Pronouncing an Igbo Name.

Nkem Ifejika’s BBC News piece “Why I stopped mispronouncing my Igbo name” is excellent, I might even say exemplary. It not only explains why he grew up not speaking his family’s native Igbo and not even able to pronounce his own name correctly, it includes an audio clip in which he says both the short and long forms, as well as the word “Igbo” itself — and tells us why he prefers to use “Ibo” in English. (Amusingly, it’s hard to tell the difference between the two unless your ear is attuned to the combined gb phoneme.) He also explains why Igbo is described as “endangered” even though the population is actually growing, and gives a brief history of the tragic attempt of the Igbos to leave Nigeria half a century ago (I well remember the Biafra War from that time, as a result of which Igbo was one of the first African languages whose name I knew). He ends:

While growing up, I didn’t care that I couldn’t speak Igbo, but in adulthood, especially since becoming a father, it’s something I want to fix. I find myself wanting to bequeath Igbo to my son, Anyikamba (the name means “we are greater than a nation”), as an invaluable inheritance.

I don’t yet know as much as I should about my ancestors, or enough about Igbo history, so I can’t pass these on to him. But language as an embodiment of that living, breathing, history, I (and especially my wife) can give.

My identity is fairly cosmopolitan and outward looking, and I’m very adaptable. I’ve never been anywhere where I felt, “there’s no way I can live here”.

The global languages I speak are probably more in keeping with my outlook, so why would I want to speak a language which restricts me to 41,000 sq km in the southeast Nigeria?

I think it’s because the modern world is so fluid, and multiple identities are more possible than ever before, that I want something rooted and preserved in time.

And for me, that’s Igbo.

Highly recommended.


  1. J. W. Brewer says:

    “Igor: Dr. Frankenstein…
    Dr. Frankenstein: “Fronkensteen.”
    Igor: You’re putting me on.
    Dr. Frankenstein: No, it’s pronounced “Fronkensteen.”
    Igor: Do you also say “Froaderick”?
    Dr. Frankenstein: No… “Frederick.”
    Igor: Well, why isn’t it “Froaderick Fronkensteen”?
    Dr. Frankenstein: It isn’t; it’s “Frederick Fronkensteen.”
    Igor: I see.
    Dr. Frankenstein: You must be Igor.
    Igor: No, it’s pronounced “eye-gor.”
    Dr. Frankenstein: But they told me it was “ee-gor.”
    Igor: Well, they were wrong then, weren’t they?”

    People can obviously call themselves whatever they want, but at least for foreign-origin names with a reasonably common anglicized pronunciation, I think the safest course for others is to stick to that pronunciation (when speaking English) unless you get a very clear signal to the contrary, both because a) you’re less likely to screw it up; and b) using a markedly-foreign-sounding pronunciation (in a context where most others would use the anglicized pronunciation) is at least as likely to be taken as a sign of bigotry as a sign of respect.

  2. Jim (another one) says:

    “The global languages I speak are probably more in keeping with my outlook, so why would I want to speak a language which restricts me to 41,000 sq km in the southeast Nigeria?
    I think it’s because the modern world is so fluid, and multiple identities are more possible than ever before, that I want something rooted and preserved in time.
    And for me, that’s Igbo.”

    Every time the issue of languages dying out comes up some moron – this is typically at the Economist – pontificates on how a global common language is good for everyone and everything, so why bother about less spoken languages.

    This guy rebuts that in three tight paragraphs.

  3. J. W. Brewer says:

    Igbo has more L1 speakers at present than all the Scandinavian languages put together, so it is in no particular jeopardy in its territory of origin. Perhaps the claim that it is being preserved less in diaspora than Yoruba or Hausa is true (and if so it would be interesting to know why), although I’m not inclined to accept this fellow’s word as particularly strong evidence of that. And surely believing that the Old Country of ones imagination is static and pristine (“rooted and preserved in time”) is a romantic error, albeit a common one (with understandable psychological roots) among immigrants and their descendants?

  4. @J. W. Brewer: One interesting case from the other side of Africa is Lupita Nyong’o: her surname should be pronounced with [ŋ] rather than [ŋg] (hence the apostrophe), but this sounds very strange in English – I’d go as far as to say that it’s morphophonemically disallowed. I tried at one point to say her name “authentically”, but I’ve now given up and use [ŋg] like everybody else.

  5. “Igbo has more L1 speakers…” but is the number of children learning it increasing? Is the territory of the language, geographical or contextual, shrinking? Belarussian and Walloon are spoken by millions, are state languages, and are declining.

  6. J. W. Brewer says:

    One structural reason to think Igbo ought to be reasonably stable back in Nigeria (or at least, no less stable than the fortunes of the ethnic group(s) that speak(s) it) is that neither Hausa-speakers nor Yoruba-speakers can dominate the whole country politically. So beyond English (together with the local English-based pidgin/creole) as an ethnically-neutral common L2, there’s no national language with the political/cultural clout to squeeze out others and the situation in which H + Y collectively gang up on the rest of the indigenous languages is not immediately obvious. Although obviously nothing is a sure thing when it comes to predicting the future interaction of language, ethnicity, and politics.

  7. Lazar, is the [ŋ] without [g] more disallowed than the initial [nj] (not followed by [u])?

  8. Eli Nelson says:

    Keith: I think they’re about the same. I’m sure some people would pronounce the initial [nj] as [ni]; I saw a video where someone used something like [n̩j]. There’s also this video: where Jimmy Kimmel makes fun of a bunch of reporters for getting the name wrong, but uses [ŋg] in his own pronunciation!

  9. I actually think initial [nj] is a little less disallowed than non-morpheme-final [ŋ] – most people, I think, have [fj] in fjord, and some have [pj] in piano or [vj] in Vietnam. And most people seem to manage the [bj] in Björk’s name (although they get the vowel wrong). These clusters with [j] are something that your regular layperson can grok. On the other hand, most native English speakers who aren’t language enthusiasts seem to have trouble understanding even the existence of [ŋ] as a sound distinct from [n] and [g].

