Monday, 13 December 2010

Laocoön

I hope it’s not going to be too boring if I again mention people’s increasing ignorance of how to pronounce classical names. Last week’s edition of the BBC television programme Have I Got News for You — which targets an intellectual rather than a popular audience — involved an odd-man-out question in which one of the candidates was Laocoön. Classicists and, I imagine, art historians know that this name is traditionally pronounced in English as leɪˈɒkəʊɒn. Everyone on HIGNFY called it læˈkəʊən. This does not even correspond to the spelling, since it ignores the o of Lao-. But they all said it, so I suppose the producer must have told them to.

The reason that the cognoscenti say leɪˈɒkəʊɒn is the usual boring one involving historical developments to do with Greek vowel length and the Latin stress rule, feeding into the English Great Vowel Shift. The Greek Λαοκόων laokóōn has a short penultimate vowel, making a light penultimate syllable, causing the Latin stress to fall on the antepenultimate and the English stress likewise. As in chaos, Greek χάος kháos, English lengthens the prevocalic short a, which duly emerges from the GVS as . Same with the penultimate short o, which turns into əʊ. As we say nowadays, simples.

If you know the ‘rules’, i.e. the historical principles underlying the traditional English pronunciation of classical names, leɪˈɒkəʊɒn is absolutely predictable and unremarkable. However, while knowledge of these rules is certainly useful for the author of a pronunciation dictionary, I can see the force of the argument that not everyone needs to know them.

Knowledge is a tricky thing. I spent my working life in a university environment where people generally felt an obligation to know the correct pronunciation not only of classical names but also of anything from French, German, Italian or Spanish. This doesn’t necessarily apply elsewhere.

On the tube I overheard a couple discussing buying a new washing machine. One of the brands they were considering was Miele. They called it miːɫ.

But I can’t escape from the fact that I know German and therefore think of this brand as ˈmiːlə. I know that vice versa has four syllables, not three. I know that Giotto has two syllables, not three. And I know that the letter z in the Brothers Karamazov is not like the z in Mozart. Millions don’t. Rant over. Perhaps I ought to get out more.

50 comments:

  1. Another very common mispronunciations (common, at least, among London's chorizo-eating middle class) is chorizo as /tʃərˈɪtsəʊ/ or /tʃərˈiːtsəʊ/. The initial cho-, illegal in Italian spelling, should tip us off that it's a Spanish word and should therefore be anglicised as /tʃərˈiːθəʊ/.

    Like bruschetta (commonly pronounced /brʊˈʃetə/ because the sch is taken for the German trigraph), this is an un-naturalised loanword with lots of variation in its pronunciation and we who know the 'correct' pronunciation can comfortably use it and be able to justify it if challenged. But for such a common expression as vice versa, it seems perverse to insist on /vaɪsi vəːsə/, no matter how 'correct' one knows it to be.

    Does that make it OK to say /vaɪs vəːsə/?

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  2. Pete - do you really think that people think bruschetta - a food chiefly associated with Italian restaurants - is German? My hunch is that sch simply has the default value ʃ for most British people, without any German connotations. And presumably, the people who don't know enough Italian to say bruschetta cannot be the same ones who are mispronouncing chorizo by applying genuine Italian rules to it.

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  3. *"Genuine" as regards the z, of course, not the ch.

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  4. There's a popular brand of frozen pizza in the US called Freschetta. The TV ads pronounce it German-style. I think they were trying to suggest with "fresh."

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  5. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  6. @Julie: yes we have that here too, and it's pronounced the same way: /fre'ʃetə/. It looks like the Italin word freschezza "freshness", which is pronounced /fres'kɛttsa/.

    Ironically, the h is there in the Italian spelling to stop the sc from becoming /ʃ/. Stephen Fry, who speaks Italian, did the TV ad here, and I have a image of him trying in vain to persuade the ad men to let him pronounce it 'correctly'.

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  7. ...And Leo, you're right - it's not that people are mistaking bruschetta for a German word; more that they're just more familiar with the German value of sch.

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  8. I was a classicist, but I never heard anyone say
    leɪˈɒkəʊɒn. Well probably I did in the remote past, but I certainly haven't in time remembered. But presumably I have heard
    læˈkəʊən. So my inclination was for
    læˈkəʊɒn, or possibly lauˈkəʊɒn.

    I'm not sure what I'll say in future — if the need should ever arise. It's one thing to know a 'correct' pronunciation, but it can be quite another thing to use it.

