Vanessa Neumann struggles to get her tongue and her head around the barbarism that is English pronounciation.
English is a shocking language. It is the language of a heathen people too brutish to appreciate the finer points of consistency and symmetry. The worst offenders are those who invented the language: the Brits. They simply have no respect for diphthongs.
I was keenly aware of this as a child in Caracas, when my American mother forced me to learn English by pretending she couldn’t understand me when I spoke to her in Spanish. ‘Tell me in English,’ she’d say calmly. ‘I can’t!’ I railed, hot tears of frustration streaming down my face. ‘It’s an impossible language! How do you know how anything is pronounced?’
Precocious and stubborn to the end, I pointed out that the ‘ough’ combination was pronounced differently in three different words, depending (illogically) on what precedes it: ‘T-UFF,’ ‘TH-OU’ and ‘THR-OOOH.’ I relied on this inconsistency for my defence.
I still struggle, ten years after my estate agent corrected my pronunciation of Beauchamp Place from the proper French ‘Bo-shon’ to the British ‘Beecham’ — a particularly shocking exercise in cultural imperialism. Imagine, then, my horror when I was told of the Marquess of Cholmondeley (pronounced ‘Chumley’). I mean, the odds are definitely stacked against us foreigners.
Despite more than a quarter of a century in the English-speaking world and an advanced Ivy League education, my struggle with the English language has been revitalised by my return to Britain, and I still make my English husband smile with my malapropisms. He likes to tell how, while I discoursed wisely on the British tradition of political philosophy, I pointed out that Parliament’s banning of Hobbes’s Leviathan only made it more popular and raised its price, which we know from ‘Peppis’s’ diary.
‘Don’t you mean Peeps?’
How could P-E-P-Y-S be pronounced Peeps? Again, I defended myself: it makes no sense. So now I tread carefully. As we drive through towns and villages with funny-looking names near our home in Shropshire, I ask: ‘Darling, how is this name pronounced?’ So he instructs me on the signs around our doorstep: Shrewsbury is ‘Shrowsbury’, the River Cherwell is the River ‘Charwell’, Leominster is ‘Lemster’.
I take careful note and practice, committing each to memory. My husband is amused and flattered by my acquiescence. But he underestimates me, for I have a plan.
My new-found acquiescence, mind you, didn’t stop me railing on my honeymoon. When, towards the end of our Italian honeymoon, we met up with fellow Spear’s WMS contributor Andrei Navrozov and his wife Olga, I got my own back.
On the island of Panarea, we were amused by the ubiquitous mellifluous tunes of a singing fishmonger. Pedalling around the island with his iced cargo in the back of his open-air wagon, he’d announce his wares: ‘Pesce frescooooooooo!’ My new husband William would imitate him, sort of: ‘Pesce frescaaaaaaaaaa!’
I explained the difference in pronunciation between an ‘o’ ending and an ‘a’ ending, but he still couldn’t hear it. Nor could he visualise the spelling of words he’d heard and seen before: he fundamentally could not visually translate from a sound to a string of letters that make it.
‘You know why, don’t you?’ I said to Navrozov. ‘It’s because he’s a Brit and Brits have no respect for diphthongs.’ I was indignant. They have no concept of certain letter combinations necessarily producing a certain sound, so they cannot do the inverse: take a sound and put it into the letters that produce it. It’s a form of illiteracy and the English language (particularly British English) is to blame.
Navrozov quietly retorted, ‘Of course they don’t. In Britain, tradition is the only law. They have no constitution; they rely on precedent. Why shouldn’t their language be the same?’ He’s right, of course. So I begrudgingly have to accept that they do have some consistency after all — they consistently make it up as they go along.
Yet phonetic inconsistency has not stopped the English producing some of the most beautiful literary texts anywhere, in any language. The prime examples are too trite and too famous to mention, but you know whom I mean. And yet, sometimes it takes a foreigner to take this illogical, inconsistent heathen language to new heights.
Consider, for a moment, Vladimir Nabokov (pronounced Na-BO-kov), Joseph Conrad, Tom Stoppard: all of them arguably are obsessed by the craftsmanship of English words, particularly because they view them as outsiders. Perhaps it is the obsession of foreigners raised on strict rules of grammar and phonetics to master the ad hoc of the English that creates such deep insight and delicate tuning. Still, it’s bloody annoying.
But I will have my revenge. ‘Don’t worry,’ I said to Navrozov. ‘He’ll learn rules. I’ll teach him Spanish.'