Loess.

This is one of those “I’ve been annoyed by this all my life and it’s time to do something about it” posts. I hate the word loess ‘a windblown deposit of fine-grained, calcareous silt or clay,’ because I have no idea how to pronounce it. AHD gives (lō’əs, lĕs, lŭs), M-W \ˈles, ˈləs, ˈlō-əs, ˈlərs\; to take these in the latter order, \ˈles\ sounds like less, \ˈləs\ (i.e., “luss”) sounds dumb, \ˈlō-əs\ sounds like Lois, and \ˈlərs\ (i.e., “lurce”) sounds dumber. But I’m willing to bite the bullet and adopt one of these pronunciations if I’m convinced that it’s widespread enough, and especially if it’s the one used by those who deal professionally with the stuff. So: how do you say it, and do you know how loess people say it?

Comments

  1. LOESS is LOcal regrESSion and, apparently, should be read /lōes/ or maybe /lōeʃ/. As for a type of sediment, I have no idea.

  2. ə de vivre says:

    I’m pretty sure I’ve heard/used the word out loud before (class about Central Asian history? Hiking on the coast? Can’t remember), and [lo.əs] is the pronunciation that I’d use, which is far enough from my pronunciation of ‘Lois’ that it doesn’t bother me. I do like the idea of pronouncing it like ‘loose’ though, if only because le loose is one of my favourite Quebec French anglicisms, and it’d be fun to have a corresponding noun in English.

  3. marie-lucie says:

    I first ran into the word many years ago while reading about the geography of China, where it refers to a type of fertile soil, but I don’t think I have ever heard anyone pronounce it either in French or English. I wonder what language it is from? German seems most likely, in which case the French pronunciation should sound like a possible leusse.

  4. anders horn says:

    I went to school for agriculture and the soil scientists there pronounced it as [ləs].

  5. Yes, the word is originally German “Löss”, so m-l’s French-based “leusse” or hat’s “lerce” are the best approximations for the original pronunciation.

  6. It’s German, from Swiss German lösch ‘loose’: in IPA terms it’s ‘lœs’. Most geologists pronounce it something like Lois.

  7. Loess is moire, as they say.

  8. I’m also at a loess on this one. It’s not gneiss.

  9. -Central Asian history?

    East Asian history probably. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Loess_Plateau was a birthplace of Chinese civilization.

  10. These days, a lot of the more technical folks know the word more in the context of local regression than sediment! As the first poster pointed out, the pronunciation is fairly obvious in that sense, given its origin. Perhaps because of this contamination, I pronounce loess as in the plateau as “LOW-ESS”.

  11. J.W. Brewer says:

    FWIW, German-origin surnames in AmEng spelled with an “oe” reflecting an original ö (e.g. Schroeder, Koenig, Moeller, Koehler) tend in my experience to be pronounced in fully-Anglicized fashion with a regular AmEng GOAT vowel (which may vary a bit by speaker and region) rather than with something like the “ər” that semi-reflects the German phonology. Obviously the practice for AmEng pronunciation of German-origin words used as technical terms rather than surnames could be different because subject to different pressures.

  12. Eli Nelson says:

    @J.W. Brewer: However, there are also names that take the FACE vowel, like John Boehner. Variation similarly exists for “ue”: often “CUTE”, but I had a professor with the last name “Fruehling” who did use FLEECE. I like the unrounding strategy the best since from what I understand, unrounding occurs already in some regional varieties of German. But it’s true that a lot of words or names have become established in English with another pronunciation.

  13. At high school at least one of my geography teachers taught us to pronounce it as /lǝ(:)s/. I always understood it as being from German. However, I believe some teachers may also have pronounced it as /loʊɛs/.

  14. January First-of-May says:

    IIRC. the Russian is лёсс, which (aside from the final geminate, which is barely pronounced anyway) is a fairly close approximation of German Löss or French leusse (though I’m not sure if the latter term actually exists).