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  9. Sorry - that should have been /frɛs'kɛttsa/, not /fres'kɛttsa/

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  10. JCW, you said..

    >>and, I imagine, art historians know

    Your faith is touching. I recently watched a very good programme about the art of St. Ives, but was somewhat dismayed by the fact that the presenter (whose name I forget) pronounced Dutch painter Piet Mondriaan's first name as [piːet]. This was despite the fact that he was, apparently, an eminent art historian.

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  11. I've just re-posted to correct a typo. Incidentally, I made a change that I would otherwise have bothered with — I inserted line breaks before the transcriptions with accents.

    Doe anybody know how to prevent a line break in mid-word before an accent mark?

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  12. David C, in the,light of what you say I've left your deleted comment untouched. (Normally I tidy up by permanently removing deleted comments, which as administrator I can do but you can't.)

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  13. John

    Thanks, for that. But do you know an answer to the line-break problem? I've tried Unicode 02C8 MODIFIER LETTER VERTICAL LINE instead of Unicode 0027 APOSTROPHE, but no joy.

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  14. I find leɪˈɒkə(ʊ)ɒn the "natural" and neutral pronunciation, biased by a classicist school, I'm sure.

    læˈkəʊən sounds outright wrong to me, not just different.

    leɪəˈkəʊɒn would sound as overly correct and a bit wisecracking as leɪˈɒkəʊɒn might sound to the HIGNFY panellists.

    Am I the only one to find vaɪsɪ vəːsə rather unmarked, even though certainly the minority pronunciation by now?

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  15. Saying Laocoön over to myself, I realize that I have always said /leɪˈækoʊɑn/ (where /oʊ/ may go to schwa in allegro pronunciation), rather than the historically expected /leɪˈɑkoʊɑn/. I don't know if this is dissimilation or what. My mother was a student and translator of Nietzsche, and I probably picked up the tetrasyllabic pronunciation from her. She was German, though she came to the U.S. at age twelve and had near-native English fluency in everything but accent; does anyone know the standard German pronunciation of the name?

    In the U.S., Spanish chorizo would be pronounced with an /s/, and this /s/ would voice to /z/ in AmE, as usually happens intervocalically before a stressed vowel: cf. Gonzalez /gʌnˈzɑləs/. This voicing tendency is so strong that it appears even in the English of bilinguals.

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  16. In German, you get läˈʔoːkɔʔɔn. (Stupid IPA convention about the [a].)

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  17. David C: no, I don't know a solution to the linebreak problem. Blogger takes no notice of the HTML <nobr> tag. (I always use 02C8 for the stress mark.)
    Lipman: In IPA, German /a/ is correctly so transcribed. The simplicity principle says you should use the simplest vowel symbol that would not cause ambiguity. Mangold (Duden Ausspr.) gives laˈoːkoɔn.

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  18. Thanks. Yes, I know… I understand the idea, but it's still somewhat misleading.

    I decided not to write o for the penultimate vowel because, while the "short long" vowels do exist in "careful speech", they're even less common in a position like this: without even optional secondary stress, right after the stressed vowel.

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  19. In Serbian, interestingly, he's Laokont /'laokont/.

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  20. I think I've cracked the line-breaking problem with these two characters:

    Unicode 00A0 NO-BREAK SPACE
    Unicode 030D COMBINING VERTICAL LINE ABOVE

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  21. John W,
    It’s certainly not boring that you again mention people’s increasing ignorance of how to pronounce classical names. A vicarious rant is both stimulating and therapeutic.

    Neither is the reason that the cognoscenti say leɪˈɒkəʊɒn boring. The rules are quite simple, and should be proclaimed from the housetops. There's nothing speculative about ordered rules like this! Ad-hockery will do for the exceptions. Too much of present-day linguistics has been about attempts to make rules for the ungovernable.

    Incidentally WHY is "simples" what we say nowadays?

    Once again you bring up examples for which I too try to keep the flag flying. But I am only three years younger than you, and sometimes it seems the cut-off point can't be far behind me. If pubes have become pjuːbz with a singular pube and bona fides (faɪdz, not in LPD) is now the plural of bona fide ('faɪd' is not in LPD, but the US sound files there has it!), what hope is there for ˈvaɪsɪ ˈvəːsə? I wonder if the people with pjuːbz and 'bəʊnə faɪdz think vaɪs ˈvəːsə implies a vicious circle.

