Tuesday 1 May 2012


A first-time correspondent asked
Do you know of any English word, however obscure, in which <au> in the spelling has the sound of as in the proper name Faust?

After a little thought, and consulting Carney’s Survey of English Spelling, I replied as follows.

Lots of people say traumatic with the MOUTH vowel, though others use the THOUGHT vowel. The same applies to various other words of Greek origin (claustrophobia, glaucoma, tau, and trauma itself). You also sometimes get the MOUTH vowel in aural, to keep it distinct from oral. Then there are the actual German borrowings such as meerschaum, sauerkraut, as well as names such as Audi, Schopenhauer, Strauss, like the Faust you mention. There are also geographical names such as Nauru, Palau. And some people use this diphthong, wrongly, in Welsh Blaenau, Dolgellau.

I might also have mentioned other more or less exotic borrowings from various languages, such as luau. And of course there are Latin words: magna cum laude, gaudeamus igitur.

Faust itself has a derived adjective Faustian, as when we say a Faustian bargain. This, of course, is not a German word: the German equivalent is faustisch. So it has to be counted English.

But apart from these, as far as I can see, there are no pukka, echt, authentic native English words with <au> = indubitable .

I hope my correspondent was satisfied with the answer. Disappointingly, like so many who consult me by email, he didn’t even do me the courtesy of acknowledging my reply.


  1. Marlowe would have said Fawstus, or however that diphthong was pronounced in Elizabethan times. Goethe has influenced our pronunciation of the good doctor.

  2. The Kenyan Mau-Mau uprising? Mind you, Swahili, not English...

    1. "Sauna", for some people, I think. (Finnish, of course.)

      (Sorry for always posting late!)

  3. There's also Saudi (Arabia).

    Why do you call the use of MOUTH in Blaenau "wrong" while using it in trauma is merely something "lots of people [do]"?

    OK, these are normally pronounced 'blaɪnaɪ (or similar) and 'trɔːmə. But why is 'traʊmə any less of an error than 'blaɪnaʊ? In English, I mean.

    1. I'd say it depends what the speaker's trying to achieve. If their intention is to pronounce Blaenau roughly as a Welsh person would, then 'blaɪnaʊ is an error. If they're trying to pronounce trauma like the majority of British English speakers, then 'traʊmə is an error. However, I doubt that's what people who say 'traʊmə are trying to achieve. On the other hand, I'd guess that most people who say 'blaɪnaʊ are trying to pronounce it roughly as a Welsh person would.

    2. "If their intention is to pronounce Blaenau roughly as a Welsh person would, then 'blaɪnaʊ is an error."

      I think you mean 'Welsh-speaker' here, not 'Welsh person'.

      For this Welsh person, ˈblaɪnaʊ is spot on.

    3. Next you tell us you eat your uwd with sugar…

  4. Are you perhaps demanding too much of English spelling? Not too much consistency but too much inconsistency?

    It seems that all pukka, echo, authentic native words with au spelling have ended up with ɔ:. And all non-pukka, non-echt, non-authentic non-native borrowings with have been allotted a spelling in ow — or occasionally ao.

  5. How would you pronounce the Welsh?

    A post on Languagelog about baryons devolved into a discussion of how to pronounce Greek letters in English. Tau wasn't brought up, though.

  6. The pronunciation depends on when the words were borrowed. All were anglicised by pronunciation according to the English of their time, but the more ancient borrowings (like the Greek ones) haev since changed along with the rest of the English language.

    (The situation is complicated slightly by the fact that learned Greek words come into English via Latin, and not even classical Latin but "traditional English" Latin...but let's not get into that!)

    But I think tau is an exception. For some reason the names of the Greek letters seem to follow different spelling rules from other Greek words. At least, mu, nu and upsilon seem to treat their vowels differently. I say tɔ: but I've definitely heard taʊ.

  7. I had to check the dictionary, I thought there was only nɑːˈuːruː.

  8. @sili: In Welsh, is pronounced aɪ or, in the north, aɨ. However, as a plural ending (the most common one) it's typically monophthongised to a or ɛ. The same happens in Blaenau Ffestiniog (to the extent that 'blaɪnaɪ sounds wrong, or at least hypercorrected), but not -- I believe -- in Blaenau Gwent, which always seems to be pronounced ˌblaɪnaɪ ˈɡwɛnt. Monophthongisation of the last syllable of Dolgellau is common, but a diphthong doesn't sound especially wrong. Although the second morpheme of Dolgellau is often assumed to be a plural, this is probably false etymology.

  9. Mr Wells:

    'I hope my correspondent was satisfied with the answer. Disappointingly, like so many who consult me by email, he didn’t even do me the courtesy of acknowledging my reply.'

    Well, 'Undank ist der Welten Lohn', as the German says; 'der Welten' being, I'd imagine, an archaic genitive SINGULAR of 'die Welt'. Such is man, one's better off getting used to't.

    I have some work-related reasons to soon visit a Sardinian locality Austis, a small village. It'd interest me how you chaps would pronounce this name spontaneously, just on seeing it in print (like here). If you tell me, I'll tell you how to pronounce it in Italian.

