Pronunciation issues

This weekend I was given a great little book, Schott’s original miscellany, by Ben Schott, "a unique collection of fabulous trivia." The first article I read was about curious surname pronunciation. Here are a few examples:

As written

As pronounced













I’m sure there must be reasons and rules explaining why a word can have a spelling that differs so much from its pronunciation, but my phonetics classes at University are too distant to even provide me with a clue.

When you first learn a language and encounter a new word, you try and draw on your knowledge of other similar words to try and infer its pronunciation. It doesn’t always work. For some reason, I have a mental block about certain words’ pronunciation, like ploughman. When I see it, instead of thinking of plough, which would be logical, after all, I immediately think of rough or tough and normally proceed to confuse the person who’s taking my order.

There are other words that I still struggle with, like shin and chin. Which is which? Thankfully, after I yet again asked my friend Beth whether she was going to wear "chin pads" at football training, she took it upon herself to help me dissociate them. Luckily enough, she was studying linguistics at the time and was thus able to give me an insight into the mysterious workings of language:

Beth: "Okay, remember, your shins are next to your shoes, and your chin is next to your cheeks."

Who says language isn’t logical?

By | 2016-10-18T15:51:43+00:00 October 18th, 2004|Technical corner|8 Comments

About the Author:

I am Céline Graciet, a freelance English to French translator. Since 2003 I’ve been writing on all sorts of areas linked to translation and the life of a translator.


  1. waterhot October 18, 2004 at 7:47 pm

    English names certainly can be confusing – who would think of pronouncing Menzies as “Ming” ? To make matters harder, not just for foreigners, but for native speakers too, they are not even consistent. Menzies can be quite simply “Menzies” – and one of the alternative pronunciations of one of your examples, Featherstonehaugh, is “Ferney-ho”. And the worst of it is, if you happen to plump for the wrong option you arouse nothing but derision in the offended party.

  2. Sarah October 19, 2004 at 11:28 am

    Embarrassed to say, I’ve only ever used Schott’s to check what the washing symbols mean on clothes labels. Glad to see you’re getting more use out of it than me.

  3. Tony October 20, 2004 at 11:25 am

    PronOunciation, Céline? Come,come.

  4. Tony October 20, 2004 at 11:30 am

    One should take every opportunity of offending people with absurd spellings (or absurd pronunciations) of their names; they are pretentious nincompoops.

  5. Warren October 20, 2004 at 4:08 pm

    I was well into my adult years before I learned that the J in names like Bjorensen wasn’t pronounced like our j in “jam”! And the X in Mexico isn “xray”, it’s a combination of (Mexi) May he ko. 🙂 Anyway, maybe this will help with the Chin/Shin. Think of Shin as the SH in Shoe and the CH as the ch in Choo Choo.
    As an interesting (I hope) aside, I live in the Pacific Northwest of the U. S., south of Seattle. We have here, many First or Native Americans (misnomer: indian). It intrigues me that like the early Japanese, who couldn’t pronounce “r”, the greater part of the Natives here had no “r” in their language and had difficulty with it.
    Part 2 – There were only two groups in North America that spoke two languages (putting aside the “sign” languages). The Natives of Florida and the Natives of the Pacific Northwest. The Floridian jargon was never recorded and is now lost. The “Chinook Jargon” was recorded by an early Missionary (to the best of his schooling and education). The word “Chinook” means people. The tribe lived near the mouth of the Columbia River where it dumps into the Pacific Ocean. Natives from eastern Washington (across a mountain range called the Cascades), who had their own language, could communicate with the Puyallup on the West side of WA, in that jargon. It was later influnced by the influx of the European, espically the French. If you want to look for that book, just look for the Chinook Jargon (pronounced either way: Shinook or Chinook, by the European.

  6. sarah November 9, 2004 at 2:07 pm

    I’ve just spent 5 months living with two Spanish persons and a French person; we’ve had many, many discussions on the pronounciation of English. Particularly all the different ways you can end up saying “-ugh”
    The best was climbing about 4/5ths of the way up mount olympus and, as we tried to book into the lodge there, I casually read a menu on the wall. For a minute I was totally unable to think what “Jello” was.
    “Hmm, what on earth is Jello?”
    Then, the Spanish girl, possibly as a result of oxygen deprivation burst out with:
    “How do you know how to pronounce it? HOW? You’ve never seen the word before!”
    ahh the hilarity. You could also hire mules, but they don’t tell you that til you get to the top.

  7. Soledad Oyarzo B. November 11, 2004 at 1:55 am

    he ingresado a tu página, para saber el orígen del segundo apellido de mi padre “Bjorensen” nadie me ha dado una respuesta, acá en Chile, dicen que es Noruego.

  8. céline November 11, 2004 at 9:22 am

    Pienso también que es Noruego pero no soy segura. Buena suerte !

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