    Of course I accept your concession that expecting people to know pronunciations that are not fully naturalized is less realistic.

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  22. Mallamb

    I see your post fell victim to the line-breaking I've been on about. To see whether my solution works, let me copy the start of your second paragraph with my two characters substituted for the accent mark:

    Neither is the reason that the cognoscenti say leɪ ̍ɒkəʊɒn boring.

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  23. So where is the secondary stress on the word? I find leɪˈɒkəʊɒn very hard to say. With the primary stress on the second syllable, I am out of breath on the bridge between [əʊ] and [ɒ].

    Somewhere along the classicist grapevine I heard that it was leɪ'ɒkɒ,əʊn and that's how I normally pronounce it.

    As a former tour guide in the Vatican Museums where the statue is kept, I've had to say the word a LOT of times. Most guides there call it The 'Lau,cu:n, so i'll forward your blogpost on to some of them!

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  24. Mallamb: if you're not in the UK, you probably won't know about the meerkat who says "simples". http://www.comparethemeerkat.com/home .

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  25. John,
    So WHY does he say "simples"?

    David,
    Sorry I disregarded your line-breaking fix. I somehow think you're not far behind John and me in the age stakes, but you like John are still fighting the good fight. I did use to use your line-breaking fix. Fraid I couldn't be bothered. Fraid too that the Feedback Lady in The Times thought that that "use to" was as wrong as some hypercorrective thought.

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  26. So WHY does he say "simples"?
    I suppose to signal the fact that he is Russian and has a rather rudimentary grasp of English grammar.
    I quote: My name is Aleksandr, founder of comparethemeerkat.com. Please enjoy use of my site. It has been specials designed for easy way of comparing meerkats. Simples!

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  27. Thank you, John. I did follow your link, but 'specials' didn't help, I'm afraid.

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  28. John Wells said...
    > an odd-man-out question in which one of the candidates was Laocoön.

    What were the other choices: Nausicaä and Pasiphaë by any chance?

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  29. Gassalasca said...

    > In Serbian, interestingly, he's Laokont /'laokont/.


    And in Italian Laocoonte laokoˈonte.

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  30. My fix of the line-breaking worked with Mallamb's sentence, but I didn't like the spacing. So I'm trying again with

    Unicode 2060 WORD JOINER
    Unicode 02C8 MODIFIER LETTER VERTICAL LINE

    Here are the three versions for comparison

    ORIGINAL
    Neither is the reason that the cognoscenti say leɪˈɒkəʊɒn boring.

    FIRST FIX
    Neither is the reason that the cognoscenti say leɪ ̍ɒkəʊɒn boring.

    SECOND FIX
    Neither is the reason that the cognoscenti say leɪ⁠ˈɒkəʊɒn boring.

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  31. Steve Doerr

    What were the other choices: Nausicaä and Pasiphaë by any chance?

    The other three throttled or tried to throttle someone — unlike Lacoön, who was throttled.

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  32. My feeling about /leɪ⁠ˈɒkəʊɒn/ (=/leɪ⁠ˈɑːkoʊɑːn/) is that it is a bit difficult to say, because of the /oʊV/ hanging on after the primary stress - I feel a strong urge to turn the /oʊ/ into a /u/.

    ...but regardless, in Catonian fashion, I must take the opportunity once again to decry the pronunciation of 'Menelaus' as [ˌmɛnə⁠ˈlaʊs] in "Troy", and of 'Leonidas' as [ˌliːəˈnaɪdəs] in "300". How you can spend millions of dollars to make a movie without even bothering to find the correct pronunciation of your major characters is beyond me.

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  33. Steve

    If you're in the UK, click here and start play from 31.55.

    If you can't play it, the other choices were Brian Blessed, Kay Burley and Homer Simpson.

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  34. David Crosbie said...

    > Unicode 2060 WORD JOINER

    That should work, but doesn't in any of the browsers I've tried: Chrome and Safari display a square, and IE inserts a space. Another one that should work, but probably doesn't, is
    U+FEFF zero width no-break space.

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  35. I think what I used to use was the less exotic U+200D ("Zero-width joiner"), but that probably doesn't work these days either. Whatever fix I used it definitely used to work on some earlier version of IE, so some of you indefatigable people might like to keep experimenting.

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  36. Steve

    It works for me in Safari. Doesn't my SECOND FIX look right in your system?