  10. Eli Nelson says:

    Huh! I never knew it was possible to pronounce the “i” in “Vietnam” as a glide. And it looks like this isn’t even taken from the Vietnamese pronunciation! “Piano” does definitely have a glide for me, though. I feel like there’s more of a tendency to use /i/ in words spelled with “i” or “y,” rather than “j,” since the first two often represent vowel sounds in English but “j” doesn’t.

  11. George Grady says:

    [ŋ] rather than [ŋg] isn’t entirely disallowed, I think. It’s my pronunciation in “singer” and “singing” (as opposed to “finger”), for example.

  12. Eli Nelson says:

    What Lazar proposed (and it sounds right to me) is that [ŋ] can occur within a word, but it has to be at the end of a morpheme boundary. So words like “singer” would be allowed, since it’s composed of sing + -er. I guess this has trouble explaining “dinghy,” though.

  13. @George Grady: That’s why I described it as morphophonemic: a si[ŋ]er is one who sings, but a fi[ŋg]er is not something that fings. A word like [ˈmæŋoʊ] couldn’t exist in most people’s English, not even as a conscious borrowing – this is why a name like German or Dutch Inge [ˈɪŋə] will be rendered as [ˈɪŋgə].

    (Some people from Lancashire and the New York metro area, by the way, are known to pronounce all ng sequences as [ŋg], and thus rhyme singer and finger; all other varieties of English have undergone what’s called ng-coalescence, and don’t rhyme them.)

    Edit: That’s a good point about dinghy, though. I guess people are conditioned to think of -y as a morpheme even when it’s not justified by etymology, leaving dingh as a cranberry morpheme.

  14. Ironically, the AHD etymology is < Hindi ḍiṁgī, variant of ḍeṁgī, ḍeṁgā ‘float, raft’. The m-dot is a nasalization mark in Indic transliteration, so you’d actually expect [dɪŋgi]. Sure enough, the ODO does list [dɪŋgi] as the first pronunciation, and the OED2 (1898) gives it as the only one. On the other hand, M-W (which often shows older AmE pronunciations) gives it as the second one after [dɪŋi].

  15. Some other anomalies are the derivatives of long, strong and young, with [ŋg]; these seem to be fossilized cases which escaped ng-coalescence. In a word like Asimov’s wronger, I intuitively use simple [ŋ].

  16. Returning to Igbo, would one of the assembled experts be willing to explain the ‘gb’ phoneme?

    I can hear the difference between Ibo and Igbo in the video, but if asked to describe it I would say that what I hear is a difference in the vowel sound before the ‘b.’ In Ibo, it’s a pure vowel, but in Igbo it sounds like a sort of dipthongy kind of vowel, ee-y, if that makes any sense, followed by a regular old b.

    I guess what I’d like to know, or hear, is what ‘gb’ sounds like in isolation, or at the beginning of a word.

    Edit: can I think of the sound as trying to pronounce ‘dingbat’ without the ‘di’?

  17. David Eddyshaw says:

    gb is a double closure, essentially g and b simultaneously; it and its voiceless counterpart kp are very common in West Africa (the kp is actually written p in Yoruba because Yoruba lacks /p/)–velar_consonant

    There is actually some variation in how the stops are made; they’re implosive in some languages but not all.

  18. David Eddyshaw says:

    I wouldn’t take the article’s slant on either the aftermath of the Biafra war or the current status of Igbos in Nigeria as altogether definitive.

    And to describe Igbo as “endangered” is frankly an abuse of terminology.

  19. @David Eddyshaw: thank you.

    I guess the velar part of the sound is what I interpret as “yuh” slightly before the b. The idea that the sounds can be simultaneous is not one that my brain can process.

  20. David Eddyshaw says:

    In Kusaal, the West African language I know best, people will understand you if you render kp gb as the clusters kw gw, and contrariwise, kp gb tend to sound like kw gw to Europeans not used to hearing the double-closures.

    Hausa kw gw are actually labialised velars (as in Indoeuropean) rather than clusters; and the Hausa word “bakwai” “seven” has been borrowed in Kusaal as “bakpae” “week”

  21. George Grady says:


    Thanks for the explanation!

  22. J.W. Brewer, David Eddyshaw: unfortunately I can all too easily believe that Igbo is an endangered language (in Nigeria itself, I mean: among the Igbo diaspora I take it for granted that it is endangered). At a recent linguistics conference I attended some Nigerian linguists informed us that, among educated urban Igbos, it is a matter of pride if their children do NOT speak Igbo.

    Y is correct: the number of speakers of Igbo today means little (as far as the future of the language is concerned): to repeat something I once wrote here at Casa Hat on the topic of the future of a language, prestige beats demographics. And critically, Igbo seems to lack the former. Y: while Belarussian is indeed the State language of Belarussia, I do not believe Walloon was ever a State language in Belgium.

    Back to Igbo…sadly, similar such linguistic self-hatred appears to be depressingly common in Africa, and not just among elites: in Gabon, for instance, a linguist published a book about a decade ago predicting (on the basis of a systematic survey of language use and acquisition) that a majority of the population would be monolingual in French and a majority of the Indigenous languages extinct within two generations at most. I regret to say that his argument struck me as convincing.

  23. David Eddyshaw says:

    Educated urban Igbos are in fact untypical. This may of course change (and I suppose in nearly all respects, that is devoutly to be wished.)

    The reason why Igbo is different from Hausa and Yoruba (to the extent that it truly is different, which is a good deal less than is being made out) is that the Igbo people combined early on the benefits of a highly entrepreneurial can-do traditional culture with particularly favourable access to Western-style education. It was also this that led to so many Igbos being able to take up civil service posts in the north of Nigeria after independance, incidentally, which was one of the factors leading to the Biafra calamity.