    I don’t know how to get the same effect in English, however – something like “lerce”, rhyming with “verse”, should work if you’re non-rhotic, but I’m not sure if there’s a rhotic possibility. (M-W’s \ˈlərs\ looks like the effect of someone using “lurce” to mean /ˈlɜːs/, with the NURSE vowel, and then someone else pronouncing it the wrong way.)

    That said, to me, the English word was in the mental category of “pronounced like it’s spelled” – I didn’t realize it could be problematic until reading this post (though I’m not sure what specific pronunciation I had in mind – probably some variety of /lœs/ and/or /lɜːs/, with a hint of /lʲɵs/).

  15. My impression is that German o-umlaut is more commonly anglicised NURSE in BrE and FACE in AmE.

    FWIW, this Wikipedia page supports me as regards “boehmite” but not “roentgen”.

  16. I’ve defaulted to [ˈloʊəs] since encountering it in a high school textbook. It’s homophonous with Lois for me, but for some reason homophony with less seems sillier.

    @J.W.: My impression is that there’s free variation between FACE and GOAT in those names, though pressure from spelling probably pushes them toward GOAT over time.

    My Great Unsayable Word, though, is the surname of New York Times columnist Ross Douthat. At this point I don’t want to know how it’s pronounced, so I can preserve the mystery.

  17. Needless to say, NURSE works better in nonrhotic accents. I say Lois to myself but talking to others would probably say “lois or luhss or however you pronounce it”.

    Otoh “foehn” is definitely NURSE (no /r/)

  18. Danish Wikipedia has an observation that the English one lacks, and I translate:

    It is also interesting that the first farmers settled just where the soil consists of löss. They must have known about the special [forest] plant communities that occur on the very fertile soil, so that they knew where it was profitable to clear forest.

  19. My Great Unsayable Word, though, is the surname of New York Times columnist Ross Douthat

    To give him the benefit of the doubt, I would suggest he is a distant relation of Languagehat.

  20. Really? I always think of him as Ross “I Will Do Anything For Love But I Won’t” Douthat.

  21. S is for Sauron,’ said Gimli. ‘That is easy to read.’
    ‘Nay!’ said Legolas. ‘Sauron does not use the Elf-runes.’
    ‘Neither does he use his right name, nor permit it to be spelt or spoken,’ said Aragorn. “Partly because no one can work out whether it’s Saw-ron or Sour-on.”
    “Hmm, yes, that is a tricky one,” Gimli replied.
    “Saw-ron. Sour-ron. Now that I think about it, both sound equally wrong in my ears,” mused Boromir.
    “The Elves of Mirkwood have always said Soh-ron,” Legolas commented.
    “Seriously?”
    “Yes, you know, like the French ‘au’. As in, well, ‘au’. Or ‘auberge’.”
    “Isn’t that completely inconsistent with the basically Nordic/Scandinavian/Germanic orthography of the Tongue of Westernesse?” asked Pippin boldly. “I mean, if we’re basically part of a project to create an inherently English or Anglo-Saxon mythos. A German would definitely say Sour-on.”
    “Fool of a Took!” thundered Gandalf. “Do you believe that Professor Tolkien would simply lift an orthography from an existing language rather than inventing his own? Beware lest you underestimate him!”

  22. David Marjanović says:

    Douthat: I’ve always imagined doubt + hat…

    from what I understand, unrounding occurs already in some regional varieties of German

    Yes; most of them actually, but it has by now disappeared from all varieties of the standard.

    (70 years ago we weren’t there yet. There’s the tale of that National Socialist Party event in Saxony where the speaker managed to get müssen right, but two words later unrounded Führer to Vierer “nominalized 4”.)

    aside from the final geminate

    Consonant length continues to be real in southern varieties, even standard ones.

    My impression is that German o-umlaut is more commonly anglicised NURSE in BrE and FACE in AmE.

    There’s also the fact that ö, like all other vowel letters, stands for two sounds, [œ] – close to nonrhotic NURSE; using [œɐ̯] for NURSE is an important part of a strong German accent in English – and [øː], which differs from FACE mostly by being rounded.

    [œ] occurs in Löss* and Röntgen, [øː] in Böhm-, Föhn “wind that goes south-to-north across the Alps and heats up dramatically in the process”, Fön “hairdryer”**, and theoretically in Boehner.

