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 eɪ. 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.