  24. David Eddyshaw says:


    The “linguistic self-hatred” you detect is certainly not a feature of Ghana or the bits of Nigeria where I’ve lived. I suspect so far as it exists it’s a Francophone thing, and tied up with other distinctively French post-colonial attitudes. I think there’s also a pretty large chunk of wishful thinking in the Gabon linguist’s prediction.

    I’m prepared to bet heavily that the majority of Gabonese will *not* be monoglots in French in two generations (your heirs may collect from my heirs …)

  25. Different societies undergo different degrees of language shift. Portuguese seems to be on track to become the most-spoken language in Angola, in marked contrast to other nominally Lusophone African countries like Mozambique, as a substantal result of massive population displacements creating a multiethnic population for whom Portuguese was the only common language, the Angolan government’s sheer inertia not leading to any attempt to promote local languages. Gabon eventually shifting to French likewise seems possible, a consequence of similar inertia.

    Will the Ibo shift to English, specifically in ways that Hausa or Yoruba have not?

  26. Etienne: And yet the English did not shift to French, except in their vocabulary. Sometimes demographics definitively beat prestige.

  27. Walloon, at the opposite of French, Dutch and German, is not a state language in Belgium. It is taught in some basic schools but his situation is very bad precisely because he enjoys no prestige. It also lacks a standardized language. The perception of Walloon in South Belgium is similar to that of Yiddish in the US or elsewhere : a language limited to a few folk customs and to low speech registers. Which is typical of endangered languages…

  28. David Eddyshaw says:

    The prestige/demographics thing is interesting. As Randy McD and JC imply, it works out differently in different societies, and it’s admittedly a mug’s game to generalise about Africa.

    In Nigeria (where most West Africans live) the most logical choice for a national language from a purely linguistic point of view would probably be Nigerian Pidgin English

    but it’s never going to happen, precisely because of prestige. (Usual local term for the language is the wholly incorrect “Broken English.”)

    That hasn’t stopped the numbers of speakers increasing, though.

  29. David Eddyshaw says:

    There seems to be zero chance of the vastly more prestigious Standard Arabic (or French, for that matter) replacing Darja as the actual spoken language of Algeria. Lameen Souag has had some interesting stuff on this on Jabal al-Lughat lately.

  30. Yes, everybody should be reading Jabal al-Lughat — he’s going to town on the subject.

  31. Broken English

    Names are but names. Only 10% or less of English-speakers live in England.

  32. David Eddyshaw says:


    Well, yes: but to call a language “Broken” is a pretty clear indication of attitude towards it.

    There’s a very good account of Nigerian Pidgin by Nicholas Faraclas in the Routledge Descriptive Studies series, which manages to transcend the straitjacket of the format imposed by the ghastly Lingua questionnaire. It’s very much like Sierra Leone Krio, which has been a good bit more fortunate in the matter of status.

    It struck me as being basically Yoruba with English lexemes (it isn’t, but it comes across as very much a member of the West African Sprachbund.) Less sophisticated speakers would assume I understood it on account of my being British and all. But, Mi fa, a no nak am atol.

  33. David Eddyshaw: here is the book in question on the relationship between French and African languages in Gabon:

    What should be stressed is that the author is not at all in favor of this expansion of French at the expense of Gabonese languages. On the contrary: he deplores it and accuses his fellow linguists of being blind to this reality. What his survey of children in Libreville (which sought to be as representative a sample as possible) showed is that a majority of the children surveyed are either French monolingual or French speakers with no active command of any Gabonese language. Thus, when these children will themselves become parents it is practically certain that French (which also enjoys a near-total monopoly in the school system, the mass media and on the job market) will be the only language they will transmit to their own chidren. The same will probably be true of many of the children who also have an active command of a Gabonese language: a majority of them use this language with (at least one of) their parents, but not with their peers.

    In this connection it should perhaps be pointed out that a majority of Gabonese live in Libreville.

    To me it looks like either Angola (Randy McDonald was quite right to draw attention to it) or Gabon will have the “distinction” of being the first country of the African continent with a European language as the L1 of a majority of the population. Not counting creole languages, that is: if you do, then Cape Verde, Sao Tome e Principe and Mauritius are already there.

  34. David Eddyshaw says:

    Thanks, Etienne. Looks interesting. (Also looks like your heirs may indeed be claiming the bet …)

    Gabon probably isn’t very typical of Africa, mind.
    As for Angola, I’m a mine of ignorance. Sailed past it once on the way to St Helena. I learnt little from the process …

    With Nigeria, though, I am prepared to state categorically that there is not going to be a monoglot majority speaking English for the foreseeable future.

    There are quite a lot of endangered languages even in West Africa (vast numbers of Chadic languages – always excepting Hausa – seem to be spoken by about three people, for example.) But there are a great many others doing very nicely. To some extent this is (as various people have implied) the flip side of poverty and lack of access to education, so that one is in the invidious position, I guess, of rather hoping that many languages will come under more pressure in future. Perhaps in the race between economic development and language development there will be time for many of these languages to embed themselves solidly enough to survive the transition to more European-like states. (Nigeria is at present a multinational empire. It’s a miracle of statecraft that it functions at all.)

    There’s also the consideration that a lot of the destruction of language diversity in the rich world has been the result of deliberate policy. Perhaps Africa will be able to learn from our errors.

    Anybody know what the (prospective) language situation is like in South Africa? I get the impression that the Bantu languages at any rate are all pretty robust, but my knowledge of southern Africa is on a par with my knowledge of Angola.

  35. Nigeria as a whole may not transition to being an English-dominant country, but what of populations within Nigeria like the Igbo?

  36. David Eddyshaw says:

    I suspect it’s not so much a matter of ethnic groups as such but of urbanisation. Cities are the places where loss of African languages is likely. And urbanisation in Africa is actually moving quite fast now.

    It’s one reason that Etienne is probably right and I was wrong about Gabon; his comment that most Gabonese live in Libreville was very apposite.

    However, you do get places even so like Kano in Nigeria, where the vast majority of its millions of people speak Hausa, and it’s difficult to imagine that changing.

