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Monday, January 26, 2009


I sometimes find it interesting how a mispronunciation can propagate through academic circles. For example, the Greek letter Φ often gets called 'fai' by English speakers (and virtually every professor I have ever had) when it is technically the letter 'fee'. I have had two professors not do so, the first being my intellectual and erudite linear algebra professor from first year who is vastly well read and interested in a huge variety of fields and made a conscious effort to unlearn the 'fai' pronunciation, and the other was my third year dynamics professor who had quite poor English and therefore clearly had originally learned the correct pronunciation. Unfortunately, the poor fellow was so self-conscious about his poor English (which, admittedly, was quite poor, often rendering his tests and problem sets entirely incomprehensible or quite poorly worded, such as a ball pissing across a plane rather than passing) that he ended up changing his pronunciation when he noticed his students said 'fai' instead of 'fee'.

This post is not about the Greek letter, though. Today I sat through a neuroanatomy lecture and cringed every time our professor said Wernicke's area. Wernicke's area is one of the more well-known and famous areas of the brain due to its uses in language comprehension. Located toward the posterior end of the lateral fissure and surrounding the primary auditory cortex, a person who has suffered damage to Wernicke's area (such as through stroke) suffers a form of aphasia known as either Wernicke's aphasia or fluent aphasia. That person can speak fluidly and continuously, but their speech is mostly nonsensicle. Their own comprehension of others is often likewise impaired, with the appearance of listening but very little apparent processing. As one might surmise by the name of the area, it was first described in detail by a man named Carl Wernicke. The thing is, he was a German physician. Thus, while an English speaker might be tempted to pronounce his name "Were-nick-ee", a much more correct and appropriate pronunciation would be "Ver-nick-eh" (where 'eh' is an 'uh' sort of sound, not the Canadian 'a'... I wish I knew how to do more symbols in html, but I've got to run soon so there is no time to look them up right now). Anyway, I know anatomy has a lot of strange names and it is hard to know how to pronounce them all, but this one is a major one. It just worries me that her pronunciation of all the other parts that I don't know the proper pronunciation of is also wrong, and I will have no way of knowing this until years later when I embarrass myself at a party.


Anonymous said...

If all you are worried about is embarrassing yourself at a party, relax.


wisefly said...

Hmm... lots of words of foreign origin come contain sounds that are not found in English. The soft ending of Wernicke is one such example that's not particularly difficult for English speakers to learn, but that's not always the case. Should we also require proper pronunciation of "Shanghai" or "Mao Zedong" correctly?

Mozglubov said...

Well, you'll notice this wasn't labelled as a rant... it was just a quick and random thought. I agree with you that there are quite a few sounds that are fairly difficult for English speakers to learn (while I don't have a lot of knowledge of the proper pronunciation of Chinese names, there are some Russian ones which spring to mind which are not carried faithfully over to English). What I would expect is at least an attempt at staying faithful to the name. While the ending might be difficult since it is not an English sound, pronouncing the 'w' as a 'v' is not difficult, since both sounds exist in English. It would be like someone saying Descartes as "Dess-cart-ess". Most people would look aghast at such a butchering. I know it is a double standard, but I think it exists. All I ask for is the attempt.

Speaking of which, next time we meet up you can try coaching me on the proper pronunciation of Shanghai and Mao Zedong. I'm curious.

wisefly said...

Ha, fair enough. Also my grammar needs some tuning up - "proper pronunciation correctly"? It's almost as ironic as this.