Wilhelm und Katharina, Guillaume et Catherine…

Hope you are all enjoying your extra Bank Holiday.

Here are a couple of linguistic curiosities I noticed while idly trawling foreign news sites about the royal nuptials:

On lemonde.fr I encountered the following description of the wedding:

Moderne parce que les Royals étaient très décontractés. La tape du prince William sur l’épaule de son grand-père l’atteste. A la limite, le court baiser au lieu du French kiss témoigne de la pudeur très anglaise de ces épousailles.

[Modern because the Royals were very relaxed. The slap of Prince William on the shoulder of his grandfather attests to this. And the short kiss instead of a French kiss witnesses to the very English modesty of this wedding.]

Is there no French term for ‘French kiss’? And surely ‘les Royals’ should be ‘les Royaux’?

I then turned to bild.de, a German tabloid, where I found a video report of the day’s events. The commentator talked breathlessly about ‘Prince Herry’, the ‘Erzbischof von Kenterbury’, ‘Kefferine Middleton’, ‘Westminster Ebbey’, ‘Backinghem Pelace’ and ‘Queen Elizabeff’. The conversion of the dental fricative into a dentolabial one is understandable enough, I suppose, though it is strange that the Irish change the manner of articulation but keep the place (the fricative becomes a plosive th>t), whereas Germans and Cockneys change place of articulation but keep the manner (one type of fricative becomes another type of fricative th>f).

But why, oh why, do they have to change the vowels so egregiously?

Dear German-speaking world, please henceforth pronounce ‘Abbey’ exactly like you say your own word ‘Abi’ (the German equivalent of A-level) and you’ll be just fine (it may not be exactly right but it’ll be a darn sight better than ‘ebbey’). There is no need to change the vowel! Where did you get this strange rule (convert English short a into German umlaut a) from? I have been told it is because of American English, cf. the infamous ‘Harry Baals’, but the Germans don’t have enough of the American drawl to pull it off, so they just sound South African. (Actually I think many German accents sound closer to the English RP in their clipped, ‘refined’ sound than American, French or Scottish accents: perhaps this is because of the historical kinship between the Anglo-Saxons and the Germans and their languages).

The poor commentator on bild.de was obviously trying so hard to sound English though, carefully cultivating her w’s to the extent that they even appeared where they are not wanted (apparently there is a famous English footballer called ‘Dawid Beckham’).

Why, though, do speakers of other languages feel such a need to bend over backwards to conform themselves to English? Why was it ‘die Queen’ who arrived at Vestminster Ebbey and not ‘die Koenigin’? And why is it ‘Prince William’ and not ‘Prinz Wilhelm’ or ‘Prince Guillaume’? After all, in English we talk of ‘Frederick the Great’, not ‘Friedrich der Grosse’.

The only language I know that defiantly translates foreign names as far as possible is Scottish Gaelic. So ‘Prince William agus Catherine Middleton’ would be ‘am Prionnsa Uilleam agus Catriona Middleton’. On the BBC Gaelic news service, we here regularly about ‘Daibhidh Camshron’ (David Cameron – Camshron is actually a Gaelic surname and means ‘crooked nose’) and his sidekick ‘Seoras Osborne’ (George Osborne). The Queen is ‘Banrigh Ealasaid’ and Prince Charles is ‘am Prionnsa Tearlach’. The notorious mutation rules are applied ruthlessly too, so ‘the BBC’ is ‘am BBC’ but ‘on the BBC’ (in the dative case) is ‘air a BhBC’ (pronounced ‘VBC’).

The lesson of all this? Stand up to English, but if you insist on using it, speak it properly! (A bit prescriptivist I know, but it is a Bank Holiday…)

Last comment: on the theme of German and big events, isn’t it strange that the Germans call Eurovision the ‘Grand Prix’? Lena in an F1 car, now that would be interesting… Talking of which, why in Germany’s entry this year does she sing ‘stranger things are starting to begin’? What does this even mean? Is it an oxymoron, or a tautology??? Rebecca Black makes more sense…

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