Young, my next-door neighbour is O'Phee, and Bill O'Chee was a senator in the federal parliament -- all are descended from nineteenth century immigrants from China.

  5. The BBC Russian website is using [dʒ] (Ассандж) for the final consonant; other Russian media sources I have checked are using [ʒ] (Ассанж).

    I haven't paid enough attention when listening to Russian language news reports to notice how the vowel under discussion is being realised but will keep an ear out.

  6. To quote: "As we know, standard French has up to four distinct nasalized vowels, conventionally represented in IPA as ɛ̃ œ̃ ɑ̃ ɔ̃ but in practice pronounced more like æ̃ æ̃ ɒ̃ õ."

    Tell this to the Quebecois. ;o)

  7. One of my friends(early 20s, northwestern US) has entirely denasalized the second vowel and come up with something like əˈsɑːʒ. I'm not sure which program it is exactly, but he listens to some sort of BBC world news every night. I think he spread his pronunciation to my other roommates too...

  8. Here it's mostly /a'sandz/ . Cypriot media prefer /a'sanz/ [a'sanʒ] though.

  9. As Anonymous mentions, the Cantonese word "Ah" is used before the last part of a person's name, and denotes familiarity. I'm curious as to whether this word is cognate with the Japanese honorific prefix "o-", which was presumably borrowed from Chinese.

  10. John A
    You might as well ask whether it's cognate with the Arabic 'ya'!

    However the Kanji character 御 with which it may be written, but no longer in general use for the reading 'o' is, like most kanji, borrowed from Chinese, where in Mandarin it's now pronounce yù, in the sense of 'imperial', which in the familiar process of debasing the currency became an all-purpose honorific, and even in Modern Japanese this has other readings 'go', 'gyo', depending on the context, still identifiable as being of Chinese origin and still variously used as honorifics among other things. Other native Japanese readings of this same character are 'mi', which originally connoted some sort of divinity, but is not now perceived as OTT, and 'on', which started off even more OTT, namely as 'ohomi' "great divinity", and evolved via 'ohon', 'oon' etc. to mod. 'on-' and thence to the quite trivial modern 'o-'.

    These honorifics can pile up: 'omiotsuke' 御御御付 ("thrice-honourable miso soup")

    That's Japanese for you!

  11. Thanks Mallamb. You've encouraged me to do what I should have done in the first place, check with a couple of the excellent online Chinese dictionaries.

    Kanji character 御 in Chinese is pinyin 'yù' and means 'drive, ride; chariot; manage'. There's about 60 charactors pronounced 'yù', including, as you say, one that means 'imperial', viz 王 -- so it seems that the Japanese got hold of the wrong one at some stage.

    In Cantonese, 御 is 'yu6'. The Cantonese name prefix is 'a3' 阿 and corresponds to pinyin ā (which also occurs with other tones).

    So, the answer to my original question, is Cantonese "Ah" cognate with Japanese "o-", is clearly "No". Thanks again.

  12. John A
    Keep up the checking! Never stop checking. The checking is never-ending.

    Yes, 御 'yù' means 'drive, ride; chariot; manage' AND 'imperial'. The last precisely because of the meaning 'ruler', from the meanings 'drive, manage', or with less precision 'ruling class'. And there are indeed an awful lot of characters pronounced 'yù', including, as you say, ANOTHER one that means 'imperial', viz 玉, 'jade', also used figuratively for 'imperial'. In Japanese that is 'gyoku', 'goku', 'tama', 'dama' etc as distinct from any of the readings I gave above, because of its different etymology. However 王 wáng (Japanese óo) basically means 'king', and the claim to kingship of a Chinese emperor was that he was fit to 王 wàng (note the 4th tone for the verb, meaning 'to be a true king' like Kings Wen and Wu). So Japanese did NOT got hold of the wrong one at some stage.

