23 January 2010

Do you know how to pronounce "Van Gogh" correctly? How about Brett Favre?

Newspapers, publishers (and presumably some major websites) have "style books" designating a uniform code of accepted grammatical constructions for the business.  When a media company extends to the aural realm, it becomes necessary to also include a pronunciation guide.  Today I located part of such a guide from the BBC, which I presume has one of the best ones because of the remarkable breadth of their news coverage.

On the subject of Vincent Van Gogh, they offer the following:
But what is the real pronunciation of Van Gogh? Native English speakers can be heard saying Van GOFF (-v as in vet, -a as in pan, -g as in get, -f as in fit) or van GOH (-oh as in no).

In fact, most Dutch people pronounce his surname along the lines of Vun KHOKH (-v as in vet, -u as in bun, -kh as in Scottish loch) or Fun KHOKH (-f as in fit, -u as in bun, -kh as in Scottish loch)...

At the Pronunciation Unit, we don't expect non-native Dutch speakers to pronounce his name with a perfect Dutch accent. Instead, we recommend the established Anglicisation Van GOKH (-v as in vet, -g as in get, -kh as in Scottish loch) which is codified in numerous British English pronunciation dictionaries.

This recommendation represents a compromise between the aforementioned English pronunciations and the Dutch pronunciations.
The "How To Say..." page of the BBC's Magazine Monitor has additional offerings on such subjects as Morgan Tsvangirai, Dmitry Medvedev, David Bowie, and many others.

What is missing from the site are clickable audio files that allow one to hear the word rather than read the text.  That feature was incorporated into the surprisingly useful Miss Pronouncer.com website, which has assembled audio files of the names of people and places in Wisconsin.  An LATimes article explained the need for this site and the meticulous work that went into its creation - not just a presumption of what the correct pronunciation should be, but actual travel to places, interviews with local residents, and asking some subjects to pronounce their own names.  Trying to intuit the proper pronunciation can lead one astray:
The town of Genoa, Wis.? Forget the Italian version. It's "gen-NO-wah."
Berlin, Wis.? Make sure to draw out the first syllable: "BERRR-lin."
You can click these links to hear the pronunciation of Lac Courte Oreilles, Lake Butte des Morts, Madison mayor Dave Cieslewicz, or Vikings quarterback Brett Favre.  There are many more at the Miss Pronouncer site.

I should also add that when I lived in Kentucky and we could identify out-of-state people because they would mispronounce town names like Versailles (in Kentucky it's ver-SALES) and Athens (say AY-thens).   More states should have web-based pronunciation guides.  If you know of any, please offer them in the comment section.

Addendum:  Bryan Klimt found one for Texas locales.


  1. Pronouncing Van Gogh is easy. Pronuncing Favre as Farve is impossible based on how it is spelled. Might as well say "My name is pronounced Smith." "Oh? How do you spell that?" "Why it's spelled J-O-N-E-S, of course."

  2. Louisiana could sure use one.

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. I have used a couple for Van Gogh. The one I remember is www.forvo.com.

    And of course, David Bowie's kid's name is Zowie and probably not pronounced Zoe.


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