    You could argue that it’s places like Kano that are the exceptions to prove the rule, though. Kano is one of the seven original Hausa city-states, and no mere recent product of modern conditions; and Hausa is the most widely spoken African language after Arabic, with not only millions of L1 speakers but a very robust presence as a lingua franca among millions more. When speakers of the little Chadic languages lose their own languages, it’s Hausa they end up speaking as often as not (not English, anyhow.)

    Swahili in Kenya looks pretty secure for partly similar reasons.

  37. The generalisation, I think, is that – as long as the current trend of massive rapid urbanisation continues – the lingua francas of cities are the languages of the future. In northern Nigeria, that means Hausa; in north Africa, that means dialectal Arabic (with one or two medium-tier exceptions); in Gabon, it apparently means French. But whatever the situation, the city is almost certainly going to have one lingua franca – maybe two or three on the high side, but certainly not a figure comparable to the number of languages in the catchment area of a typical Nigerian city. That inevitably makes the situation of smaller languages, which could previously sustain themselves just fine in more or less self-sufficient villages, rather precarious. Maybe some parts of Africa will come up with a language ideology that permits such languages to continue to be spoken even as most of their speakers’ children grow up in cities speaking the lingua franca with their friends. A really strict insistence on speaking the village language in the village, combined with a habit of regularly going there on holidays, might just manage to do it. But I wouldn’t count on it.

  38. David Eddyshaw says:

    The other factor is the strong identification of language with ethnic group. In Kusaal I readily elicited a great string of ethnic group names along with language names formed on the same stem (including Nasaal, “Europeanese”), and the local folk-linguistic assumption is very much that ethnic groups match languages one-to-one. Things are very different elsewhere in West Africa though. In Nigeria there are millions of L1 Hausa speakers who are not ethnic Hausawa, for example.

    A Ghanaian friend had children who could not communicate with any of their grandparents despite being perfect speakers of English and Twi (which is the major lingua franca of southern Ghana.) He and his wife were L1 speakers of two different Gur languages, and the grandparents were all monoglots. That sort of marriage is still unusual, but all that is changing, especially in the cities, of course.

    I have never actually met a Ghanaian or Nigerian who actually grew up in West Africa who does not have L1 competence in an African language, though it is not necessarily their “hereditary” one; and this despite the fact that my acquaintance is to say the least highly skewed towards the highly educated.

    This too may reflect local rather than Pan-African phenomena, however, and is perhaps tied up with a great many other factors relating to cultural loss. One of the books threeped down our thrapples when we went to Africa was Colin Turnbull’s “The Lonely African”, the burden of which is that Africans are all psychologically deracinated by loss of their traditional cultures. Ghana might have been specifically invented to prove him wrong; but he was neither stupid nor inobservant and was presumably describing how things really were elsewhere (I believe he did a lot of his work in the Belgian Congo.)

  39. threeped down our thrapples

    “Thrawn Janet”!

  40. David Eddyshaw: apparently Nigerian “pidgin” has several million native speakers: in the city of Lagos my impression is that this is the dominant language. So in Nigeria too a shift away from African languages is taking place: a very modest shift in the total percentage of the population no longer speaking an African language when compared to Gabon and Angola, granted, but this shift away from local languages is present nevertheless.

    Lameen’s point that the language of the big city is the language of the future will probably hold true in the near future, I think. At the same time two things must be remembered:

    1-Where a city contains a majority of bi- or multilingual inhabitants the “unmarked”, “default” prestige language can shift quite quickly from one language to the other: a massive shift to French in Algiers, for instance, remains to my mind quite possible (anecdotally, a native speaker of Kabyle of my acquaintance told me recently that he was quite upset, upon his last trip home to his native village in Kabylia, to find that young mothers there were in the habit of speaking nothing but French to their children in public, even when their own French was, in his own words, rudimentary. If this can take place in a village I can imagine it all too easily taking place in Algiers…).

    To offer just one scenario whereby this could happen: what if a large number of second-generation Algerians in France (who as a rule are French monolinguals) were to migrate (because of poor economic prospects in France or the rise of a radical right-wing government/movement in France or some combination thereof) to Algiers? I could easily see this as tipping the balance against dialectal Arabic and in favor of French in Algiers. Incidentally, Geneva was gallicized in much the same way, as a result of the presence of large numbers of French Protestant refugees.

    2- Accelerated urbanization in Africa is a trend whose end is to my mind already visible: indeed, how it will end will probably play a crucial role in determining what Africa will look like, linguistically, over the second half of the twenty-first century.

    For instance, if Lagos were to undergo a severe reversal in its economic fortune and became a city of large-scale emigration rather than large-scale immigration, with first- and second-generation migrants returning to their communities of origin, I could imagine much of Southwestern Nigeria shifting to Nigerian Pidgin as a result; conversely, if Lagos loses its economic attractiveness gradually, I think it would be likelier that Southwestern Nigerian rural communities will simply go on using their local vernaculars, indeed perhaps Lagos Pidgin English will itself creolize and become accepted as a vernacular among others in the region.

  41. David Eddyshaw says:

    I was thinking of Nigerian Pidgin as an African language, myself.
    Still, I think Lameen has pretty much nailed it, as you say. The languages of the cities (barring some cataclysm, which God forbid) are the languages of the future.

    Nevertheless, I’m very dubious about sweeping claims regarding what’s going on anywhere in Africa. Even in the really rather stable parts I’ve lived in, genuine reliable statistical information about more or less anything is just plain absent (the current *population* of Nigeria, even, is frankly just guesswork. There hasn’t been a census for decades. There was supposed to be one this year, but …) On top of that, there’s just the sheer mind-boggling diversity even within single countries, let alone across the whole great continent.

    There’s plenty of room in Africa for all of our opinions to be right.

  42. dainichi says:

    About Nyong’o with [ŋ] being morphophonemically disallowed, I think most English speakers have no idea what morphemes it consists of. So write it Nyong-O, problem solved?