    * Pre-reform Löß.
    ** Originally (1908) a brand name… spelled Foen, but derived from Föhn. Wikipedia says the spelling reform allows spelling “hairdryer” with h, too, now that nobody knows it’s derived from a brand name anymore. I didn’t know that. It used to be one of the most difficult problems of German spelling.

    It is also interesting that the first farmers settled just where the soil consists of löss. They must have known about the special [forest] plant communities that occur on the very fertile soil, so that they knew where it was profitable to clear forest.

    Sure. Ever since the Linear Ware Culture there have been no more pure linden forests in Europe; apparently they grew on the blackest soil.

  23. David Eddyshaw says:

    There’s Matt Groening, of course, who unrounds the vowel: /ɡreɪnɪŋ/

    George Monbiot. I spent a long time googling trying to find out the pronunciation of that one.

  24. Half a century ago there was a Senator Kuchel whose name was always rendered by newscasters as “Keekle.”

  25. I went to school for agriculture and the soil scientists there pronounced it as [ləs].

    OK, that’s good enough for me. I’ll try to adopt it mentally (I doubt I’ll ever have occasion to actually say the word out loud).

  26. Having taken some physical geography in university I pronounce it as I was taught: low ESS

  27. ə de vivre says:

    East Asian history probably.

    Yeah, there was a semester at university when I both took a class on the history of the Silk Road and the Mogao Caves, and spent time hiking in the loessy Palouse. I’m pretty sure that’s when I hit peak loess, but I don’t remember which context I heard the word in.

  28. I learned the pronunciation [ləs] from my eighth-grade geology textbook, which gave “luss” as the phonetic spelling. I was intrigued enough that I made my parents drive slightly out of the way on a road trip so I could see some in western Iowa. And there it was: a wind-blown sediment that could form cliffs!

  29. ö stands for two sounds

    Any same-length minimal pairs or is it a conditioned variant? Danish has den næste dør; with /œ/ it means ‘the next door’, with /ø/ it’s ‘the next one dies’. (Of course it’s produced with [ɶ/œ] because of the adjacent /r/).

    From the mid-18th century there was a movement to spell /œ/ as ö and /ø/ (coincidentally) as ø — though it’s dead now, you might meet it in old Danish linguistic literature. (Linguists being the only ones thinking there was a problem to be solved).

  30. In standard German, at least, /øː/ is inherently long and /œ/ is inherently short. Though are there any minimal pairs contrasting unstressed [ø] with [œ]?

  31. Unstressed “ö” is only possible in a) compounds, like ‘anˌöden “bore”, where they are under a secondary stress and the length and quality disticntions are maintained, or b) in loanwords like Ödem [ø:’de:m] “oedema”, where the long vowel may be pronounced shorter than under stress, but there is still a length distinction besides the quality distinction.

  32. Nelson Wripnux says:

    how do you say it, and do you know how loess people say it?

    Do you know how foewer people say it?

    There, fixed it for you.

  33. Oeuch!

  34. At this point I don’t want to know how it’s pronounced, so I can preserve the mystery.

    How he pronounces his name. In any case, no similarity to Languagehat.

    whether it’s Saw-ron or Sour-on

    It’s a Quenya name, so the latter is a better approximation. His Sindarin name was Gorthaur; the latter half of this is a cognate, due to the Quenya sound-change /θ/ > /s/.

    Originally (1908) a brand name… spelled Foen, but derived from Föhn.

    In English, we have pabulum ‘nourishment > Pablum ‘brand of baby food’ > pablum ‘intellectual pap’.

  35. David Marjanović says:

    Danish has den næste dør; with /œ/ it means ‘the next door’, with /ø/ it’s ‘the next one dies’.

    This particular situation probably can’t happen in Standard German because consonant length was still intact when the monosyllabic words that didn’t end in too many consonants got their vowels lengthened; the vowel lengths of Tür vs. dürr are therefore obvious from the spelling.

