The Friday Fillip: The Lowenbrau Problem

You sidle up to the bar and ask what beers they’ve got. Suppressing your disappointment that it’s all in bottles, you quickly run by the alcowater from down south that passes for so much beer nowadays and seize upon the only import available. “I’ll have a — ” Now, how will you say it? If you happen to know German, as I do, you’ve got a bit of a problem. If you say Löwenbräu — pronounced something like lerven-broy, you’re likely to get a glassful of incomprehension; but if you say Lowenbrau — low-en-brow — not only might a piece of you wince but you could get a look that says something like “Pils before swine.”

I’m somewhat inured to these pronunciation problems, having been brought up by English parents who taught me . . . English, even though we spent most of our time in North America. Is it miss’-isle or miss’-l [missile]? Is it ga’-ruj or ga-rahj‘ [garage]? Is it fill’-it or fill-eh’ [fillet]. But the problem is general when we turn to truly foreign words: do we anglicize them, or do we go for the foreign pronunciation?

Names can be particularly tricky, because we tend to give proper nouns rather more respect than nouns in the general pile. So how do — should — we pronounce Porche? Most say porsh, but it would be just as easy to say it with the German pronunciation of porsh-uh. (And for all I know it might be a requirement for buying one, unlike the situation with a beer.) Does anyone pronounce Degas or Debussy correctly — that is, with the French duh instead of the anglicized day or deh. What about van Gogh? And — which takes us to the acute aspect of the Lowenbrau problem — if we do know the proper pronunciation, do we use it or shirk it as a kind of showiness?

Proper names aren’t the only problems, of course. English delights in loan words, is rapacious in fact, and eventually moulds everything to its shape until it sounds like something a Dickens character might say, origin be damned. But there’s that uncomfortable transition period when knowledge gets in the way but is shy of parading. Take my current bugbear for example: risotto. It’s an Italian word that is pronounced to rhyme with Otto. Why on earth do people feel the need to say ri-zo’-toe? The answer, it turns out, has a name that itself looks hard to pronounce at first: hyperforeignism. Seems we have a tendency to lean over backwards in the Löwenbräu direction, but always a little too far to the left. Thus Otto is thought plebeian, an English sound, so the word must have a stranger pronunciation than that. “Forte,” as in “not my forte,” gets the hyper-whatsis treatment to become fore’-tay instead of the much simpler (and proper French) fort that it should be. “Cadre” suffers a similar fate. And let’s not even talk about “bruschetta.”

But no one ever said carrying knowledge or ignorance would be easy. So you takes your pick and takes your chances. There’s not a lot at stake, when you come right down to it. Except, perhaps, a beer. I once tried to get a Grolsch on a KLM flight to its homeland. Grolsh I requested. Incomprehension indeed, until eventually I learned that it’s pronounced something like hrulse, with a fair bit of gutteral on the ‘h’. I felt better about it all as I asked for my second.


  1. The French are far quicker than the English to naturalize foreign names, which makes pronunciation (for them) easier – so Asterix battles Jules César, not Julius Caesar (which my Latin teacher would have us pronounced ‘kie-zar’ = Kaiser in German.)

    I suppose there’s only so much one can do for [the] hoi polloi…