    In the linked article:

    “I can and do forgive other people for getting my name wrong,”

    Forgive? Really? I’m sorry, but that seems slightly condescending to me.

    “but I should not be mispronouncing my own name.”

    The most important reason to tell people your name is to say “call me X”. I think giving people a version of your name which they can pronounce makes a lot of sense.

    My first name is pronounced in slightly different ways in my two native languages and English, but I think of all of them as ways to pronounce my name.

  43. I do indeed find it necessary to forgive people who mispronounce my name (not a difficult one for anglophones) when I have just modeled its pronunciation for them. If this be condescension, make the most of it.

  44. David Eddyshaw says:

    Having given up on my original ambition that my name would become the ordinary word for “king, emperor” in at least ten languages, I now only aspire to become so eminent that schoolchildren are punished for misspelling it.

  45. Etienne: Kabylie is something of a special case. Intransigent popular resistance has largely prevented the spread of Arabic there, but they haven’t got nearly the same sort of ideological resistance to French, which is still seen as a very appropriate language for middle-class/urban life, and has the advantage of being usable for talking with non-Kabyles as well. I hear a lot of concern about the use of French from Kabyle language activists, and I wouldn’t be surprised if parts of Kabylie end up French-speaking at least temporarily. In Algiers, the sheer numbers make that less likely. A large-scale return of the diaspora might do it, but in all honesty, even if an ultra-radical right-wing government took power in France I think most Algerians there would end up fleeing to other European countries. It’s not that easy to go back… As for the end of urbanisation, that’s difficult indeed to predict.

  46. I don’t expect people who aren’t used to saying [θ] to use it when pronouncing my name, but I’ve never considered using [t] or [f] or [s] when I pronounce it for them myself, though I did write “Quiz” once for a Spanish teacher who kept calling me something very like “Kate”. Unfortunately she read the “Quiz” as English while reading “Keith” as if Spanish.

  47. Maybe you should have gone with “Kiz”? k does see some marginal use in Spanish, in borrowings and the like.

    Relatedly, I knew a guy whose first name was Kirk, who had spent some time in Argentina; he said that his host family used to call him [kiɾs].

  48. There is a short Mongolian name of Tibetan origin which no Anglophone can pronounce.

    Spelling is straightforward, there is no problem to figure out how to pronounce.

    They just can’t.

    Try it yourself – Lkhagva

  49. As someone who grew up pronouncing “Tsathoggua” from time to time, to say nothing of “HIPY PAPY BTHUTHDTH THUTHDA BTHUTHDY” (try that, russophones!), I don’t find [lxagva] all that difficult. I would tend to devoice the [l] a bit.

  50. There is a short Mongolian name of Tibetan origin which no Anglophone can pronounce.

    No monoglot Anglophone, maybe.

  51. usually they tend to produce something close to LAA-VAA

  52. HIPY PAPY BTHUTHDTH THUTHDA BTHUTHDY is rendered in Russian translation of Winnie the Pooh as

    “Pro zrya vlya blya sdine mrash denya pro zrya blya blya vlya”

    Epic translation fail.

  53. I’m a firmly monoglot anglophone, Hat.

    SFReader: I don’t know how a translator could make anything like that work in a reasonably spelled language, anyway.

  54. Il vergognoso says:

    if an ultra-radical right-wing government took power in France I think most Algerians there would end up fleeing to other European countries

    In such a case, I think there will clearly be no European country to flee into. But I digress.

  55. Greg Pandatshang says:

    The “l” should be a /ɮ/, right? That thickens the plot. And the “v” perhaps more of a /w/?

    Any idea what the Tibetan original is, SFReader? I suppose the Лх is a Mongolian approximation of lh (=/l̥/). The name reminds me of Agvan Dorjiev’s first name, who was a Buryat. Агʙан approximates Tibetan Ngag-dbang, conventionally “Ngawang” or “Ngakwang”. Лха leads one to think of Tibetan lha “god”, but then where does the final г in that syllable come from?

    P.S. when I was first studying Lojban, I made myself learn to pronounce the word /sɛlzutkbiŋxˈkulnu/, which was the title of an article in the Lojban Wikipedia at the time (only to discover some time later that the author of said article was deluded: this sequence is not phonotactically licit—far from it!). One can learn to pronounce many things with one’s mind set to it.

  56. Il vergognoso says:

    Likely lhag-pa, Mercury, Wednesday.

  57. Lameen, Il vergognoso…yes, I took it for granted that the scenario of a right-wing victory in France implies that freedom of movement between EU countries is suspended. Which is rather optimistic, actually, since it does assume that there will still be an EU at the time.

    On a related tangent, if a certain candidate wins the American presidency later this year and keeps certain promises, this might well contribute to the complete linguistic anglicization of a few countries.

    John Cowan, I’m curious here…would you realize /lxagva/ as a two or three syllable word, i.e. with a syllabic or non-syllabic /l/?

  58. David Eddyshaw says:

    “this might well contribute to the complete linguistic anglicization of a few countries”

    Nobody left who doesn’t speak English?

  59. Etienne, I first pronounced it with two, but certainly three is easier.

  60. Yes, it’s from Tibetan lhag-pa, Wednesday. (every boy born on Wednesdays is supposed to get this name)

    Despite centuries of using Tibetan names, Mongolians also have trouble pronouncing it.

    In complex names like Lkhagvadorj, v and g tend to change position in pronunciation (you hear something like lxavagdorj)

  61. @John Cowan: I think it’s interesting that the spelling/pronunciation “Tsathoggua” was not necessarily supposed to be definitive in Clark Ashton Smith’s work. To Azédarac, the name was “Sodaguil,” and “The Holyness of Azédarac” also refers to another variation name: “Iog-Sotôt.” (I also tend to thing that “Thog,” the monstrosity fought–but, unusually, not killed–by Conan in Robert E. Howards, “The Slithering Shadow” may also have been an illusion to Tsathoggua.)