    (Tür [tyːɐ̯] “door”; dürr [d̥ʏɐ̯] “dried up & withered”.)

    (Edit: Actually, Tür isn’t a case of monosyllabic lengthening at all – it’s a case of open-syllable lengthening; the older form Türe still isn’t extinct.)

  36. My impression is that German o-umlaut is more commonly anglicised NURSE in BrE and FACE in AmE.

    Yes, I am in full agreement, but: from my experience the estadounidense approach is a heritage-language approach, and entirely appropriate decades ago when a) dialects in Germany with [ej] for <ö> were stronger and b) there was a lot more direct family contact between Germans and Americans of German descent, since the family links were more recent. I haven’t seen a coherent approach taken to the problem in US sources recently.

    I’m not sure there *is* a better approach for American English. ‘Imagine Stephen Fry saying “nurse” and then use the vowel from that’ will reach a certain number of people, but not enough. People in the US don’t use filler interjections with the sound, in general, and French is sufficiently rare that the Stephen Fry approach would be more constructive. Suggestions?

  37. dør/dör in Danish is a true minimal pair, both vowels are long (short versions exist as well, for instance in kør/större, but I don’t know of a true minimal pair).

    But even if there was a length contrast, as in kør/dør, it would not be marked in spelling; Danish lost consonant length long ago and the orthographic doubling to show short vowels isn’t used at the end of words.

    (dør is the present of a strong verb, kør is the imperative of a weak verb = G kehren, that’s why the vowel length is different).

  38. [ej] for >ö> — I didn’t know that existed in German dialects. I thought the Andrews Sisters pronunciation of schön was by way of Yiddish. (Well, the one doesn’t preclude the other).

  39. a non question for Russians with their ё, and yes I knew it only as the soil in which Maoist troops dug caves to live in, but I’ve since learned that there were numerous loess soil pockets in Pannonia where first farmers started the history of agriculture beyond the Mediterranean

  40. David Marjanović says:

    I didn’t know that existed in German dialects.

    It doesn’t; the Yiddish [ej] is a Slavic interpretation of [e(ː)].

  41. Allan from Nevada, Iowa says:

    I am from Iowa and I pronounce it as one syllable with the GOAT vowel. Except when I try to remember my middle school German.

  42. That gave me a good laugh, ajay.

    German-origin surnames in AmEng spelled with an “oe” reflecting an original ö (e.g. Schroeder, Koenig, Moeller, Koehler) tend in my experience to be pronounced in fully-Anglicized fashion with a regular AmEng GOAT vowel

    The name of the Loeb Classical Library is generally pronounced lobe, but I’ve known one eminent British classicist who pronounced it as low-ebb (which, like Lois for loess, strikes me as a barbaric spelling pronunciation). I’ve never had to pronounce loess, but I’d be tempted to give it the FOOT vowel as being AmE’s closest thing to the German sound.

  43. In The Netherlands it is pronounced the way you think is dumb 😉

  44. Aidan, David, which is it? Did German in Germany have dialects with [ej] for /ö/? (I presume nobody is calling Yiddish a dialect of German).

  45. David Marjanović says:

    Did German in Germany have dialects with [ej] for /ö/?

    No; it does, however, have dialects with [eː] for long ö (and [ɛ] for the short one). The closest thing English has to [eː] is FACE, which is [e̞ɪ̯] for most people (but [e] ~ [eː] for Scots and Scandihoovians).

    East Yiddish (no idea about West) has completely reinterpreted its sound system in terms of those of its neighbors. Specifically, its vowel system could be said to be the least common denominator of those of Czech and Polish: five phonemes with the default values [ä]*, [ɛ], [i], [ɔ], [u]. Now, like Slavic, but unlike German or English, Yiddish allows syllables to end in [j]. In Polish (and Russian and likely elsewhere), the sequence /ɛj/ comes out as [ej] when unstressed; this is therefore the closest thing these languages have to [eː]. Therefore, /eː/ and /øː/ were reinterpreted as /ɛj/ in East Yiddish, pronounced [ej] – the distinction between /ɛ/ and /eː/ is preserved as absence vs. presence of /j/.

