Tuesday 22 November 2011


The egregious Sepp Blatter, president of FIFA, tried to defuse the impact of his recent inept remarks on tackling racism by getting the newspapers to print a picture of him in the company of Tokyo Sexwale, the black South African politician.

But how do we pronounce Mr Sexwale’s name? Certainly not ˈseksweɪl.

If you search on-line, you find no authoritative answer and several conflicting pieces of advice from amateurs.

An exchange on reddit went
● Spoiler: Tokyo Sexwale is not pronounced the way it's spelled.
● Yup. As my South African-parented girlfriend immediately pointed out, it's "Seh-tongueclick-wah-leh."
and then
● The 'x' in the Sex part is pronounced like a soft 'g' in afrikaans.

Meanwhile the online Telegraph told us firmly
Tokyo Sexwale (pronounced seh-wa-le)…

This is one of the names I decided to add to the most recent edition of LPD, so I actually checked it out a few years ago (blog, 3 July 2007).

My initial expectation was that the letter x in his name would stand for the voiceless lateral click, as it does in Xhosa and Zulu, where xoxa ‘tell’ is pronounced ˈǁɔːǁá (or, if you prefer greater explicitness in click symbolism, ˈk͡ǁɔːk͡ǁá).

However, my further researches seemed to suggest that Mr Sexwale’s ethnicity is not Xhosa or Zulu but Venda (or Venḓa — the diacritic indicates a dental, as opposed to alveolar, place of articulation). And in Tshivenḓa the letter x has its IPA value, representing a voiceless velar fricative. So he’d be seˈxwaːle.

The BBC Pronunciation Unit confirmed this.
Yes, the IPA for our entry [for Sexwale] indicates a velar fricative. The recommendation is based on the advice of colleagues in Focus on Africa, who, according to our history note from 1993, were adamant that the orthographic 'x' is pronounced as a velar fricative.

(That is indeed also how the orthographic g of Afrikaans is pronounced.)

Conclusion: in English we should call him seˈxwɑːleɪ or, failing that, seˈkwɑːleɪ.


  1. seˈxwɑːleɪ or, failing that, seˈkwɑːleɪ,

    Why? Words such as Juarez or marijuana are Anglicized to /hw/ (/w/ for speakers with the whine-wine merger).

    (Also, DRESS in an open syllable sounds weird; my instinct suggests to use rosES or FACE.)

  2. Army1987: I must be missing something because I don't see the connection. If anything, you seem to be proving the point that you disagree with: we Anglicize sounds in proper names only when there isn't an exact corresponding sound in English.

  3. I mean that the [x] in [xw] is usually anglicized to /h/ or zero, not to /k/.

  4. Oh yes, I see. I am only an amateur and am Scots.
    So for me, [x] is as in "loch" and always expect the Southern British version to be [k].


  5. I don't think it's true that the [x] in [xw] is usually anglicized to /h/ or zero, not to /k/. That's true for words that come from Spanish. I don't think we can generalize based on words from one language.

  6. I think that initial /x/ becomes /h/ (with or without /w/ following), whereas final /x/ becomes /k/. So it's all about whether we anglophones hear the /x/ as final or initial, which is only loosely tied to whether it counts as final or initial in Venda. If we have a checked vowel in the first syllable, it's presumably (though not guaranteed to be) final, and thus /k/.

  7. John Cowan

    I think that initial /x/ becomes /h/ (with or without /w/ following), whereas final /x/ becomes /k/.

    Doesn't the spelling have a big effect? I would expect any place name transliterated as having initial Ch- or Kh- to be pronounced with in initial k. Think of Khartoum, Khatchaturian, Khan.

    Greek letter chi was often a x sound, and historically has been transliterated as ch and pronounced k. So the island of Χιοσ is known to classicists as ki:ɒs. But the modern pronunciation is more like çios and so your rule kicks in for some — yielding a transliteration Hios.

    Maybe it's only Greek x that's transliterated ch. We say write Chersonese and say kɜ:səni:z (well, I do) — but Херсон (now in Ukraine) is transliterated Kherson and pronounced (I think) kɜ:(r)sɒn.

    [Oh yes, now I remember that xan was once transcribed as Cham — but that just led to a spelling pronunciation tʃam.]

    The first part of your rule links Juarez etc to what happened to hw- in the history of English. It would be nice if your second part also reflected historical phonology, but elsewhere the Old English fricative ended up with a gh spelling and no consistent sound value.

  8. Fair enough. So we can emend the rule to say that while syllable-initial /x/ can become /h/ or /k/, depending on various factors, syllable-final /x/ must become /k/, because English does not have syllable-final /h/.

  9. Sexwale is Pedi (Northern Sotho)

    He is difinitely not Venda.

    We are behind you John Well & we appreciate your work.


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