Monday 11 October 2010

cookie monster

On BBC Radio 4 there is a panel game called The Unbelievable Truth. In it, panellists have to speak on a given topic. What they say consists mostly of lies, but with a few nuggets of truth hidden among the rubbish. The other panellists have to try to detect the truths.

Last Monday’s episode, repeated yesterday, had one of the panellists talking on the subject of Cake. One of the purportedly true assertions he made was that the word cookie comes from the Dutch word… well, he said something like ˈkɜːkdʒi. The chair, David Mitchell, later repeated this as something like ˈkœːkjə.

They were both no doubt reading from a script that spelt the Dutch word correctly as koekje. As my readers will of course know, in Dutch this is actually pronounced ˈkukjə, making it a very plausible source for the English word.

What I find shocking is that the first panellist didn’t know that Dutch j is pronounced like English y (as in German, Danish, Polish etc., not to mention IPA); and that neither he nor the chairman knew that the Dutch spelling oe regularly corresponds to the sound u. (Facts about Dutch phonetics here.) It’s like in English shoe and canoe!

All BBC producers and other contributors have access to the excellent BBC Pronunciation Unit, which is staffed by knowledgeable trained phoneticians who know about, or can find out about, any language you care to mention. They are a phone call or a mouse click away. But they won’t tell you unless you ask.

But hey, there are only 22 million or so speakers of Dutch, even if they do live just a few hundred kilometres away (almost as far away from London as Scotland!). Educated people can’t be expected to know the basic facts about such an unimportant language. Particularly in a country where foreign language study has been virtually dropped from the secondary school curriculum.


  1. I'm not sure which is more shocking: the participants' ignorance of Dutch phonetics or that anyone could find 'The Unbelievable Truth' even remotely entertaining.

  2. Could you suggest a good handbook on Dutch phonetics for non-Dutch speakers? Thanks

  3. @ Anon: Beverley Collins and Inger Mees, The Phonetics of English and Dutch, Brill, 2003.

  4. Thanks a lot. I'll have a try at it.

  5. I think you've missed the point of the game, John. Contestants to win marks for themselves and deny them to others by making the correct sound implausible.

    in Dutch this is actually pronounced ˈkukjə, making it a very plausible source for the English word.

    Exactly! This is precisely the truth that Arthur Smith wanted to obscure. To pronounce koekje correctly would have been very, very stupid.

    The mangled pronunciation was even more vital in this particular context. Arthur needed to associate it closely with the grotesquely parody of a Dutch word that followed. Picking up on a motif unique to this episode, he said in advance that this last point would be untrue. It was important to make it come across as a single untruth, not a truth followed by a lie.

    David Mitchell may have been reading Dutch as if it was German. He may even have known the correct Dutch pronunciation without thinking that it was helpful to use it. There are points in the game where David reads out dictionary definitions in a Here is a quotation voice. He could have done this with koekje using a correct pronunciation. But that would have sounded so unlike what Arthur had said that listeners might have missed the point.

    Correctness isn't always appropriate.

  6. David Crosbie's explanation is ingeniously post-hoc and perhaps excessively charitable in assuming anyone cares, let alone knows. Very few people in Britain have the first clue how anything more exotic than French or German is pronounced and so far from being embarrassed, often show a kind of pride in their ignorance. It's the fault of foreigners for talking so strangely.

    Particularly that -> u: pronunciation is counter-intuitive. The Belgian beer Hoegaarden has been widely available in Britain for quite some years now and has established a British pronunciation of ˈhəʊgɑdən with slightly bizarre horticultural connotations.

    This is particularly disappointing in the otherwise very sound David Mitchell, who with his rehearsed script had no excuses at all for not bothering. But when do we ever get through an episode of University Challenge or any radio quiz pogramme without a raft of mangled pronunciations. In the past I've even emailed to protest at what I see as a complete lack of professionalism, and the answer comes back loud and clear (though not in so many words of course) WE DON'T CARE, GET A LIFE.

  7. (Ah, the curse of vanishing angle brackets, trying again with quotes)
    ...that "oe" -> u: pronunciation...

  8. Harry

    My explanation is not exactly 'post hoc'. It's exactly what I thought when I heard the programme for the first time last Monday.

    Of course nobody cares what the correct pronunciation is. That's why Arthur Smith was able to get away with his ploy.

  9. It's exactly what I thought when I heard the programme for the first time last Monday.

    Well, not exactly exactly. I can't claim to have thought it through in any detail, but it was very soon obvious that Arthur's pronunciation had been deliberately perverse.

  10. Harry

    The Belgian beer Hoegaarden has been widely available in Britain for quite some years now and has established a British pronunciation of ˈhəʊgɑdən

    This came as news to me, Harry, since. I don't drink the stuff, and neither do the people I drink with.

    The Dutch word with oe spelling that everybody knows is Boer. For me, this is homophonous with bore, boor and boar — except when I'm talking about present-day South Africa. The associated sausage I tend to call 'bʊrəvɔ:s. I haven't heard anybody outside South Africa attempting the word.

  11. During the FIFA World Cup this year, one of the more prominent players was Wesley Sneijder of The Netherlands. I believe that the Dutch pronunciation of his name could be closeley approximated in English as /sneId@(r)/. However, English-speaking commentators universally pronounced his name as though he were a German named Schneider.

  12. The pronunciation of Sneijder as 'Schneider' is especially regrettable considering Dutch doesn't have the sound /ʃ/ in native words.

  13. Try asking for ˈhuːˌɣɑːrdə in an English pub, and you'll get some funny looks. Mind you, I once asked for a ˈbuːtˌvaizɐ in the States and had to repeat myself.

  14. "It’s like in English shoe and canoe!"



    I can not believe I never noticed that. I've been so hung up on French /œ/ and Danish respelt /ø/, that /u/ for <oe> was filed as solidly Dutch in my little mind. None so blind as those who will not see ...

  15. It’s like in English shoe and canoe!

    But it isn't. The oe isn't at the end of a word. Nor is it a compound based on such a word — not like shoelace, for example. Even if there were an anglicism koekie, we wouldn't read it as Koe+kie.

    Now if you can find an example of oe pronounced u: which isn't word-final ...

  16. Lipman

    I should have said which isn't basically word-final. I'd already conceded shoelace.

  17. Sorry, didn't want to look wisecracking. I suggested shoes because there you have a closed syllable, and what's attached is just a morpheme, not the second part of an actual compound.

    Anyway, Hoegaarden is a compound just as shoelace (or an imaginary British store "Shoegarden"), though not as transparently to tha average English speaking patron, of course.

  18. @sili:
    Or as Delboy in Only Fools and Horses once said: 'There's none so blind as them as what won't listen'...

  19. Funny that most (non-ZAF) anglophones pronounce Boer with FORCE but Bloemfontein with GOOSE.


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