The Friday Fillip

As the globe shrinks (the name for a new soap opera?), we’re challenged more and more to speak in unfamiliar tongues. And the problem becomes getting that chunky or deceptive bit of foreign prose out of our mouths with something less than extreme prejudice. How do you say Löwenbräu, risotto, Lech Wałęsa, Eyjafjallajökull, or even Советских, come to that? Heck, most of us can’t even say Moscow properly in English.

You might be adept at decoding IPA, the international phonetic alphabet — and there’s a good argument we all should be — in which case you can learn fairly easily from your handy phrase book that it’s [ˈløːvənbʁɔʏ] and not [ˈloʊ.ənbraʊ]. But that’s not going to cut it for most of us most of the time.

Forvo to the rescue, with its boast of 495,719 recorded pronunciations in 240 languages: it’s , , , and . (Eyjafjallajökull? Language Log does a huge number on this.)

If you simply want to hear Catalan or Tibetan or Ojibwa, you can go to a language page and “play” the words you find there. There’s no translation, mind you: but that makes sense, given that each word would need 240 translations; and it’s okay because there’s an app for that, doubtless. Should you happen to be skilled in Basque or Igbo or any of the globe’s thousands of languages, you can contribute pronunciations or even become an editor.


  1. This is fascinating, Simon, as are all the fillips. However, it is sometimes hard to know whether the word of foreign origin has become sufficiently naturalized that the proper pronunciation is according to English rules.

    We don’t, when speaking English, pronounce the capital of France as Pareee, though the spelling does not change from the French. I would say that risotto is an English word now, and we don’t need to try an Italian pronunciation of the ‘r’ or of the double ‘t’.

    Sometimes the choices for transliterating words in languages with different writing systems can vary by country – the English and the American versions of ‘Al Quaeda’ are different. Likewise the transliteration done for French is different again. That does not mean that people speaking English (or French) on either side of the Atlantic should try to sound as if they are speaking Arabic when they say the word(s).

    I find it mildly annoying to see Montreal written with an accent on the ‘e’ in an English text, as if English speakers or readers are supposed to pronounce it as if it were a French word. I think the same rule applies as for Paris.

    words can be denaturalized, too, as it were. When I was a good deal younger, the standard reference to the Quebec city between Montreal and Quebec was Three Rivers. Nowadays the very common form, even in speaking English in Ontario, is Trois Rivieres, pronounced more or less as in French, or at least recognized as a French word.

    Forvo sounds like an excellent service, but it will not be helpful in every circumstance. (Recall that lovely scene in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall where his character was struck by someone pronouncing the name of the Dutch painter as Van Gog not Van Go – though the former is closer to the Dutch and standard in French.)

  2. You’re right, John, about the Anglicized words. (Though even there it’s Mos-coe and not Mos-cow). But risotto is a pet peeve of mine, not so much for want of the lovely Italian consonants, but because of the “oh” of the second syllable instead of the short “o”; I think maybe it comes from people looking at my last name with its double d and saying “foe – den” even so. And my favourite example of oddly unnecessary translation is the Quebec’s Nouvelle Ecosse, as if it had to be “corrected” out of an English Nova Scotia.