  10. All right, here's my data:

    MOUTH: Faust, trauma(tic), glaucoma, tau, meerschaum, sauerkraut, Audi, Schopenhauer, Strauss, Nauru, Palau, Mau-Mau, Austis

    THOUGHT: claustrophobia, Saudi

    PRICE: Blaenau, Dolgellau

    I pronounce my Greek letters inconsistently, in what I believe to be the usual American fashion:

    TRAP: alpha, gamma, kappa, lambda

    FACE: beta, zeta, eta, theta, omega

    DRESS: delta, epsilon

    GOAT: iota, rho

    GOOSE: mu (with yod), nu (without yod)

    PRICE: xi, pi, phi, chi, psi

    LOT=PALM: omicron

    KIT: sigma

    MOUTH: tau

    STRUT: upsilon

    All the unstressed vowels are schwa (I have the Weak Vowel Merger), except for unreduced initial GOAT in omega and PRICE in iota, and unreduced final LOT/PALM in epsilon, upsilon. I had a lot of trouble deciding whether FOOT or STRUT is more natural for upsilon, but finally plumped for STRUT.

    1. 'I had a lot of trouble deciding whether FOOT or STRUT is more natural for upsilon, but finally plumped for STRUT.'

      Ahem, given the Greek value of this (i.e. corresponding) vowel, 'yoopsilon' would seem better to me. Does it exist anywhere in the English-speaking world?

    2. The British say juːˈpsaɪlən, the American ˈuːpsəˌlɑːn.

    3. The stress mark goes after p, of course.

    4. I'm British and I say ˈju:psɪlɒn. Less logically, I alternate between ˈəʊmɪkrɒn and əˈmaɪkrɒn. I think most Brits say ˈəʊmɪgə, though I've heard əʊˈmi:gə.

      And definitely tɔ: not taʊ. Similarly
      trɔ:ˈmætɪk and ˈmɪə ̩ʃɔ:m.

      I also say ˈsaʊdi for Saudi Arabia. This may be because I've lived in the Arab world, but I have the impression that most Brits share my pronunciation.

      And ˈklɒstrə ̩fəʊbjə.

      And I respect the Welsh poet (set to music by Pete Seeger) who rhymed:

      And who robbed the miner
      Say the grim bells of Blaenau

    5. I'm also British and have ˈʊpsɪlɒn. For the more relevant Greek letter to the original post, I say taʊ.

      I didn't know anyone pronounced Saudi without MOUTH until John said he did.

      Blaenau: usually schwa I think. Dolgellau: HAPPY.

      For another unexpected sound for au, try gauge.

    6. As a madderoffact, 'Austis' does not (I havent asked ALL locals, of course) seem to have a diphthong (which would not exist in Italian, anyway, aurum=oro, aut=o(d), etc.) but is [a'ustis], three syllables. Of Sardinian origin, etymology obscure, at least to me, in Sardinian the dipthong -au exists, it is true, but only in participial terminations, -au (from -ado, -atum).

  11. This comment has been removed by the author.

  12. Also (Spanish) gaucho and (Icelandic) aurar, and with optional diphthong, landau and rauwolfia.

  13. What about 'Baucis' (Philemon and ...)? Bawsiss?

    Greek names, their pronunciation in English, a very difficult topic...

  14. In case anyone's interested, the Greek letter τ (ταυ) is pronounced [taf] in modern Greek. The letter Y/υ (ύψιλον) normally stands for the vowel sound [i] nowadays, but historically it has represented the sound of [y] or possibly [ʉ] in Ancient Greek.

    The combinations αυ and ευ, however, have changed from the correspoding ancient diphthongs to [af, av] and [ef, ev] respectively.

    Here you can hear the modern Greek pronunciation of the entire alphabet.

    Is English digraph "au" realised as /ɔː/ because of French, or both languages evolved independently in a similar way? Sorry if it's too stupid a question for this blog.

  15. I cheated and looked here. It lists "gau" (a Buddhist prayer box or jewellery box).

    I once met someone called Laura who pronounced her name [laʊrə]. Very unusual.

    1. re: Laura
      I've heard that one too.

  16. In case anyone's interested, Greek letter Τ/τ (ταυ) is pronounced [taf] in Modern Greek. If you search "curso de griego lección 1" in youtube, you can check the pronunciation of the entire Greek alphabet in Modern Greek.

    The letter Y/υ (ύψιλον) generally stands for a vowel sound, [i] in Modern Greek, which comes from Ancient [y] or possibly [ʉ]. However, the combinations αυ and ευ have changed from the corresponding ancient diphthongs to the modern realisations [af, av] and [ef, ev] respectively.

    And it's curious that both English and French have the digraph "au" realised as /ɔː/ or /o, ɔ/ respectively. Is there a connection? According to Gimson's Pronunciation of English, Old English [ɑɤ] (law), [ɑw] (thaw) resulted in Middle English [ɑʊ] or [ɑː] and Present English /ɔː/, while Old French may have contributed [ɑu], [o] or [ɑ̃] (cause, autumn, sauce, haunt, lawn).