  62. Yog-Sothoth is a congeries of iridescent globes, whereas Tsathoggua is basically a furry toad-headed bat. I don’t think they are meant to be the same. Of course, names do change down the centuries (and eons) and occasionally get conflated. Brian Lumley, for example, holds that Azathoth is not a distinct entity at all, but simply another name for the Big Bang.

  63. @John Cowan: I didn’t mean that Tsathoggua and Yog-Sothoth were the same; merely that Smith gave a different version of the name than the Lovecraft standard. As to what Yog-Sothoth is, different stories give very different pictures of him. (Compare “The Dunwich Horror” with “Through the Gates of the Silver Key,” for example.)

  64. David Marjanović says:

    I’ve known someone around my age from Abidjan who was more or less a French monoglot. I have no idea if that’s representative.

  65. Etienne says:

    David: among the younger generation in Abidjan it is common enough (there is some scholarly literature on the L1 French spoken by homeless children in Abidjan), so much so that I suspect that if present demographic trends continue Abidjan will become the most important French-speaking city in the world, leaving Paris in second place.

  66. Wow, that’s quite a thought!

  67. Etienne says:

    Hat: Actually, if we treat Nigerian pidgin as a variety of English (and since the influence of standard English upon Nigerian pidgin is on the increase, this is a defensible point of view when looking into the future), we could go one step further and imagine a world where Lagos would be the world’s largest English-speaking and Abidjan the world’s largest French-speaking city.

    I’d love to read a good science-fiction story set in such a future…

  68. Me too! Especially if combined with developments that bring those countries to the cultural forefront, so that people in New York and Paris have to import books to keep up with the cutting edge.

  69. David Marjanović says:

    I’m impressed!

  70. Etienne says:

    Well, I’ve already written here that in my opinion the combination of resource depletion (oil especially) and climate change means that we are heading for the end of industrial civilization, and that the next few centuries will be more “Mad Max”- than “Star Trek”-like for us “first worlders”. With this in mind…

    “The year is 2500. In the wake of the Great Rise of the Ocean and the Great Melting, along with the fall of the Petrophagy, the most evil culture ever to have existed on earth, civilization is slowly undergoing a rebirth. Two scholars, one from the great city of Abidjan and the other from the great city of Lagos, are fleeing: working together, they have discovered that the prestigious languages of their cities, Fan-say and Ng-leesh, are not indigenous to West Africa, but were originally spoken at the very heart of the loathed Petrophagy. Outrage at the claim that the hated Petrophagy might itself be the source of the two prestige languages of West Africa and the Atlantic world has caused both scholars to be excommunicated.

    Fearing for their lives, both are now aboard a ship sailing away in the direction of Antarctica, where some post-Great Melting settlements may offer them sanctuary. Both scholars hope that some confirmation of their belief, which has already cost them dearly, will be found in those settlements. Their inhabitants’ ancestors came from within the Petrophagy, and rumor has it that ancient, prohibited books can be found in their monasteries…”

    Hmm. Walter Miller’s excellent A CANTICLE FOR LEIBOWITZ has a post-apocalyptic world where the exact sciences are gradually rediscovered: perhaps the above might serve as the outline for a science-fiction story where humanity rediscovers…historical linguistics.

    Thoughts, anyone?

  71. If the East Antartica ice sheet melted, there would be a sea level rise of about 50m, probably leaving both Lagos and Abidjan flooded, as their altitude is only 40m.

  72. Well, now you’re on to R. A. Lafferty: “They came and took our Dizz away from us.”

  73. Etienne says:

    John Cowan: in the story Antarctica is marginally inhabitable, which needn’t imply that the entire East Antarctica ice sheet has melted. The sea level could rise enough, though, to cause real problems for all coastal cities, including Lagos and Abidjan: the way I imagined it both cities are Venice-like centers of culture and commerce by 2500, after a long period during which large numbers of people fled from both cities, colonizing various parts of the world, thereby leading to the established view that Fan-say and Ng-leesh are indigenous languages, with the presence of similar languages outside West Africa being explained as being due to these earlier migrations.

  74. @Etienne: “Fiat Grammatica”?

  75. Etienne says:

    @Brett: LOL. One could imagine that somewhere among the prohibited books in one of the Antarctica settlements there is a textbook on the languages of the world, written in the late twentieth/early twenty-first century, lovingly preserved or copied, proving conclusively that our two heroes/heretics are/were/will be (?) right…

  76. SFReader says:

    Afrikaans is also likely to survive and will be spoken primarily by Africans.

    There is pretty good chance that Afrikaans would acquire clicks from Xhosa in the future. (some creolized versions of Afrikaans already have them)

    Proving European origin of Afrikaans then would become a hopeless task….

  77. I love all these speculations!

  78. (some creolized versions of Afrikaans already have them)

    I’d be curious to see what a creole might do with the Afrikaans vowel system. It seems to me that it’s more complex and idiosyncratic than that of standard Dutch – though, on balance, probably no more so than that of any given English dialect. I’ve been able to acquire a pretty good dilettantish pronunciation of Dutch, despite not really knowing much of the language; Afrikaans, not so much.

  79. dainichi says:

    @John Cowan: I do indeed find it necessary to forgive people who mispronounce my name […] when I have just modeled its pronunciation for them

    I don’t know how people mispronounce your name, but if it is the case that they mispronounce it in spite of the pronunciation you modeled for them falling perfectly within their phonemic capabilities, that’s a completely different situation.

    My point is, although I realize the word “forgive” can be used in a more lax way, it does mean something like “relieve somebody of their guilt”, and I don’t think people should feel guilt for not being able to immediately expand their phonemic inventory.

    The author of the article suggests that he “forgives” Anglophone people when they pronounce his name with an “incorrect” tone. To me, that’s not “forgivable”, that’s completely natural and should be taken for granted.

