Wednesday 9 February 2011


One of the books I read while away on holiday was Why Does E=mc2 (And Why Should We Care?), by Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw — hence yesterday’s posting.

I wouldn’t say that I now have a thorough understanding of general relativity and special relativity, let alone of quantum mechanics, but at least I am clearer about what I don’t understand. I came away feeling that in a few months I’d better reread the book.

In the part of the book dealing with quantum mechanics there is naturally extensive discussion of elementary particles, among them the quark.
How do you pronounce quark? Does it rhyme with park or with fork?
Despite the fact that other words spelt with quar- are pronounced kwɔː(r)-quart, quarter, quarto — I have the impression that most people who know the word, whether physicists or not, pronounce it kwɑː(r)k. In LPD I included both possibilities, but prioritized kwɑː(r)k over kwɔː(r)k.

The man who invented the word, Murray Gell-Mann, wouldn’t agree. He found it in James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, the point being that quarks always occur in threes.
Three quarks for Muster Mark!
Sure he has not got much of a bark
And sure any he has it's all beside the mark.

Gell-Mann explains it as follows, in his book The Quark and the Jaguar.
In 1963, when I assigned the name "quark" to the fundamental constituents of the nucleon, I had the sound first, without the spelling, which could have been "kwork". Then, in one of my occasional perusals of Finnegans Wake, by James Joyce, I came across the word "quark" in the phrase "Three quarks for Muster Mark". Since "quark" (meaning, for one thing, the cry of the gull) was clearly intended to rhyme with "Mark", as well as "bark" and other such words, I had to find an excuse to pronounce it as "kwork". But the book represents the dream of a publican named Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker. Words in the text are typically drawn from several sources at once, like the "portmanteau" words in "Through the Looking-Glass". From time to time, phrases occur in the book that are partially determined by calls for drinks at the bar. I argued, therefore, that perhaps one of the multiple sources of the cry "Three quarks for Muster Mark" might be "Three quarts for Mister Mark", in which case the pronunciation "kwork" would not be totally unjustified. In any case, the number three fitted perfectly the way quarks occur in nature.

Cox and Forshaw take this further:
Gell-Mann has since written that he originally intended the word to be pronounced “qwork,” and in fact had the sound in his mind before he came across the Finnegan’s Wake quotation. Since “quark” in this rhyme is clearly intended to rhyme with “Mark” and “bark,” this proved somewhat problematic. Gell-Mann therefore decided to argue that the word may mean “quart,” as in a measure of drink, rather than the more usual “cry of a gull,” thereby allowing him to keep his original pronunciation. Perhaps we will never really know how to pronounce it.

I think the moral of this story is that once you coin a successful technical term you have to relinquish ownership of it. As I see it, the speech community has collectively decided that it prefers to make the word rhyme with park, and Gell-Mann’s views are irrelevant.

The OBGP disagrees. Perhaps I (or someone) ought to do a pronunciation preference survey on the word.
Is the pronunciation influenced by another word with the same spelling, the quark that is a kind of curd cheese popular in Germany? Some British supermarkets sell this. I imagine that most people who buy it pronounce it to rhyme with park, though I have no evidence. That’s certainly how it is pronounced in German. But I do wonder whether German physicists follow the Duden Aussprachewörterbuch’s advice when referring not to soft cheese (Käse) but to the Elementarteilchen. (And notice how Duden hesitates interestingly between the German equivalents of the FORCE and NORTH vowels, presumably undifferentiated in Gell-Mann’s English.)
Lastly, what about QuarkXPress, the software package used by designers and publishers? Am I right in thinking that it too usually has a first syllable rhyming with park?


  1. I find it interesting that the Duden dictionary doesn't even give pronunciations with [w] as an alternative. I'm quite sure they're at least as widespread as the more adapted ones with [v]. And of course, lots of people pronounce it just like the word for curds.

  2. There are indeed people who pronounce German words like , with initial /kw/ which regularly makes me shudder, but then who cares about my shudders?

  3. ... words like <Qualität, Qualle> ...

