Tag Archives: lingua

Wuttchoo Say???

I like to read, but more than once I’ve been embarrassed when I mispronounced a word that I’d read often but had never spoken before. So, one of the many things in life that befuddles me is how we handle foreign words. It is especially vexing when the word is translated from a phonetic language. Theoretically, since that society has its own written character and does not rely on the English alphabet it would seem that getting the pronunciation–rather than the spelling–right would be important.

For example, the United States has a naval base at Yokosuka, Japan. It’s actually pronounced yuh-KOO-skuh. Why didn’t we spell it phonetically as Yokuska? Japan uses a combination of kanji and kana, which bear no resemblance to the English alphabet. Incidentally, they refer to their home as Nippon, even though we somehow mangled that into Japan.

Not too far from Japan is China, which, based on its size and population is hard to miss. If you forgot, we did not recognize China after World War II until Richard Nixon was President. Its capital is Beijing, but for years (or maybe centuries?), we wrote it as Peking for (pronounced pay KING). Did some cartographer forget that English actually has phonemes for “b” and “j”? I’ve tried saying Beijing many different ways, but no matter what I do, it never sounds like Peking.

The Arabic world has its own form of writing with 28 consonants, no regular vowels (they indicate some vowel sounds by a superscript), AND NO English letters. Nevertheless, when we translate Arabic names to English, we tend complicate them. For example, why did someone plunk an “h” smack dab in the middle Baghdad (the word, not the city)? For years we wrote the name of their sacred scripture as the Koran (which tells you how to say it), but now it is often written as Qur’an. I can pronounce Koran, but if I hadn’t seen that first, I’d be clueless as to how to pronounce Qur’an.

Then of course there’s the Arabian Gulf State of Qatar, which I’ve been told can be pronounced “cutter,” “guitar” or “gutter,” without offending anyone. Somehow I think it would be polite to copy the pronunciation that those who live there use.

Of course, we’re just as imprecise with our own words, which is why Lima is pronounced LIE muh for the city in Ohio, but LEE muh for the city in Peru.

It’s no wonder that many people do not enjoy reading—or should that be
REDD ing, as in Pennsylvania?