What you should know before using this guide

overview and purpose
who will find this guide useful?
typographic and spelling conventions

Overview and Purpose

This guide can be used either as a reference, or as a textbook of sorts. Its aim is to teach speakers of North American English how to pronounce other languages -- particularly those that are useful in discussing classical music -- with a respectable degree of confidence and correctness. Two things must now be explained:

Who will find this guide useful?

In general, anyone who deals often with foreign names, as do many journalists, musicians, and almost anyone in academia, may find it edifying to know how to pronounce them. Some people don't care, but if you ever need to pronounce such names in public, or even if you just have a habit of subvocalizing with everything you read (as do I), then clueful pronunciation becomes a necessity.

The guide is aimed above all at radio announcers who deal with classical music: this was its original purpose before it was ever a web page (see history), and that is reflected in the choices of names and titles that are given as examples. Classical radio announcers are routinely confronted with a predicament that most people are normally spared: their job requires them to be able to rattle off the names of people from countries they've sometimes never been to and may know hardly anything about, and to do it without giving the listening audience any impression of hesitancy or ignorance. Newscasters naturally have the same problem, and may similarly find many useful tips in this guide.

Typographic and Spelling Conventions

The pronunciation examples in this guide usually appear as follows:

Beethoven = bay-toh-ven

The example in its original spelling is always printed in italics, while the equivalent phonetic spellings are printed in boldface. A syllable that is un-der-lined is the one that should be stressed. If an example is followed by the symbol [audio sample], you can click on it to hear the example pronounced (sound files are in MP3 format).

The phonetic spellings follow a system that should be intuitive to most English speakers (particularly Americans and Canadians), e.g. ay represents the vowel sound in "say", oh the vowel sound in "boat", ch the consonant that begins and ends "church", and so forth. The main problem with this system is the sound of the word "eye": English provides no fully consistent and unambiguous way of writing this sound. In this guide, we therefore settle on the following convention:

the sound of the word "eye" is written as iy

Thus for example we have Bernstein = burn-stiyn, Haydn = hiy-din.

Naturally some foreign sounds cannot be represented accurately by any "pseudoenglish" spelling; notable among these are the umlauted vowels of Central Europe (which also exist in French under different spellings), the French nasals and the velar fricatives (lightly gutteral sounds) that occur in Germanic and Slavic languages. Here's a brief inventory of these sounds and some examples:

ö, üSchönberg = shön-berg [audio sample], Jeux = zhö [audio sample], von Bülow = fon büh-loh [audio sample], Henri Dutilleux = ahn-ree dü-tee- [audio sample]
on, ahm, anNadia Boulanger = nah-dee-a boo-lon-zhay [audio sample], Vincent D'Indy = van-sahn dan-dee [audio sample]
khVerklärte Nacht = fer-klehr-tuh nahkht [audio sample], Irina Arkhipova = ee-ree-nah ar-khee-po-vah [audio sample]
scha sound somewhere between sh and s, e.g. Dichterliebe = disch-ter-lee-buh [audio sample], Ewigkeit = ay-visch-kiyt [audio sample]
zhthe sound of the "s" in measure, e.g. Jeux = zhö [audio sample]

The use of sch above is non-ideal and should not be taken literally: there's really no English sound quite similar to the German sound it's meant to represent. You have to listen to the audio samples to see what I mean. (Just to confuse things further, the German spelling sch represents a different and much more familiar sound.)

One more word of advice: don't overdo the kh sound. It's really closer to h than k, though usually k will do just fine as an approximation (just think of how you'd normally pronounce Nikita Khrushchev). Don't be tempted to imitate the gutterals of Hebrew or Arabic; you might convince a German or Russian speaker that you're dying of influenza.

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