  80. I would guess that he says “I-FE-jika,” with the stress on the second syllable, and people persist in saying “Ife-JI-ka,” with the penultimate stress that is more natural in English — but not at all mandatory, and if that’s the case, I think he has reason to be a little miffed, just as Nabokov was miffed when people kept saying “NAB-okov” even after he’d modeled the correct pronunciation (and gone so far as to write a little mnemonic poem to help them out).

  81. With Nabokov, of course, it’s the penult stress that’s correct; I have no idea why people are so drawn to the initial stress.

  82. The usual deformation of my name is Cohen rather than Cow-an. About half the people at my current employer’s say Cohen, but I’m working on them.

  83. David Marjanović says:

    With Nabokov, of course, it’s the penult stress that’s correct; I have no idea why people are so drawn to the initial stress.

    English has a strong tendency to syllabify CVCVCVC words as CVC.V.CVC, where the lonesome middle vowel is always lax and usually /ə/. An extension of this phenomenon is what turns Vladimir into VLAD-m-r.

    This goes entirely against the preference for CV syllables that almost all other languages have. That’s probably why it hasn’t been noticed more often.

  84. David –

    That makes sense, that theory seems a better explanation of, for example, the “SharaPOva” mispronunciation than the idea that Americans want to pronounce all foreign words as if they were Italian.

  85. minus273 says:

    David: Cool! So Nabokov is “nab-a-cove”.

  86. January First-of-May says:

    English has a strong tendency to syllabify CVCVCVC words as CVC.V.CVC, where the lonesome middle vowel is always lax and usually /ə/. An extension of this phenomenon is what turns Vladimir into VLAD-m-r.

    IIRC, the (historical) morphemic boundary of “Vladimir” is indeed “vlad-i-mir” (where both “vlad” and “mir” are meaningful roots – not sure exactly what they mean; I don’t think the “mir” is either of the two modern meanings, because the earliest references tend to use different vowels here, cf. “Valdemar” – and the “i” is a connector).
    But the Russian stress system has no problem putting stress just about anywhere in the word, including such a connecting vowel*; and of course the modern (synchronic) syllabification would be “vla-di-mir”.

    The usual deformation of my name is Cohen rather than Cow-an. About half the people at my current employer’s say Cohen, but I’m working on them.

    I’ve been mentally saying Cow-an, but with the “Cow” part rhyming with “low”.
    (This is slightly distinct from Cohen, which is just straight Co-en, in two syllables instead of two and a half. But it’s indeed very similar.)

    *) Then again, most other similar examples I can think of (Vladislav, Velimir, samovar…) tend to have last-syllable stress… so why the triangular heck it isn’t “VladiMIR”?

  87. dainichi says:

    @languagehat: I would guess that he says “I-FE-jika,” with the stress on the second syllable, and people persist in saying “Ife-JI-ka,” with the penultimate stress that is more natural in English

    That’s possible. In the article he mentions “forgive” right after “tones”, though, which gave me the impression that tones are what he forgives people for not getting right.

    I say my name properly, with the correct tones, and with pride. I can and do forgive other people for getting my name wrong…

    Anyway, I could be wrong, but from Wikipedia I get the impression that Igbo doesn’t have stress (that would match my expectation for a high-low pitch language). So I’d be curious as to why he would feel that stressing FE would be more correct than stressing JI (I have a theory, something about stressed /i/ being longer than stressed /ɛ/ in English).

    About syllabifying CVCVCVC words as CVC.V.CVC, I never understood what determines which syllable an intervocalic consonant belongs to. It smells like convention to me, but possibly some phoneticians can convince me otherwise.

  88. Bathrobe says:


    For Wednesday, I’d always heard this as something like /ɬaug/.

  89. @dainichi: Yeah, I’m skeptical of the notion that there’s any correct answer to English syllabification. For example, English (excepting those varieties that have pre-rhotic vowel mergers) presents cases like merry [ˈmɛɹi], where neither [mɛ] nor [mɛɹ] is a phonotactically valid monosyllable. (I intuitively find the former less objectionable than the latter, though.)

  90. J. W. Brewer says:

    Wiktionary agrees with me that the interjection “meh” is standardly pronounced /mɛ/. It seems to be that if it exists as a monosyllable, it must be a phonotactically valid one. It has admittedly ascended out of obscurity only recently (possibly due to the Simpsons, the internet speculates), but you’d think it wouldn’t have managed that if it “felt” phonotactically non-cromulent to potential new users.

  91. Etienne says:

    @J.W. Brewer: Interjections are often words which are otherwise phonotactically or phonologically impossible: as a teacher of French to Anglophones I can assure you that it is quite difficult to get a learner to pronounce /ɛ/ in an open syllable, especially a final one: /ɛj/ is indeed the default realization for my students (A trick I use with them is to get them to pronounce an English word where /ɛ/ is closed by something other than /j/, for example “pet” /pɛt/, and then have them repeat the word a few times, and then do so deleting the /t/ and WITHOUT adding a /j/.)

    @SFReader: some varieties of Afrikaans do indeed have (a) click phoneme(s), borrowed from (a) neighboring language(s) (this is one of only three instances known to me where an L1 variety of a European language has unambiguously borrowed a phoneme from a non-European language: unambiguously, in this context, means to me that the phoneme is present in the speech of monolinguals), but I would not call this sort of contact-induced change “creolization”.

  92. Indeed, I pronounce “meh” as [mɛh], which is even more impossible in English.

  93. David Marjanović says:

    this is one of only three instances known to me where an L1 variety of a European language has unambiguously borrowed a phoneme from a non-European language

    What are the other two?

  94. Etienne says:

    David: one is the Sicilian dialect of the island of Pantelleria, which has borrowed some phonemes (and structures!) from Maltese/Arabic. As for the other one, well, I have to keep it a secret for now: I have only recently discovered it and would like to be the first to publish on it one of these days, not least because it and the non-European language it borrowed its extra phonemes from seem to make up an intriguing local Sprachbund which has escaped specialists’ notice.

    If you or other hatters can think of other examples, however, don’t be shy!