    How likely is it that English incorporated Old French terms with [o] and the "au" spelling, and that this produced a similar change in Old English words? Otherwise English and French would have had to evolve similarly but independently, I guess. I find either alternative quite unlikely. Does any of you know of any papers on this? Thanks.

    1. @Leni:

      /au/ -> /o~ɔ/ is a very common development cross-linguistically. For example, it also happened between Proto-Indo-Iranian and Sanskrit. There is no reason to be surprised that it could happen independently in French and English.

      In the case of English, it is even more natural because it forms, along with the Great Vowel Shift, a circular shift in the back vowels: boat-boot-bout-bought.

    2. Thanks for your reply. I'll look into this vowel change in other languages. Thanks.

    3. For instance: au ---> o: in Old Dutch. boom (tree), German Baum, (English 'beam'), doof (deaf), German taub, loof (leaf), German Laub, droom (dream), German Traum, and so on. German has preserved often, though by no means always, the Proto-Germanic 'au' (pronounced [ao]).

    4. Plus of course the transition from Latin to Romance involved an au --> o shift, aurum --> or(o), laudare --> lodare, and the like, you should know it better since in your Parliament they used to (still do?) call 'oyez, oyez, oyez' from 'audite' or perhaps 'auditis', 'hear'.

      In proto-Slavic au-->u, a thing not unheard-of in Italian, where 'audire' has become 'udire'.

    5. Yes, Wojciech, but then a new diphthong arose in Old French from A followed by a good old Polish L.

      [Joke. What I mean seriously is that something like al became something like and was spelled au.]

      Much the same happened in Middle English, but the AL spelling was retained — talk etc. Another ME instance of the diphthong arose before a velar fricative, and is reflected in AUGH spellings — daughter etc. There might have been more AU spellings had not the letter W have been invented, thus allowing AW spelling for other instances of the diphthong — thaw, law, hawk etc.

      Thus in English and French, the digraph AU became available for adapting words from Latin words spelled with AU. This would continue to be the case when the words spelled with AU came to have O-type monophthongs.

      An interesting example, Latin causa became cose/chose in Old French, but was later adapted direct from written Latin as cause (with a different meaning) — and passed on into English.

    6. 'An interesting example, Latin causa became cose/chose in Old French, but was later adapted direct from written Latin as cause (with a different meaning) — and passed on into English.'

      such doublets are very popular in Italian, too.

      You meant the good old Polish 'ł', right?

    7. The same thing happens in many varieties of Arabic, so that we have for example 'Doha' from Standard Arabic 'Dawha'. This presumably doesn't apply to 'Saudi', which has an ayin separating the 'a' and the 'u' instead of a diphthong 'aw'.

      I think Hindi is similar in that an original diphthong 'au' would be pronounced as a monophthong by some speakers but not others depending on the accent.

  17. Duchesse: /ɒə/ would be a possible realization of the NORTH lexical set (or, for, horse, etc.) in a non-rhotic accent with no NORTH-FORCE merger, probably somewhere in the South. Whether it actually exists, I don't know.

  18. In reply to David Crosbie I should point out that "miner" is rhymed with "Blaina" in S Wales, where there are coal mines and not with Blaenau (Ffestiniog) in N Wales, where there are none though many slate quarries.

    Tudor Hughes.

  19. I only know claustrophobia pronounced with the CLOTH vowel. (And, for the record, THOUGHT for glaucoma and trauma, and MOUTH for tau.)

    Aside: I'm in a minority among Australians in that I use THOUGHT rather than CLOTH in the word "genre".

    Also, re Disappointingly, like so many who consult me by email, he didn’t even do me the courtesy of acknowledging my reply:

    One of the difficulties of the modern world is negotiating the many competing codes of politeness. Which is the greater courtesy: acknowledging your reply, or seeking to avoid taking up more of your time than necessary by not acknowledging your reply? For better or worse popular opinion these days often favours the latter, and it's best surely to accept that either option may come from the highest of motives.

    1. 'avoid taking up more of your time than necessary by not acknowledging your reply'

      you must be joking! Writing 'thank you, regards, XY', clicking the 'send' button --- does THAT cost you so much of your valuable time? The truth is, a growing number of people don't care a d* about such most elementary forms of politeness.

    2. I think this is a 'you' confusion. It's not the _writer_'s time in question here, as much as fearing that you're needlessly taking up more of the _reader_'s time. Although I agree that the time to read a simple thank you message is minimal, and usually appreciated, there is an increasing trend towards not sending such emails, but from a position of politeness not from rudeness.

  20. I'm British and say ypsɪlɒn, which is probably the result of an over-enthusiastic adherence to what I took to be authentic ancient Greek pronunciation when I was at school.

    At that time I used the word Weltanschauung a lot too (with an /au/ of course) and was described as a pseudo-intellectual by my history master. How he got that idea baffles me.

    1. \over-enthusiastic adherence..\

      why 'over'? Did you study the famous book by Allen? 'Vox Graeca'?

      One uses a German fashionable word=one is pseudo-something?

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