  4. Of course you're right, but I wasn't talking about those.

  5. There was a race of robots in Dr. Who called the Quarks ("a failed stand-in for the Daleks", according to Wikipedia), and I seem to remember they were kwɑːks too. Orthographic ark for ɔː(r)k just doesn't look right in English, even with qu.

  6. On your last point, Leo: Yes, perhaps I should have mentioned that. The historical post-w backing that affected “wad, squad, war, swarm, water, quarter” did not operate before velars (“wag, whack, swag, swank, quack”). Hence our reluctance to apply it in the case of “quark”.

  7. Should anybody care to know: Not being a physicist I pronounce the German elementary particles /kvaɐks/

  8. How do people pronounce the computer program quarkxpress? I haven't used it since I was a kid, and can't remember.

  9. JW: You're right, post-W backing didn't operate before velars. But the a in quark isn't before a velar; there's an r in bewteen. (I'm presuming the r was fully articulated then.)

    Did this A-backing operate before rk/rg? I can't think of any examples other than the surname Wark (which I think is usually /wɔː(r)k/). But the corresponding O-closing found in words like won, wonder, worm, word and worst certainly seems to have operated before rk, as in work. The two shifts are very similar (maybe a push-chain?) and seem to have operated in the same conditions.

    So /kwɔː(r)k/ makes sense to me. But I realise there's a lot of "presulably" and "seems to be" in my argument.

  10. I can't pronounce it without a NORTH vowel - START and FORCE both sound wrong.

  11. I say [kwɔɹk] XPress (and have since 1988), though I probably would class [kwɔɹk]~[kwɑɹk] as one of those meaningless differences like [ˈɛkənɔmɪks]~[ˈikənɔmɪks]. I think that the Ferengi character Quark in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine was called both [kwɔɹk]~[kwɑɹk].

  12. And I've always loathed Joyce, so whatever he's got holds little weight with me.

  13. Kraut,
    /kvaɐks/ - not /kva:ks/? Is that different from the curds?

  14. One of the few things we will never agree on, Michael, though to be sure you did not imbibe him literally at your father's knee, as I did.

  15. I tend to /kwɔːk/ in English, but /kʋɑːk/ in Danish.

  16. Lipman:
    When I say /kva:k/ I imitate the sound of a frog; /kvaɐk/ stands for both - particle and curd cheese.

  17. In Italy there's a very popular scientific TV programme called Quark /kwark/, so that's the pronunciation most of non-physicists use in Italian, but most physicists use /kwOrk/ (as a shibboleth, maybe?). I kinda freely alternate between the two (though I consistently used the former pronunciation until a few years ago), whether in English or in Italian.

  18. Kraut,

    interesting. Is that a Swabian accent?

  19. I tend to rhyme both the subatomic particle and the software name with 'fork', and I would also agree with @Michael Everson that in my ideolect the [kwɔɹk]~[kwɑɹk] distinction is meaningless.

  20. Lipman:
    I did not spend my speech-forming years in the Swabian area. My pronunciation of <quak> corresponds to what <DUDEN Aussprachewörterbuch> says. Replacing the /r/ by /ɐ/ in the two other words is frequently done in colloquial German.

  21. How 'bout "joule"? Do you guys say dZaUl or dZU:l?

  22. Never heard that for [a], as opposed to the other vowels. What I hear, in Standard German and the majority of the dialects, ie in the non-rhotic forms of German, is [aː].

    Do you distinguish between [aɐ] and [aːɐ]?

  23. Lipman: My dictionary (Collins) agrees with Kraut. It transcribes orthographic ar as ar (which in practice tends to be , as Kraut says). Arm, for example, is arm. The long aːɐ corresponds to the spelling ahr, e.g. Fahrt.

    I thought the stereotype about Swabian accents was they they realised the /r/ as an actual consonant after short vowels, rather than as [ɐ]. But the fact that they make the distinction between ar and ah at all (e.g. Narr vs nah) is not unusual - Standard German is supposed to make it too.

    Conversely, I have been told that the realisation of ar as monophthongal [aː] - which you say is normal - is actually a feature of a strong Ruhr accent. Can anyone comment on that?

    Interestingly, Collins actually does give Quark in the scientific sense as kvaːk, thus distinguishing it from the cheese - but surely that is orthographically exceptional. Park is given as park, for instance.