    The name prefix "Ah" (which a bit of research does reveal to be likely-looking for the origin of 'Assange') is indeed 阿, and I'm relieved to see that you see that it’s not cognate with Japanese "o-". Sorry I was so facetious as to say "You might as well ask whether it's cognate with the Arabic 'ya'!" As penance I will explain that I was taking the name "prefix" in vain: 阿 (among other things, since we are of course dealing with impossible languages) is rather a prefix qua part of a name, or rather a nickname. It's more like "old" in "old Mike", as I have often been (and deserved to be) called, or "the old girl/woman" (and isn't it fascinating that the Chinese also use 老 lăo 'old' in these ways? – let us never lose sight of the "real" universals of language – the psychologistic ones), whereas Arabic 'ya' is a vocative prefix TO a name, like 'ō' in Latin or 'a' in Irish.

  13. I can't see Australians in the normal course of events accepting a French nasalised vowel at all in a surname, and it would be pretentious of Mr Assange's family to pronounce it that way, especially since it's a home-grown surname. But since he has gained notoriety aˈsɑ̃ːʒ has become standard here in Australia, too. Last week, however, federal opposition leader Tony Abbott produced the pronunciation əˈsæŋgi, which may well represent the pre-WikiLeaks state of things

  14. @djbcjk:
    Many Australians nasalize vowels before a nasal in the same syllable, so pronouncing Assange with a nasal need not be occuring in order to make it sound French (though for some speakers it probably is).

    The spelling apparently originated at the instigation of Mary Whyte, the wife of the son of the first George Ah Sang, the one from China -- the son was born George Ah Sang too, and only got changed to Assange after he got married. He had nine children, so now there are lots of Assanges, and not only on Thursday Island. I don't know whether the family still pronounces their name /a'saŋ/ or not.

    Tony Abbott probably mispronounced the name on purpose; though it's impossible to tell with him when he means something and when he intends to be funny or insulting.

    George Assange the singer and actor, whose cover of "Rock around the Clock" was probably the first Australian rock and roll recording, took the stage name Vic Sobrino. Being part Torres Strait Islander (from the original George's wife) and perhaps wanting to hide the fact because of the racism in the music business at the time (it's very different now, several TI singers have made it big), he no doubt thought an Italian name would fit his dark complexion better than the French-looking Assange.

    1. I am the great grand daughter of Ah Sang,(later to be known as George).I would like to clear up a few misconceptions about,firstly,Ah Sangs wife was NOT,as noted above,a Torres Strait islander,but Mary Whyte from Limerick in Ireland.She met grandpa AhSang on Thursday Island and went onto have a large family,which both my grandmother and Julian's STEP great grandfather were part of.I think more confusion stems from the fact that William (Julian's step GG grandfather and the father of George Assang,the singer AKA Vic Sabrino and my great uncle) married an Aboriginal woman by the name of Cora!..This is where the Torres Strait story gets mixed up,me thinks!..If you would like me to answer and clarify more details please feel free to contact me.

  15. Small correction: The singer, Julian's grandfather and the son of the first Ah Sang, re-spelled his name as "George Assang", not "Assange", when he got married; that's the spelling he used in show business too according to WP. Today though, the descendants of his nine children apparently all use "Assange".

  16. So what does his name mean?

  17. Mika, I notice that the Chinese Wikipedia entry for Julian Assange spells out his name phonetically as 阿桑奇 (A-sang-ji). So in that respect, it can mean little in Chinese other than perhaps 'strange (奇) mulberry tree (桑)' which is perhaps apt in the case of Julian Assange who is indeed quite the atypical blossom! ;o) I jest, of course.

