Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Do I really have to pronounce everything correctly when abroad?

How do you react when you hear someone mispronounce a place name or a famous person's name? A few years ago I was hanging around the lobby of the MoMA in NYC waiting for my friends to get their museum fix. As you know, if you've kept up with my travels, I hate museums. Actually, I hate any situation in which I'm forced to trudge behind (large) groups of people: supermarkets, the Nürnberg Christmas market, Oktoberfest.

So I'm hanging, trying not to be touched by anyone, right next to a painting by Miró. It was definitely not this one below. The one I was standing next to was enormous and red. I like blue better, and I can't find a picture of the one I was standing next to anyway. So we'll use this one. It's pretty. And blue. 

So, I'm hanging, not minding my own business of course; I'm watching everybody around me because I enjoy doing that. Out of the crowd come two women. They approach the painting, look at the card with the artist's name and title of the painting, and then one of the women says (with a nasal Ohio dentist's drill accent), "Oh, yes, I know Joan's work. Her paintings are magnificent."

While Joan is indeed pronounced with a jungle J, the name has two syllables and Joan Miró is a man from Spain. Or was. I'm not saying this (entirely) to be a snob about these things. I find them sadly amusing. I'm sure there are hundreds of my own slips I could find sadly amusing as well.

But do you speak up and correct the person? I don't, and I don't think I ever have. Is it bad manners to do so if you can do it in a friendly, helpful tone? Without a smirk or a snigger? Everybody can't know everything. I hardly know much of anything myself.

But I do speak German, and I was in Cologne and Düsseldorf recently. As we were walking along the Rhein promenade, we heard an American's voice behind us (possibly the same dear woman from Ohio above): "Oh look, Bernie. The sign says this is the way to the Dom." She was yelling although Bernie was standing right next to her, and she pronounced Dom like Tom, but it's actually Dom like Rome. See, my instinct as a teacher is to tell her so that she won't keep making herself look silly. Like when she's yelling at her German friends at dinner: "Yes, we saw the Dom. The Dom was so pretty, prettiest Dom we've seen in Yurp." All the while, her German friends are trying to figure out what a Dom (like Tom) is and why she's talking so loudly. Dom, by the way, means dome, the shape of the cathedral's roof, and Dom in German means cathedral.

Have you ever been to Düsseldorf? And did you call it Dusseldorf? Without its umlaut? Did your Dussel rhyme with duffel? The Ü in German gives non-native speakers all kinds of hell. I know. Think of this German letter as the sound you make when you think something is disgusting: ewwww. It's (almost) that simple.

But Düsseldorf is not disgusting, it turns out. This mix of modern and quaint architecture on the Rhein is a great place to visit to get an impression of the modern face of Germany. Here are a few impressions:

The Rheinturm

Gehry Building

Public, free urinals. I actually saw a woman coming out of one. Hmmm.

Of course Düsseldorf has its blocks and blocks of your average European five-storey apartment houses. Outside the tourist areas of most major European cities, you'll probably become confused. You could be anywhere, from Praque to Paris. You might have to look at the shop signs to figure it out.

In my own city of Munich, the most constantly mispronounced place name is Hofbräuhaus, the famous beer hall that every tourist must enter at least once. It's good fun. The food's not bad, nor is the music. The service is hit and miss. Sometimes it's awful beyond imagination (rude, impatient, interminably slow); sometimes it's friendly and quick. But if you're asking directions to the Hofbräuhaus, here's how you pronounce it:

Hof  with the vowel sound in loaf

bräu with the vowel sound in boy

haus just like house

And if you don't have the good sense to drink Paulaner or Andechser or Augustiner beer and you want to know the way to the Löwenbräukeller, here's how you pronounce that (awful) beer:

with the vowel sound and a bit of the R in hurt

wen like ven (the w is pronounced as a v)

bräu with the vowel sound in boy

As you can see, the TV commercials from the 70s misled you here terribly. Löwen actually means lions, and bräu means brew.

How do you feel about this? If you're from a country that enjoys the presence of tourist stampedes, how do you feel about their struggle (or non-struggle) to pronounce your place names?

I must be off,


Christopher Allen is the author of Conversations with S. Teri O'Type (a Satire), an episodic adult cartoon about a man struggling with expectations. Allen's award-winning fiction and non-fiction have appeared or are forthcoming in Indiana Review, SmokeLong Quarterly's Best of the First Ten Years anthology, Prime Number Magazine, The Best of Every Day Fiction, Pure Slush, Bootsnall Travel and Chicken Soup for the Soul. A finalist at Glimmer Train in 2011, Allen has been nominated for Best of the Net and the Pushcart Prize twice. He is the managing editor of the daily litzine Metazen. Recently, Allen--along with editors Michelle Elvy and Linda Simoni-Wastila--hosted Flash Mob 2013 in celebration of International Flash Fiction Day.