  24. It transcribes orthographic ar as ar (which in practice tends to be aɐ, as Kraut says).

    Never mind the transcription with ar, which takes account of rhotic and non-rhotic accents, but does your dictionary actually say [aɐ]?

    I know [a(ː)ɐ] only in "careful speech" for words like naher, not in Bart or Fahrt. Also, I can't imagine a speaker of StG makes a difference between the vowels of those two last words.

  25. My bilingual dictionary gives /kwA:k/ as the only English pronunciation and /kwark/ as the only Italian pronunciation. Obviously not written by physicists. :-)

  26. So much for Krauts and their pronunciations of quak, Quark and Quark. What about 'le Frogs'? ;)

  27. Only kwaxk(ɵ), far's I know, but I'm sure they have a word of their own for it.

  28. Lipman: no, it doesn't say , it says ar. is just what I would expect by analogy with other , for example mɔɐgn for morgen.

    For the long variant (orthographic ahr or aar), Collins gives a:ɐ - not just prevocalically, but also for Fahrt etc.

    But maybe you are right, and non-rhotic Germans don't distinguish between ar, ahr and ah in practice. I'll be listening out for it now.

    Could someone with a better ear than me listen to this site, and detect any in names such as Carl?

  29. I hear kaːl, same as kahl, and it's not even in a natural speech environment.

  30. Duden, p. 54, gives

      Wetzlar [ˈvɛt͜slar]/[ˈvɛt͜slaɐ̯]

    as an example of aɐ̯ for ar.

  31. Again: fascinating. Never noticed that.

    I'd like to trick Kraut or other native speakers into recording a conversation and then see if there's really a difference between:

    nah = naː
    Narr = naɐ̯ and
    nahr(haft) = naːɐ̯

    na = na and bisyllabic
    naher = naːɐ should be different anyway.

  32. Which onomatopoetic word do 'les frogs' use for the sound of a frog?

  33. In my dialect, /kwɑːɹk/ is unnatural for a few reasons. One is that /ɑ/ here in the Canadian prairies has merged with /a/. Another is perhaps the complexity of the syllable. When I consider the concomittant r-rounding combined with the /w/ in the onset, it's no wonder that a mostly locally obsolete vowel like /ɑ/ should shift to the closest phoneme /ɔ/ while assimilating the whole sequence with labialization at the same time. The path of least resistance, it seems.

    Thanks for causing me to dwell on this interesting word. Apparently quarks have more than just six flavours afterall.

  34. As a particle physicist in training (Estuary English, British, by background) I usually rhyme quark with park. Most native-English physicists that I know pronounce it that way too.

    Whenever I've heard a Teilchenphysiker say the word quark, they have usually pronounced it to rhyme with park. However, two caveats: one, this was when they were speaking in English; and two, some physicists whose English was not quite so excellent might rhyme it with pork, depending where they are from in the German-speaking world.

    Another issue is code-switching, or something like it. I've heard conversations in, for example, Greek, where technical or computing terms were pronounced in English. That is, even if the word existed in Greek and English with the same spelling and meaning (allowing for transliteration), they would use their closest approximation to a standard English pronunciation. But this would even extend to non-technical words that were semantically linked to technical terms. For example, the phrase "second jet" has a technical meaning, and would be pronounced just as it is, instead of using the Greek for second and the English term-of-art jet.

    What's a little confusing for me is that speakers of, say, German, frequently use the English technical terms in this way, even though the technical terms exist already or can be easily constructed in those languages (as opposed to, say, Lithuanian or Hindi, where they would have to borrowed).

    If you'd like to research this, do please come to CERN. There's a captive population of speakers of many European and other languages, and each approaching English or French in their own way. It's fascinating (especially when their non-grammatical usages of things like "since" can rub off on native English speakers!)

  35. Slightly surprised that nobody has yet pointed out that James Joyce wrote "Finnegans Wake", not "Finnegan's Wake". Gell-Mann gets it right.

  36. For the record (re physicists): I've just been watching* an interview with Richard Feynman, and he very definitely says quark to rhyme with stork: link to YouTube.

    (*) That's where you end up if you follow slightly OT links from Language Log. Linguistics FTW!