    * Annoyingly, for historical reasons tied to French, there’s no IPA symbol for a central open vowel, so I’ve taken the symbol for the front one and slapped the vague “centralized” diacritic on it…

    You will often find the English FACE vowel transcribed as “/ej/”, i.e. a sequence of DRESS and /j/. That’s perfectly fine as an interpretation of the phonemic level; languages that distinguish diphthongs in [i] or [ɪ] from closed syllables in [j] are extremely rare*, so you can easily get away with interpreting such diphthongs as sequences of a monophthong and /j/. On the phonetic level, however, that’s just not English. English doesn’t do [j] behind a vowel in the same syllable.

    * Only example known to me: the Central Franconian dialect spoken in & around Maastricht in the southern drop hanging from the Netherlands. Every other lect in the world seems to have one, the other, or neither.

  46. In The Netherlands it is pronounced the way you think is dumb

    If I were Dutch, I wouldn’t think it was dumb either! I was talking only about native English pronunciation (and, of course, only about my own personal reactions).

  47. The name of the Loeb Classical Library is generally pronounced lobe

    Daniel Jones’ Pronouncing Dictionary gives “lə:b, ləub” and has the note “W. Heinemann Ltd., the publishers of the Loeb Classical Library, prefer lə:b,” but my own marginal note reads “But James Loeb, the American banker who founded it, pronounced ləub!” So there you go; as so often, there is no “correct” solution.

    but I’ve known one eminent British classicist who pronounced it as low-ebb

    OK, that’s just silly.

  48. Do Americans just up and pronounce a stressed schwa? Which lexical set is it in?

  49. Daniel Jones gives UK pronunciation. I assume it’s a posh UK equivalent of ö, but I don’t actually know.

  50. Oh. Yes, it works in posh.

  51. Chambers gives lœs, then ‘lōis. It explains the symbol œ as being as in French fleur, leur, cœur.

  52. Marja Erwin says:

    “It is also interesting that the first farmers settled just where the soil consists of löss.”

    I thought early plows were just better at light soils such as loess than heavy soils such as podsols and histosols. It took wider plowshares, eared plows, moldboard plows, etc.

    Anyway, I don’t think I round any of my English vowels.

  53. @Lars: The American stressed schwa is what’s written as [ʌ] by British-influenced transcribers.

    By the way, I have a student this semester named Loesser (not a local name) who pronounces it “Lacer,” not “Lesser.”

  54. I think the use of “[ʌ]” or “[ɐ]” is pretty universal for that, except in very broad transcription. American STRUT is on the low side, and either near-back or central. Stressed short [ǝ] pops up in southernized North-of-England English, and for some speakers in the odd stressed “the” or “because”, but aside from that I think it’s pretty rare.

    “Lacer,” not “Lesser.”

    Schaeffer/Shaffer/etc. usually seems to take FACE as well.

  55. ə de vivre says:

    “It is also interesting that the first farmers settled just where the soil consists of löss.”

    I thought early plows were just better at light soils such as loess than heavy soils such as podsols and histosols. It took wider plowshares, eared plows, moldboard plows, etc.

    I can’t speak about plant domestication in (South-)East Asia or the Americas, but in the Near East unambiguous agriculture started in Upper Mesopotamia—not very loessy. Incidentally, there’s some pretty interesting work by Jennifer Pournelle arguing that marshlands (like the Nile Delta and the lower Tigris/Euphrates) played a very important role in the development of urban agricultural societies. Her main arguments are based on using satellite imagery to reconstruct ancient water courses. But she also points out that most non-agricultural societies with large permanent settlements occur in littoral areas with abundant marine sources of food, priming the pump with larger scales of existing social organization; and that in an era before domestic horses and camels and the invention of the light-weight spoked wheel, being able to transport bulky grain by boat would be a major advantage in moving enough food from the fields to feed a city.

  56. Eli Nelson says:

    @RodgerC: Maybe the student’s name actually corresponds to German “Lößer” rather than “Lösser”? Bit of a stretch, probably. The latter seems much more common, but Google turns up a few apparent examples of the former.