  95. @JWB: I’m familiar with meh, but I’m not sure that it establishes /ɛ/ as a generally allowable ending any more than blech makes /χ/ an English phoneme. I mean, if so, then we might have to ditch the entire concept of checked and free vowels. Some speakers have final /æ/ in yeah, and final /ʌ/ crops up in the margins as well (guh, pho), but I don’t think you’ll find any cases of final /ɪ/, /ɒ/ or /ʊ/.

    (On the other hand, there are word-internal cases where a checked vowel clearly ends a syllable, like tattoo, blockade, ostensible or Estonia.)

  96. David Marjanović says:

    it and the non-European language it borrowed its extra phonemes from seem to make up an intriguing local Sprachbund which has escaped specialists’ notice.

    Fascinating. I have no idea what it could be! Tell us when the paper is out 🙂

  97. Yes, I’m curious too!

  98. If Etienne told us that, he’d break his anonymity.

  99. J. W. Brewer says:

    Live and learn: “meh” is allegedly part of a broader pattern. Quoth wikipedia (on “Checked and free vowels”): “There are a few exceptions [to the constraint against certain vowels in word-final position], mostly in particles: eh /ɛ/; duh, huh, uh, uh-uh, and uh-huh with /ʌ/; nah with /æ/. There is also the onomatopoeia baa for /æ/ when pronounced in American English.” Perhaps there are at least two levels of phonotactic constraints – strong ones where native speakers have trouble pronouncing things that violate them even if they’re trying rather self-consciously (and even if none of the phonemes involved are outside their usually-available inventory – i.e. it’s just the sequencing/combination that is weird), and milder ones where exceptions commonly uttered without difficulty by native speakers do exist, perhaps in some limited domain. A simple example of the latter might be that /ʒ/ does not appear in English word-initially *except* in loanwords (primarily-to-exclusively proper names?),but native speakers have no great difficulty pronouncing those loanwords — I expect the standard AmEng pronunciation of “Zsa Zsa” might be a bit off to the Magyar ear, but if so I would expect the problem to be something subtle with the vowel quality, not with the word-initial /ʒ/.

  100. Perhaps there are at least two levels of phonotactic constraints

    Yes, I think that must be the case.

  101. Just a follow-up:

    I wrote of “Three instances known to me where an L1 variety of a European language has unambiguously borrowed a phoneme from a non-European language”, with Pantelleria Sicilian and some non-standard varieties of Afrikaans being two of them. Well, just to keep track, I have since then found two others, bringing the total number of such varieties to five.

    Now, interestingly, all three other varieties are Romance. So in effect, to my knowledge, there does not exist (apart from the Afrikaans case) any instance of a Germanic or Slavic (or indeed any non-Romance European) L1 variety with borrowed phonemes from a non-European language: a linguist of my acquaintance, a Slavic scholar, does not know of any such Russian variety (despite the many non-European languages Russian has come into contact with).

    I would like to ask the assembled multitude, again: do you know of any? And if not: does this distribution mean something?

  102. David Marjanović says:

    I can’t think of any.

    Within Europe, extreme aspiration with preaspiration is shared by Sámi, Island Norse or so, and Scottish Gaelic; but that’s a merely phonetic feature, and I have no idea if it originated in Sámi or is a homegrown Old West Norse innovation.

    Spanish has borrowed initial ch-, which has no Romance origin, from Basque (chico, chica < txiki “small”); a phonotactic feature, but still not a whole phoneme.

    Entirely outside of Europe, the entire Turkic and Mongolic families used to have [k] and [q], and [g] and [ʁ], as allophones in front-vowel vs. back-vowel words; thanks to Persian, Arabic and Chinese loanwords, these allophones have long become separate phonemes* – but that’s still not the same thing as borrowing a click phoneme after not using clicks at all.

    * With later changes, of course. Turkish, notably, has scrapped the entire system and replaced it with the Greek one: allophony of [kʲ gʲ] with front vowels, [k g] with back vowels. The letter ğ, which reportedly still represents [ʁ] in unspecified eastern dialects, elsewhere stands for an evanescent approximant that happily appears in front-vowel as well as in back-vowel words.

  103. initial ch-, which has no Romance origin

    That’s not entirely clear. There are a number of words < Latin pl-, cl-, fl- that have ch- instead of expected ll-, for example chamada ‘brushwood’ < flamma ‘flame’. This is the regular outcome in Portuguese (chama ‘flame’), and this word and its relatives may be lusisms, but then again there may be an older pan-Iberian pathway that later changed ch- to ll- in most but not all words.

  104. David Marjanović says:

    pathway that later changed ch– to ll-

    A sound change? How would that work?

    BTW, behold chico still meaning “small” at 3:56 of this video: El más chico de estas creaturas “the youngest of these children”. Also preta “black”, otherwise a Portuguese word, at 3:36.

  105. No sound change can surprise me any more. If you’ll swallow /fl-/ > /λ-/, what’s so wrong with /fl-/ > /tʃ-/ > /λ-/?

  106. BTW, behold chico still meaning “small”

    Huh? The two dictionary definitions of the adjective are “small” and “young.” What else would it mean?

  107. David Marjanović says:

    If you’ll swallow /fl-/ > /λ-/,

    That’s similar enough to /pl-/ > /λ-/ to be sort of imaginable; note also /kl-/ > /λ-/ (clamare > llamar). /tʃ-/ is much too different.

    What happened in Portuguese to get /tʃ-/ out of all of these must have been /kl-/ &gt /kj-/ (like in Italian) > /tʃ-/; /pl-/ and /fl-/ must have merged into this somehow.

    What else would it mean?

    See, I don’t actually know Spanish. I was somehow convinced only the nouns existed.

  108. Also preta “black”, otherwise a Portuguese word, at 3:36.

    “Prieta” is also a Spanish word. It means “very dark”. There is a city in northern Mexico named Agua Prieta.

    edited to add: In Mexico, prieto/prieta is sometimes used to describe a person.


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