Saturday, April 17, 2010


I did a double take when I saw that my last post was over a month ago, but I guess I have been that busy. At any rate, but got me thinking today was a Language Log post on the myriad (mis)pronunciations of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano (properly pronounced [ejafjatłajøkʰʏtł]). Obviously English speakers are going to have a hard time with the rounded front vowels and lateral affricates, so it seems worthwhile to have a general Anglicization.

Or does it? I guess I'm generally in favor of Anglicizations. I find it obnoxious when people pronounce Chile [tʃile] rather than the more standard [tʃɪli]. On the other hand, I routinely say Tlingit [łɪŋlɪt] and Nahuatl [naxʷatł] with the original laterals. I think the key issue is one of faithfulness to the original form versus creating an easily pronounceable form in the target language. In the case of Chile, only the vowels are changing, and the vowel changes are fairly minor: laxing of the /i/ and raising of the /e/ (the latter being part of the Great Vowel Shift in English). On the other hand, changing a consonant sound strikes me as more major. In cases where a spelling pronunciation of the foreign term is just too different, as in Eyjafjallajökull, I think it's best to simply pronounce the word as in the original language.

This might not be possible or useful for the average person, but I don't think it's too high a standard to hold newscasters to. It's there job to report on things, and I think it should also be their job to say things right. Sure, foreign words are a bit tongue-twisting at first, but a little practice and Eyjafjallajökull will be rolling off your tongue. And the more someone practices foreign sounds and foreign words, the easier it is not only to pronounce words in that language, but in other languages as well.

The conflict of faithfulness and ease of pronunciation of course shows up in much more unconscious speech as well. I'm in the midst of a project with James Crippen on exactly this type of conflict in Tlingit, a Dene language spoken in Alaska. Since Tlingit doesn't have the sounds /b/ or /p/, it's interesting to see how words are adapted when they are borrowed from languages that do have them.