Writing about the word “Thai” yesterday reminded me of one of the reasons for my occasional flashes of anti-Brit feelings. (Yes, I know “British” is not the same as “English,” and it’s the English who don’t pronounce their r’s and caused the problem I’m about to describe, but “anti-English feelings” just doesn’t work—it sounds like I don’t like the language, which is far from the case. Besides, “Brit” is internationally recognized shorthand for “those people who used to run an empire from London.”)

Remember Sade, “pronounced Shar-day“? I disliked her (quite irrationally) for forcing me to see that idiotic description for months on end (and hear Americans actually pronouncing it that way). There is, of course, no r sound in Sade; the description was created by Brits who don’t pronounce the r and wanted to indicate the a sound in “father.” Why they didn’t make it “Shah-day,” which would indicate the same sound and would work for all English-speakers, is beyond me, like the appeal of cricket. But they’ve taken the same tack for centuries, which has resulted in all sorts of intrusive r’s that cause names to be wrongly pronounced. Thai is full of them: the last syllable of Chulalongkorn [University] is actually kawn, and people named Porntip would get a lot less grief from English-speakers if it were written Pawntip or Pohntip. The Korean name Park is actually Pak. And the absurd new name for Burma, “Myanmar,” is made more absurd by the fact that not only is the r not pronounced, it’s not even used consistently: the country’s postal service is called Myanma Posts and Communications, for Pete’s sake. Mind you, the r in “Burma” itself is intrusive—the Burmese word is bama—but it’s old and established and there’s nothing to be done about it; “Burma” is the English name for the country and that’s that.

Off-topic, but I can’t resist:

Cheer up face
The war is past
The “h” is out
Of shave
At last


  1. But there’s no `r’ in texas hold-em.

  2. There’s no /ð/ in it either.

  3. But there’s no `r’ in texas hold-em.

    I have no idea whether I understood this in 2004, but I don’t now.

  4. No more do I.

  5. Marja Erwin says:

    So which would work better, Bama, Buema, or Myanma?

    (Since non-rhotic speakers consider r and e suitable approximations for German umlauts, I assume they consider e suitable approximations for suitable approximations their non-rhotic-rs.)

  6. I’d go for Bamah myself, which at least slightly encourages final stress (which I believe would give a better approximation to the Burmese pronunciation).

  7. Since non-rhotic speakers consider r and e suitable approximations for German umlauts,

    Isn’t it the Germans who consider “e” a suitable substitute for an umlaut? Americans anyway are likely to pronounce “ue” as /ju/, and it has nothing to do with /r/ anyway. Now “oe” might at least sometimes have something to do with /r/, but that’s a different vowel.

  8. Not so much a substitute as a regression: ü was originally written uͤ — that is, u with e over it, which was reduced from a e-shape to a "-shape to the modern diaeresis-shape.

  9. Lars (the original one) says:

    John, have you seen an actual handwritten specimen of a “round” e used as an umlaut? I see the claim in WP, but only a reconstructed typeset picture.

    In later German handwriting the e was almost an “-shape already, like in this, and I’ve seen that connected form used as umlauts in old church records myself.

  10. No, but rounded letters are a feature of Antiqua rather than German handwriting. It’s just the typeface here that makes the superscript e look round.

  11. Lars (the original one) says:

    As a symbolic presentation it’s fine — but I’m also interested in knowing if the e moved over the vowel letter in any attested styles of handwriting where it had its round shape, or only when it got the angular one of German handwriting.

  12. David Marjanović says:

    non-rhotic speakers consider r and e suitable approximations for German umlauts

    If you’ve seen r in this function, that was a typo for e; e and r are next to each other on most keyboard layouts.

    have you seen an actual handwritten specimen of a “round” e used as an umlaut?

    Handwritten and printed from around the 16th century. Have some from 1494, with extra quirks added to its inconsistent usage.

  13. Lars (the original one) says:

    extra quirks — you mean the uͦ and u̎ contrasting with v-for-u? Starting with Zuͦ which was zuo in MHG it seems. So I guess u̎ is the umlauted one, because uͤ is too like uͦ but aͤ is fine… (And Buocher became Bücher later).

    I like the loop-topped l with non-looped variant before other high stems… one more letter to make ligatures for, didn’t they have enough in the long-s ones?

  14. David Marjanović says:

    uͤ seems to be used in that printing for the umlaut of ů, as opposed to that of u. I’m sure uͤ and ů were diphthongs (they still are in almost all Upper German dialects, and this printing is from Basel). Also, sometimes umlaut isn’t marked at all.

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