    It also looks OK in Firefox, but the font size is such that there's no problem with Mallamb's original.

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  38. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  39. Mallamb

    I've twice tried your Unicode 200D with no success.

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  40. David Crosbie said...

    > Steve

    >It works for me in Safari. Doesn't my SECOND FIX look right in your system?

    No, not on Windows (but it does on my iPhone). Maybe I'm missing a font?

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  41. Mallamb: Pube and pubis are not synonymous: the former is a clipping of pubic hair in the sense of an individual hair. Their plural forms are both spelled pubes, but pronounced differently; they also belong to different registers.

    I have never heard any American of whatever age or level of education say bona fide(s) or vice versa with four syllables, and I would think it more than unusual. My father was a lawyer with six academic degrees — during the Depression, education was cheap and jobs rare — born in 1904; if anyone would have used these archaisms it would have been him, and he didn't.

    Note that the adjective bona fide, the Latin ablative, has added the new meaning 'genuine' to the original meaning 'good-faith', and the mass noun bona fides has similarly added the meaning 'the fact of being who or what one is', as in a bona fide Southerner, his bona fides as a Southerner. These new meanings have in turn spawned the novel count noun bona fide 'evidence/proof/credential of being who or what one is', with the regular plural bona fides. All perfectly normal semantic change, and nothing to resist here.

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  42. Steve

    No, not on Windows (but it does on my iPhone).

    Apple notify Apple users of upgrades, but perhaps not Windows users. Do you have the latest Safari? It seems to be version 5.0.3. for both platforms.

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  43. John C
    I know all that, and I said nothing to the contrary. I am not resisting anything. Please don't lecture me. I share John W's preference for ˈvaɪsɪ ˈvəːsə (and however irrationally, his apparent dislike for vaɪs ˈvəːsə), and have granted that this is probably merely because of my age. So I observed that the form we prefer can hardly survive in a world in which pubes and bona fides have undergone the developments that they have. For 'pubes' has indeed become pjuːbz with a singular 'pube', of course alongside the technical usage, which was irrelevant to the (admittedly facetious) point I was making.

    I was assuming that a similar parallel development had happened with 'bona fides', with the technical usage of 'bona fides' nom sing and 'bona fide' abl sing being more likely to preserve what you call the 'archaisms', but you tell me this is not so for Americans. In the UK it is more a matter of the trisyllabic pronunciations not really having caught on. As I said, JCW's LPD, which is usually scrupulous in giving American pronunciations doesn't give 'faɪdz' and 'faɪd' for either UK or US. I did point out that the pronunciation /faɪd/ is there, apparently by accident, as the reader for the US sound file uses it. However the US sound file for 'bona fides' has ˈfaɪdiːz, where the transcription gives the options ˈfaɪd iːz ˈfiːd eɪz, -eɪs for both UK and US. Perhaps you had better make these representations to JCW.

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  44. David Crosbie said...

    > Do you have the latest Safari? It seems to be version 5.0.3. for both platforms.

    5.0.3 (7533.19.4)

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  45. Interestingly, my 1960s (American) Collier's Encyclopedia gives the pronunciation as leɑ′kəwɑn.

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  46. @ John Cowan: "I have never heard any American of whatever age or level of education say bona fide(s) or vice versa with four syllables, and I would think it more than unusual." Really? I've never heard bona fide with four syllables either, but you've never heard vice versa with four syllables? I mean no offense when I say this, but you should travel around our great country a bit more. People where I'm from say vice versa with four syllables quite frequently. It may even be the more common pronunciation in my hometown. It isn't the one I use and I find it to be really annoying, but you do hear it a lot where I'm from. We do live in a gigantic country though, so I understand if you haven't been to my neck of the woods before.

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  47. Going back to Laocoön, it occurred to me yesterday that we're all pronouncing it wrong: surely, by the hiatus rule, the stressed vowel should be lengthened in English, giving leɪˈəʊkəʊɒn / leɪˈoʊkoʊɑn ?

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  48. Phil, I am by no means offended, but I hate traveling, so I'm unlikely to go to your home town. That's why I try to say things like "I have not heard Americans say ..." rather than "Americans don't say ..."

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  49. As a footnote to the discussion on control characters above, I finally decided to install Firefox on this machine (I've used it on others but not on this one), and I'm delighted to say that David Crosbie's posts now display correctly, with no little squares or spurious spaces appearing. Thunderbird also displays them correctly, so full marks to Mozilla!

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