Margalit Fox has a nice New York Times obit for linguist John J. Gumperz, “one of the leading authorities on discourse analysis, which studies not only who says what to whom, but also how it is said and in what context.” If you can’t access the Times link, much of the obit is reproduced at Ben Zimmer’s Log post (and there’s a touching comment by Gumperz’s son Andrew in the thread), but he doesn’t quote a bit that brought a wry smile to my face:

Hans-Josef Gumperz was born on Jan. 9, 1922, in Hattingen, Germany. (His surname is pronounced GUM-perts in German, though after settling in the United States he was inclined to pronounced it GUM-purrs.)

Didn’t anybody notice that Fox used “GUM” the first time to represent German /gum/, i.e. what sounds like GOOM to an English-speaker, and the second time with its “natural” English value to represent /gʌm/? Ah well, a minor slip in a good obit of a good linguist.


  1. Judy Garland was originally Frances Gumm. On Sunday there was a movie on television about the facebook entrepreneur, Mark Zuckerberg, and I realised that the main part of his name is supposed to rhyme with “sucker” rather than being German Zucker. Not knowing stuff like that is what happens when you live in a non-English-speaking country. Another thing I’ve noticed is the Prius car rhymes with “free us” in England but “fry us” in N. America – or perhaps it’s the other way round, anyway it’s different.

  2. It rhymes with “free us” in the US as far as I know, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the pronunciation is still unstable.

  3. AJP, the mainstream pronunciation of ‘Prius’ in both America and the UK is the ‘free us’ version, basically /priəs/ or /priʌs/, only varying as much as Brits and Americans usually render those phonemes differently. I can’t remember ever hearing /praɪəs/ in either country, though I suppose it might be a regional variant somewhere or other.

  4. Well how do you pronounce priapus? And what is the difference between a Prius and a priapus?

  5. dearieme says

    I have always assumed that the first vowel in Prius is the one in Prime. I’ve no idea how people actually pronounce the name of the car since car-conversations are not something I take part in.

  6. I’ve only ever heard Pree-us.

  7. Apparently Toyota Prius is one of the most popular cars in Mongolia.
    It’s pronounced in Mongolian as purus. Since Mongolians usually pronounce initial “p” more like a hard “b”, it sounds like a borrowed word “brus” (long, straight piece of wood, from Russian “брус” with same meaning)

  8. Norwegians would be surprised to hear that brus is a long piece of wood or a Toyota. They think it’s a sugary fizzy drink of the Coca Cola type.
    I’m glad to see Dearie & Language confirm my Prius story, though personally I’d rather have a Tesla.

  9. /praɪˈɛɪpəs/, pri-APE-us. For example:
    We shift and bedeck and bedrape us,
    Thou art noble and nude and antique;
    Libitina thy mother, Priapus
    Thy father, a Tuscan and Greek.
         —Swinburne, “Dolores”
    And it’s /lɪbɪˈtaɪnə/,lib-i-TYNE-uh, while I am at it. Not what she sounds like, but the goddess of funerals and burial.

  10. marie-lucie says

    A friend of mine, an American living in Canada, has a “Pree-us” and loves it.

  11. I doubt that Toyota would enjoy your linking their car with Priapus, John.

  12. Not me at all, it wor the Bathrobe, it wor.

  13. Oh! Sorry, old chap.

  14. I was never sure about how to pronounce it until I thought about buying one. It’s pree-us, but I didn’t buy one.

  15. I doubt that Toyota would enjoy your linking their car with Priapus, John.
    But I’m sure they would be happy to link their pick-up trucks or sports cars with Priapus.

  16. David Marjanović says


    …Sounds like a good place for a linguist to come from. :-þ

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