  18. What about if it is Ah sang, A sang or just plain Assange ( as in french)? Im really curious?!

  19. Mika and Glen, if you are still around:

    Since it does look as if the name was originally Ah Sang, we may assume that Assange's ancestor's name was spelt阿桑, i.e. with the first two of those characters, if it was spelt at all by any literate Chinese! Because 桑 (sāng, mulberry tree) is one of the Hundred Surnames, which I don't think can be spelt any other way. So the Chinese Wikipedia entry for Julian Assange is probably not just spelling out his name phonetically. It's giving the standard spelling, and there's no reason to suppose that any part of that other than the 奇 is purely phonetic (and even that is not entirely inappropriate, given the 'stangeness', 'rarity', and 'peculiarity' of the spelling 'Assange'!) 桑 too is indeed in use for the transcription of foreign names etc, and both characters can be seen in 桑奇 for Sanchi in India, as in 桑奇大塔(less commonly桑吉大塔) for the Great Stupa of Sanchi, but in the spelling阿桑奇the 奇 must be meant to indicate the poshed-up spelling with -e. But these transcriptions into Chinese are so approximate that it doesn't help us with the pronunciation: it could represent aˈsɑ̃ːʒ, əˈsɑːndʒ, aˈsɒnʒ, æˈsɔ̃ːʒ, əˈsæ̃ʒ, etc, or even the federal opposition leader Tony Abbott's pronunciation əˈsæŋgi, or by implication aˈsɑ̃ːgi, əˈsɑːŋgi, aˈsɒŋgi, æˈsɔ̃ːgi etc, or by analogy it could be any of the pronunciations in ʒ or dʒ +i!

  20. Yes, I can go along with that explanation. When I mean 'phonetic' here, I suppose I'm not referring to the phonetics of one Chinese language alone. Multiple dialects have their own pronunciations yet use the same characters. In Mandarin the last character is -ji and can't be pronounced *-gi but nonetheless I suppose in the grand scheme of things it does indeed represent all these possible variant pronunciations. If I understand correctly, in Cantonese it's pronounced with -kei which is because of a relationship born from the palatalization of velar stops during the development of Mandarin that didn't occur in Cantonese.

  21. I admire the guesswork, but 阿桑 is almost certainly not the correct original characters.

    Knowing that the name of a 19th-century Chinese immigrant was anglicized as 'Ah Sang' unfortunately does not tell us much about how it would originally have been written in Chinese characters. There is tremendous variation in pronunciation of the same characters among the different varieties of Chinese (not to mention multiple readings for a single character in each of the varieties). Even if we restrict ourselves to Mandarin, the pinyin shang of Standard Mandarin would be pronounced something like sang for most Mandarin dialects. 桑 by the way is pronounced something like song, sung, or sng in many Southern varieties including Cantonese. Chances are that 'Ah Sang' would not correspond to the Modern Standard Mandarin reading of the same characters.

    If the 'Ah' is indeed an honorific, then 'Sang' is probably not a surname but a given name.

  22. But 桑 IS sāng in Mandarin. What is this "pinyin shang of Standard Mandarin" you are talking about? Of course we were not even embarking on speculation about other possible dialects. And it IS one of the Hundred Surnames. Of course there may be others of them pronounced similarly in other dialects, and as I said, we can't assume that it was spelt at all. If it can't be traced to any records it might have been anything. But we were talking about the likelihood of the characters of the standard spelling in the Wikipedia entry being motivated by that surname, and so Mandarin was all we had to go on.

  23. Sorry, by "we can't assume that it was spelt at all" I of course meant that we can't assume that Assange's ancestor's name was spelt at all.

  24. Sorry for not leaving things vague. I was perhaps squeezing too many arguments into a short post.

    I was talking rather about characters like 上 or 商 that are pronounced shang in Standard Mandarin. Quite a lot of Mandarin dialects merge the retroflex series with the alveolar sibilants, so that 上 or 商 are come out like sang. For many Mandarin dialects speakers, Shanghai would be pronounced rather like Sanghai. This means we should also look at names with initial sh sounds as candidates for for the original Sang.

    You are operating under the assumption that Sang was a surname, but I don't think this was the case. The Chinese particle 阿 is prefixed to given names in traditional rural or Southern dialectal usage. Wiktionary gives the example of Chen Shui-bian becoming A-Bian. Another example is The True Story of Ah Q (阿Q正傳) by Lu Xun. This particle was often taken to be part of the name by Europeans.

    By the way, a Han Chinese surname would definitely have a corresponding Chinese character. Surnames were originally limited to the aristocracy and the royal family, and when introduced to the rest of the population, it was for the purpose of record-keeping. An illiterate rural family would not simply have come up with a family name without ever having to write it down in Chinese characters.

  25. Er, that should of course be 'Sorry for leaving things vague'.