Friday, September 21, 2012

Tricky Names

Louis Oosthuizen's been a topic of discussion this week -- there's a possibility that he could win the FedEx Cup without having won a PGA tournament this year -- and many of the commentators have struggled with his name. Of course, Louis isn't the only one whose name gives fans -- at least, English fans -- some trouble, so I thought I'd give you guys a little help.

First, you need to understand that every human being is born with the ability to pronounce any sound used in any language. However, no matter which language we're raised to speak, that language only uses a small number of those possible sounds. The result is that we tend to get very good at those sounds and not so good at the others. That's also why children learn foreign languages more easily than adults; it's not that they're smarter somehow, but rather that the earlier you catch a human being, the easier it is for them to learn a greater number of sounds.

And English speakers aren't the only ones to have this problem. I took a couple of years of Tae Kwon Do and learned from my teachers that there is no Korean equivalent for the i in Mike. As a result, when written in Korean, my name was spelled using two Hangul symbols which translated to Mah-EEK. Say that quickly and it sounds very close to the English pronunciation. So this is a problem in most languages, and you just try to get as close to an accurate sound as you can. (And remember that next time you mention Jiyai Shin. It's Jee-AY, not Jee-EYE.)

That said, I think I can help you get a handle on these names more easily if I show you a commercial that many of you have probably seen before -- the Wheat Thins commercial where Stewie and Brian get into it over the word "wheat":



Some people say "weat" and some people say "hweat". (I remember, when I was little, hearing some folks get into a similar argument over the word whale -- was it "wail" or "hwail"?) If you wanted to say wheat the second way -- with the h in front -- you can use the method my Korean instructors used. The easiest way is to break it into two sounds and say them quickly. So if you said the sounds huh and weat together, it would sound like huhweat, a single (but long) syllable; and if you said them really fast, you'd get hweat.

It's the same idea with some of these foreign names. The key is using a compound sound made up of two simple sounds run together.

For example, several of the Asian players -- Ryo Ishikawa, Ryuji Amada, and So Yeon Ryu come to mind -- have that troublesome ry- combination in their names. (It doesn't matter whether they're Japanese or Korean names, it's basically the same problem.) Most English speakers tend to pronounce this combination as "ruh-yo" or "rih-yo" (that ih sound is like the i in the English word it), but that's incorrect. MIT has a Japanese pronunciation page that lists the Japanese syllable ryu as "r/lyoo". That's a fancy way of saying the r is somewhere between the sounds of an English R and an English L run together. (And if you remember all those cheesy old movies where Asian characters often said "lice" and "rook" instead of "rice" and "look," you now understand how that stupid stereotype got started!)

That, as So Yeon Ryu told GC, is tricky for most English speakers, so she recommended just saying YOO. I believe I heard Ryuji give the same advice when asked about Ryo's name, so you would call them YOO-jee and YOH. I also seem to remember Ryo saying he was ok with REE-yoh, that he liked that name. But technically, you'll be much closer to getting Asian names right if you just pronounce ryu and ryo as YOO and YOH.

Louis Oosthuizen's name is Afrikaans, a language that originated primarily from Dutch and which is spoken by nearly half the people in South Africa. (I got that info from Wikipedia.) Saying his name is actually much simpler than you might think because it starts with two vowel sounds run together, not two consonants as in the Asian example. Here's Louis's name broken down, syllable by syllable:
  1. Oost- is the one that trips up most people. Louis has tried to explain it as having a silent w, but most English speakers don't understand what he means. Instead of a single vowel sound, let's break it into two and run them together. Pronounce the Oo as "ooh" and, since the st sound now needs a vowel, put an i in front of it, like this: "ist". That gives us "ooh-ist". And just to make it a bit easier, we'll accent the last sound, like this: "ooh-IST". Say it slowly a few times, then start speeding up. As you get faster, it'll almost start to sound like there's a w in-between the two sounds. Really, it's not much different from the way you say his first name, Louis: LOO-ee. Same principle, but there we keep the sounds as two separate syllables.
  2. hui- is simple. In Afrikaans that ui combination is pronounced ay, so it's pronounced like the English word hay.
  3. And -zen sounds just like it looks: zen as in citizen.
Put them all together and you get ooh-IST-hay-zen. See, it's not so difficult!

Now you can impress all your friends with your mastery of foreign players' names.

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