Having an ear for Van Gogh

Once I heard a friend of mine, a university-educated Brazilian, say something that sounded like Van Gogee (gee such as in the word geezer) and I wondered if he meant Van Gogh (pronounced ‘go’ in English)…apparently he did. I’m not sure if there exists some sort of a foreign word ‘rule’ that means you must pronounce something as it is pronounced in its original language but if the point of communication is to be understood then among Brazilians, saying Van Gogee is fine, I guess.

On the other hand, if I went around saying the President of Brazil’s nickname is pronounced Lulay, then I would be incorrect, right? Perhaps I’m just nitpicking here and none of this matters but nonetheless, I suppose I’ll just keep sticking to my way of doing things, which when it comes to pronunciation, I will do my best to say things in their original tongue (* – see comments).

What is your opinion?


8 thoughts on “Having an ear for Van Gogh

  1. Thank you for the correction. This is the problem with knowing how to pronounce something in its original form. Van Gogh is pronounced one way in English, another in Portuguese, another in Dutch and another in the Brabant accent.

    If I say Van Gogh (go) in Brazil or in Holland, then I am wrong but if I say it anywhere else, it is quite probable that I’m right. It’s complicated.

  2. I have heard a pronunciation of “Gogh” in the US with a velar/uvular fricative on the end, and also variations of the openness of the vowel “o”.

    This is very interesting topic though. I try to learn the pronunciation as it tends to be pronounced by its living native speakers, but I admit the Expectations of the situation dominate (when the audience expects you or someone like you to say something in a certain way).

    I kind of mention this on a recent blog entry, but I think that for most of the languges using the Roman alphabet, there is the tendency to retain the original spelling in its original form, often leading to wide and wild pronunciation variations. This is natural, I think. For other languges, like Japanese or Chinese, though, the spelling/visual form of the foreign loan word is “converted” upon importation, and the subsequent pronunciation depends on the port authorities. Obviously the reverse also applies.

    There are many funny examples of foriegn loan words, but it can also be very frustrating!

  3. I was looking at a book last night on 外来語 (gairaigo) or “foreign import words” in Japanese and Chinese, which I got from the local library in Tokyo. The discrepancies in pronunciation which exist between Europe and the Americas are NOTHING compared the way words are worked into languages like Japanese and Chinese, and vice versa. Studying these extreme examples may put things more into perspective.


  4. When I was younger I used to always pronounce Van Gogh as “Van Goff”. Until the lady at the till of the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam wouldn’t let me buy a ticket until I said his name right.

    But, the trouble with pronouncing foreign names in a very different accent to your own is that it breaks up the flow of your speech and sounds very unnatural. Some people also think it’s pretentious. (Pronouncing “Paris” in a French accent will often get anyone not French soundly mocked in the UK…)

    Also, anyone used to an Anglicized pronunciation of the name might not even know who you’re talking about.

    But then again, pronouncing foreign names wrong is that you can end up sounding pretentious and wrong. Like Sting famously mangling Vladimir Nabokov’s name (i.e., Naba-COUGH instead of Na-BAWK-ov).

    And you run the risk of getting corrected even though you actually knew the correct way in the first place!

    I usually just say it how it comes out naturally and don’t try and correct myself to say it “properly”. So, a Portuguese name will be pronounced as best as I can in a Portuguese accent, whilst I’d say a German or French name in the most well-known English way.

  5. Quite correct, lusophonetics. There’s no clear-cut line and I meant to bring up the pretentious part but in general I think the best thing to do is be mindful of your surroundings, not in the sense that you can offend someone but that for the sake of communication to mirror those around you.

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