  37. Oh, BTW, Feynman is a sweet example of New-York-style variable rhoticity. (Sorry for going OT. But only slightly ;)

  38. David Marjanović17 March 2011 at 21:15

    When I say /kva:k/ I imitate the sound of a frog; /kvaɐk/ stands for both - particle and curd cheese.

    Way too late, but I can't let this stand uncommented. :-) I've read about this mystical [aɐ̯], but I've never heard it, neither in meatspace nor on TV. In all Standard German this Austrian has encountered, /ar/ and /aːr/ have fully merged into /aː/. Vater is Fahrt with [ɐ] tacked on to the end: [faːt], [ˈfaːtɐ]; hart [haːt] and zart [t͡saːt] rhyme, and the reason they don't rhyme for me with Saat [saːd̥] is... oh dear. Doesn't apply to Germany. Let's talk about something else. :-) Yes, naher has two syllables. Arzt is [aːt͡t] (preceded by a glottal stop if utterance-initial). Saar and sah are homophones, and so are stark and stak ( resurrect a rather obsolete past-tense form, as phonologists love to do).

    Note that none of this can be blamed on Bavarian-Austrian dialects. In those, /a/ and /aː/ have merged as the open rounded back or central vowel, [ɒ] or [ɒ̈], and that sound has no problem forming a diphthong with [ɐ̯]: Haar, standard [haː], is [hɒ̈ɐ̯] in my dialect, analogously [hɒ̈ɐ̯t], [t͡sɒ̈ɐ̯t], [fɒ̈ɐ̯t], [ɒ̈ɐ̯t͡st] and so on.

    Karl has a syllabic /l/; in Standard German, that's the only difference to the monosyllabic kahl.

  39. Do you really mean Karl is kaːl̩? I don't think this is so in any accent. In some accents, you might have ka(ː)rl̩.

  40. David Marjanović18 March 2011 at 12:56

    Do you really mean Karl is kaːl̩?

    Yes, absolutely.

  41. David Marjanović20 March 2011 at 00:23

    In those in which I've heard the word – not many. Austrian Standard German is one of them.

    The nickname Karli and the rare female form Karla /ˈkaːla/ do not have three syllables, though. I suppose /l/ only becomes syllabic when there is no underlying vowel next to it on either side, and the decay products of |r| don't count as vowels for this purpose.

    (They do for others, regionally at least. Famously, /x/ is [ç] behind consonants; as a rule of thumb, in Germany, durch and Kirche have [ç] because |r| is a consonant, in Austria they have [x] because [ɐ̯] is not a front vowel.)


    Of course I made a typo in "Arzt is [aːt͡t]": it's [aːt͡st].

  42. David Marjanović20 March 2011 at 00:41

    Disclaimer: I have heard Germans, probably from somewhere in the northwest, retain consonantal /r/ in front of consonants. Before I read about the partial rhoticity of some such accents on Wikipedia a few years ago, however, I thought these were all hypercorrectivisms or deliberate exaggerations for emphasis; since then, I haven't heard many people from that area speak.


    I've read about this mystical [aɐ̯], but I've never heard it, neither in meatspace nor on TV.

    It's of course possible that I've heard it, but failed to notice it because I didn't think it possible. But, perhaps due to my upbringing (regular exposure to Serbian and French since early childhood) or to my general pedantry (if I may say so myself), I do tend to be fairly good at noticing phonetic details that don't occur or have a different distribution in my accents. For instance, on Friday, I heard someone make a phone call in English with the weak French accent that well-educated French people of my generation have; I recognized the accent due to such things as the use of laminal alveolars and of [ɑi̯] instead of [ɑɪ̯] – the closest sound most accents of German use is [aɪ̯], and the closest both of my German accents (Standard and dialect) have to offer is [ɛ̞ɪ̯].

  43. David Marjanović20 March 2011 at 00:47

    in Austria they have [x] because [ɐ̯] is not a front vowel

    Or because the dialects here already have [ɪɐ̯] and [ʊɐ̯] in the sound system even in cases where there is no etymological /r/ involved.

    Please tell me if my monologues are becoming tiring. I am, after all, not very close to the topic anymore.


Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.