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.