Stop! You're Both Right

Published: 13th February 2006
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Cyberspace has certainly shrunk the margin of error ...

Colloquialisms used to take quite a while to become embedded in a local vernacular. For example, the Americans expunged the British from the colonies in 1789, but based upon personal letters exchanged between the two countries which have been noted by historians, it took until the 1830s before comments were made noticing a distinct difference in accents between them.

Local dialects will always be a fixture in geographical cultures. However, as more and more of us traverse both cyberspace and the real world, basic pronunciations are becoming a bit of an issue.

I just noticed this again in the world of sport, when a national broadcast featured the recent darlings of NCAA basketball, Gonzaga University from Spokane, Washington. The locals there insist that the name be stated as 'Gon-ZAEG-ah,' but inevitably, sports announcers from elsewhere defer to 'Gon-ZAHG-uh' until corrected by the locals.

However, the Gonzaga name has been a part of Italian history since the 1300s, and anyone who has studied it or been exposed to it from that much deeper context knows that the correct pronunciation is 'Gon-ZAHG-uh.' Ludovico Gonzaga not only established his family's dynasty over the Italian state of Mantua in 1328, but his family became a cultural and military force in that area for the better part of five centuries.

You'll even note that the Spokane university has an extension program in Italy and still steadfastly maintains its preference for the colloquial pronunciation. Trust me, in Europe, it's called 'Gon-ZAHG-uh.' However, alumni from the Spokane campus, from Bing Crosby to John Stockton, learned to refer to their alma mater as 'Gon-ZAEG-ah.'

This raises the age-old question of proper pronunciation etiquette, of course. Do we go with the traditional and accurate version of a proper name if we are aware of it or with the colloquial preferences which, for some reason, took hold in a certain area?

Another classic example is Nôtre Dame. The correct French, of course, is 'Noht-ruh Dahm.' Use the Americanized version anywhere else in the world at the risk of being castigated as a hayseed. And yet, the Jesuit university based in South Bend, Indiana, obviously prefers the local pronunciation.

The universalization of products broaches the same issue. For example, the German beer 'Löwenbräu' is pronounced 'LUH-ven-broy' everywhere except in English-speaking countries and the Swedish furniture store, IKEA, is universally stated as 'ee-KAY-uh.' Try pronouncing those in the proper way and it's odds-on you'll be met with a blank stare or looked upon as a snob. But, what have you done except say the name accurately?

Of course, in commercialism, it's the bottom line that dictates pronunciation. There is no better example than the legendary German shoe tycoon, Adi Dassler, who used his own name as the basis for his corporate image. While most of the world refers to his sporting footwear as 'AH-dee-dahs,' Americans somehow found a way to call it 'Uh-DEE-duhs.' Go figure. Dassler never minded, though. Dollars spent just as easily as any other currency.

Other famous names have been subject to colloquialization in their own right. In hockey, Teemu Selanne is a Finnish star who has been in the NHL for quite a while. He may have come to North America as 'TAE-moo SAY-lah-nuh,' but any hockey fan on the continent will know him only as 'TEE-moo Seh-LAH-nee.'

Sometimes, we even see the metamorphosis from universal to colloquial pronunciation occur before our very eyes. In baseball, Bill Mueller has been a solid major-league baseball player since his debut with the San Francisco Giants in 1996. At that time, he went by the traditional German pronunciation of his surname of 'MYOO-luhr.' However, somewhere along the line, he decided and subsequently announced that his surname was best said aloud as 'Miller.' Who knows why? What does one do then? Correct someone on how to state his own name?

Actor Jake Gyllenhåll has Swedish roots. His surname literally means 'Golden Way' and should be stated as 'YEE-lehn-hole.' North Americans find it easier to say 'JEE-lehn-hall.' I've never seen anything that indicates where Jake stands on the issue. He's probably too busy being talented and rich.

This is why I find it difficult to criticize anyone who uses either pronunciation. It's a matter of context as to who's right. Like the famous breath-mint commercial says, they both are.

My rule of thumb is simple. In any situation, if there's more of them than there are of you and pronunciation becomes a volatile issue, they're right. Otherwise, universality prevails.

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