THE WORD

The Courier-Mail - QWeekend - - BOOKS - ROLY SUS­SEX sus­sex@uq.edu.au

Over the years I have com­plained piti­fully about the pro­nun­ci­a­tion of for­eign names in Aus­tralia. Wim­ble­don is an an­nual ir­ri­tant, with so many non-An­glo com­peti­tors. And with the Olympics bear­ing down on us, things are rapidly go­ing to get much worse. The prob­lem is the fit, or lack of it, be­tween spell­ing and pro­nun­ci­a­tion. For ten­nis names, try Timea Bac­sin­szky, or Lu­cie Sa­farova ( not Sah-far-oh-va).

This cre­ates a dilemma. If we pro­nounce the name as in the orig­i­nal, or as close as we can get, the pro­nun­ci­a­tion may not match the way we in­ter­pret the spell­ing. But if we an­gli­cise the name so we can iden­tify it from the pro­nun­ci­a­tion, those whose lan­guage it is may not recog­nise what we are say­ing.

I came across a new ver­sion – new to me, that is – of this prob­lem dur­ing a re­cent trip to Europe. Nav­i­gat­ing around cities there used to re­quire a pa­per map. But now we have in­tel­li­gent phones and satel­lite-driven maps, which will not only show you where you are but also how to get to other places.

But – and here is the rub – the phones can also talk to you to guide you from A to B. And they an­gli­cise the names reg­u­larly and shame­lessly. That’s help­ful for An­g­los, since we can match signs with the name of the street or mon­u­ment with what the phone is say­ing. But lo­cals are aghast, con­fused and some­times de­ri­sive if you ask them to lis­ten to the phone to help you with an oc­ca­sional con­fu­sion of nav­i­ga­tion. They of­ten can’t match the pro­nun­ci­a­tion with the writ­ten name. And woe to us if we think that the phone is ac­tu­ally telling us how to pro­nounce the names to the lo­cals.

Most Euro­pean lan­guages have rea­son­ably reg­u­lar ways of pro­nounc­ing their writ­ten names. Think of Napoli and Roma in Italy, Berlin in Ger­many. There are harder ones, like Køben­havn for Copen­hagen. But once you know the rules you can usu­ally iden­tify the name. Not so in Eng­land, though. Think of Cirences­ter, for­mally siss-iss-ter. Or Beauchamp, alias bee-chum.

So An­glo tourists with phones and maps have three modes of com­mu­ni­ca­tion. One: the phone talks in An­glo ver­sions of lo­cal names. Two: the maps it dis­plays have writ­ten names, which we can show to lo­cals and that we both un­der­stand, in the writ­ten form at least. And three: savvy tourists can read the map and pro­nounce the names in ways which lo­cals will recog­nise.

The next step will be a smart­phone that does both pro­nun­ci­a­tions. And be­yond that, the mul­ti­lin­gual An­glo tourist.

Dream on.

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