An emperor, a painter and a gigolo walk into a bar…

… called L’Anglophonie.
‘Aren’t you Genghis Khan, love?’ the barmaid asks the first man.
‘I am’, he replies. ‘Except Genghis begins with a soft g. Jenghis rather than Ghenghis. Think of JU-lius Caesar, not Mahatma GAN-dhi. Pronounce it wrong one more time, you lowly servant, and I’ll massacre you along with your whole tribe.’
‘You’re one touchy fellow, Mr Khan. How about a little mood-lifter?’
The Mongol leader draws a dagger, thinks better of it, orders a bloody Mary and sinks into a brooding silence.

‘And you, aren’t you Vincent van Gogh?’ the barmaid asks the second man.
‘I’m Vincent all right, but my name isn’t Van Goff.’
‘Isn’t it? Aren’t you the sunflowers bloke? You must be pulling my leg! I can see you did something to your ear!’
The painter screws his face into a grimace. ‘That’s me all right. But my name’s Van Gogh. Rhymes with dog. Or with loch, if you can manage it.’
‘Are you sure? Not Van Goff? Nor Van Go?’
‘Arrg, don’t, mademoiselle, don’t! It makes my skin crawl. As a remedy, please pour me some green forgetfulness, I beg you.’ Upon seeing the barmaid’s puzzled expression, he adds in a whisper: ‘Absinthe.’

The woman turns to the third man. ‘And who may you be, love? There’s something of the artist and something of the conqueror about you too, but you come across more business-like. Am I right?’
‘My name’s Giles Gilmore’, the man answers rather stiffly. ‘You wouldn’t know my name. I’m a dancer. Ladies can enjoy my company for a fee. Now would you kindly pour me a gin, girl?’
‘Ah, how exciting,’ the barmaid beams with a gentle giggle. ‘So you’re a gigolo!’

And such is the state of culture in L’Anglophonie that the great and mighty get the G’s in their names mangled, but gigolo is pronounced correctly without a moment’s hesitation.

Vietnamese (7): How one language can help another

DDR-VNI discovered something amazing during last night’s lesson with Huyền, my Vietnamese teacher. We were discussing my pronunciation of the sound written as ư, which I’m not familiar with from other languages. I have trouble vocalising the ư in a way that’s clearly and consistently different from the common or garden u (/u/, as in boot). Several sources, including Huyền herself, had suggested all kinds of tips and tricks for ‘placing’ the vowel properly in my mouth, such as these: Continue reading


loessWords crossing linguistic boundaries sometimes get mangled pretty badly. I’ve long known this, but I couldn’t help yelping ‘what?!’ the other day, when I heard a university lecturer, Craig Benjamin from Australia, pronounce as ‘lowess’ a word that in my book ought to sound more or less like ‘luss’.

Which is not to say that Benjamin was wrong.

The word under consideration was coined by a 19th-century German scientist, and it stands for a particular type of sediment deposited by wind. I would consider it an arcane geologic term, were it not for the fact that my Dutch home region of Limburg is covered in it. Its local name is Limburgian clay, but is is known to science as löss.

In German, two dots (diaeresis or umlaut) can always be replaced by an e after the character, so loess is a legitimate spelling for löss, with pronunciation unaffected. It was this ö-less variety that English adopted, back in 1833 – way before Motörhead and Häagen Dazs made dots look cool. And you guessed it: as soon as English incorporated loess, the original pronunciation took the back seat. It is now considered perfectly correct to say ‘lowess’, though ‘luss’ end even ‘less’ and (non-rhotic) ‘lurse’ are acceptable too.

Loess is common in China (see map), which was indeed the subject of Benjamin’s lecture. In Mandarin, the soil type is called huángtǔ (黃土), literally ‘yellow earth’. Perhaps English should have gone with that. When Chinese words get mangled, I don’t notice anyway.