  57. Google turns up multiple instances of the phrase “evil of two Loessers”.

  58. John Roth says:

    I’m not sure I’ve ever heard it, but I pronounce it with two distinct vowels; the first as in row or owe, the second one similar to mess rather than the miss you hear in Lois. Midwestern accent; I’ve had several people say they can still hear it even though I’ve been in New Mexico for over ten years.

  59. American STRUT is on the low side, and either near-back or central.

    Standard American yes, but Kids These Days (here in California anyway) are raising and rounding it to sound almost like the FOOT vowel, which in turn is getting unrounded towards [ɯ].

  60. David Marjanović says:

    Anyway, I don’t think I round any of my English vowels.

    Unless you have a really strong Wichita accent, and I do mean the Wichita language, I really don’t think you do! Rounding doesn’t have to mean moving your lips as for [w] (called “exolabial rounding”); there are ways to simulate it inside the oral cavity (“endolabial rounding”).

    Schaeffer/Shaffer/etc. usually seems to take FACE as well.

    Schäfer “shepherd” does have /eː/ except in those western accents that retain a separate /æː/. The ff, which incorrectly suggests vowel shortness, is probably just a random flourish; it happens to be etymologically correct here, but long consonants behind long vowels were shortened very early in the ancestry of the varieties that gave rise to the Standard German spelling system.

  61. I can’t speak about plant domestication in (South-)East Asia or the Americas, but in the Near East unambiguous agriculture started in Upper Mesopotamia—not very loessy

    In Europe (Linearbandkeramik / LBK culture) and in the first Neolithic cultures of China as well, both alluvial valley-bottom sediment and loess areas were highly favored. For example, LBK in today’s Poland reached North to lower Vistula, exploiting alluvial deposits there. It’s just, there was relatively greater abundance of loess in Europe. And also, perhaps, riverside floodplains and adjacent areas may have been not as good for preserving the traces of the Neolithic cultures for 7,000 years.

  62. evil of two Loessers

    Apparently both Frank Loesser, the songwriter of Guys and Dolls and a number of standards like “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition” and “Baby It’s Cold Outside”, and his brother Arthur, a classical pianist and piano teacher, had extremely sharp tongues that they applied first to each other and then to anyone else in sight.

  63. In Chicago, I’ve heard Koenig as both Kee-nig and Kay-nig.

    Then there’s the man who once showed up for Stupid Pet Tricks on David Letterman. I don’t remember the pet. I’m not sure the show got to the pet. Because Dave couldn’t stop laughing at his cue cards, which had the man’s name and it’s pronunciation. The pronunciation was meant to be Blerm. The name was Bloeme.

  64. Walter Koenig from Star Trek says “Kaynig”.

  65. David Marjanović says:

    The name was Bloeme.

    That looks like the Dutch oe for [uː].

  66. This guy seems to have the right attitude, though where he says that the LOW-ess pronunciation has even slipped into some dictionaries as acceptable, he’s understating things; of the three dictionaries I just checked (Oxford Dictionary of English, Chambers, MW) LOW-ess was the primary pronunciation in all but MW, which still listed it.

  67. this word “loess” is about the most clumsy thing that could have happened to us, but we’re stuck with it.

    My feelings exactly!

  68. J.W. Brewer says:

    I will rather belatedly concede that “oe” comes out in AmEng pronunciation of German-origin surnames a bunch of different ways, and the first examples I came up with may have been too skewed toward one particular way. To the extent it’s not just random, it may have something to do with the following consonants and what they imply (given the interaction between orthographic conventions and AmEng phonology) about what vowels would or wouldn’t be plausible in the particular context. As a more specific mea culpa, by far the best surname out of all of those mentioned above to provide insight into “loess” is “Loesser,” and it turns out that “Loesser” is a name that makes me nervous because I don’t actually have a good intuition as to how to pronounce it (maybe I’ve never known a bearer of it in real life?), and more specifically don’t (probably because of something involving the double-s) have the intuition that the GOAT vowel is the most plausible candidate.

Speak Your Mind

*