Wednesday, 8 December 2010

phonetic Volkswagens

The pronunciation of <Volkswagen> in English (e.g. /ˈvɒlksˌwæɡən/) is phonetically interesting as the word contains two consonants that prove difficult for German speakers of English: /v/ and /w/. 

These two sounds are a kind of shibboleth that blows many a German's cover:
  • "I like roast wheel with mushrooms."
  • "Hawthorne wrote The Minister's Black Whale."
  • "It's a collection of poetry and worse written by Shakespeare."
  • "The match was broadcast life."
  • "The Wicker of Wakefield is a novel by Oliver Goldsmith."
Many Germans use too weak a contact for their /v/, which then sounds like [ʋ]. Because of its labiodental place of articulation the [ʋ] reminds native speakers of /v/. On the other hand the weak friction and the slightly rounded or protruded lips remind them of a /w/. The [ʋ] may also be associated with a pronunciation error of /r/ typical of some (even famous) native speakers of English - the 'weak r':
  • [lɔːd mǝntgʌmǝʋɛh]
  • Woy Jenkins (aka Baron Jenkins of Hillhead)


  1. Jack-of-all-trades9 December 2010 at 13:32

    Italians sometimes wrongly pronounce "Volkswagen" as [fol(k)s'fa:gen], with two [f]s: clearly an instance of progressive assimilation.

  2. @Jack-of-all-trades:
    Italians normally say [(ˌ)fɔl(k)sˈvagen, (ˌ)fol(k)s-] or indeed [(ˌ)vɔl(k)sˈvagen, (ˌ)vol(k)s-].
    Many people also say [(ˌ)vozˈvagen].

  3. Do Italians have problems with distinguishing /v/ and /w/ apart from mispronouncing 'Volkswagen'?

  4. @ Kraut:
    No, not normally. At least, not that I'm aware of. But they might have problems with these sounds pronouncing foreign words, as in the example just discussed.

  5. Jack-of-all-trades10 December 2010 at 01:22

    @ Alex

    I think you're substantially right.

    But I'm sure I've also heard [fol(k)s'fagen] more than once; and I'm under the impression that [fos'fagen] can also be heard.

    [vol(k)s'vagen] is an instance of regressive assimilation, of course.

  6. Jack-of-all-trades10 December 2010 at 02:03

    @ Kraut

    No, I don't think so: Italian possesses both a /v/ and a /w/.

    But it happens sometimes that a German name "Walt(h)er", for example, is pronounced with /w-/ (/'wɔlter/), as if it were the English "Walter".

    (Compare the first name of Michael Schumacher, that's pronounced as if it were English, /'maikol/ or something like that, by less careful speakers.
    Or even the surname of the historian Robert Davidsohn, who's called /'deividson/, or something similar, by some.)

  7. @Jack-of-all-trades:

    I've never heard Italians pronounce "Walt(h)er" as /'wɔlter/. The pronunciation I've always heard is /ˈvalter/.

  8. @ Jack-of-all-trades:

    "Michael Schumacher": /'maikol/ is indeed the established pronunciation in Italian. (I've NEVER heard Italians pronounce it the English, German, or French way.)

    "Robert Davidsohn": /'deividson,ˈdɛvid-/

  9. It's not acceptable to call [ʋ] for English /r /a pronunciation 'error'. Defect is the usual term. It might be kinder to say imperfection or irregularity.

  10. Jack-of-all-trades10 December 2010 at 14:55

    @ Alex

    /'valter/ is the pronunciation of the ITALIAN name "Walter" or "Valter", e.g. in "Walter Veltroni" /'valter vel'troni/.

    /'wɔlter/ is the common Italian adaptation of the ENGLISH name "Walter", as in "Walter Scott" /'wɔlter s'kɔt/.

    But "Walter", or "Walther", is also a GERMAN name: as in "Walther von der Vogelweide", Italian adapted pronunciation /'valter fɔn dɛr fogel'vaide/. To pronounce /'wɔlter/, as if it were an English name, is obviously a mistake.

    And Michael Schumacher and Robert Davidsohn ("-sohn", not "-son"!) are German (or German-speaking) people, too!
    So, I can't see why they shouldn't be /'mikael 'ʃumaker (ʃu'maker)] and ['robert ('rɔbert) 'davidson / 'dafidson].

    (Of course, one can also make an effort to pronounce these names as a native speaker would. That's what I do myself.)

  11. @ Jack-of-all-trades:

    I know. The thing is that Italian is not German, English or French: it is just Italian.
    I don't know why Italians say /'maikol/ for German "Michael" rather than /'mikael/. I'm only aware of the fact that they would never use the latter form. Canepàri in his Italian Pronunciation Dictionary (the DiPI, 2009) acknowledges both forms, except that the latter is generally used by people "who want to sound more German".
    The same goes for German and English "Walther"/"Walter".

  12. Jack-of-all-trades10 December 2010 at 21:48

    @ Alex

    At least in my own copy of the "DiPI" (but also online), here's what I read: under the voice "Michael", for the German name, Canepàri gives the pronunciation ['mikael] (also with [-x-] instead of [-k-] — which he considers a "pronuncia intenzionale": I mean ['mixael], not ['mikael]); then he also records ['maikol], but considers it to be a "pronuncia trascurata", or in other words "da evitare". He's right, I think.

    "[T]hey would never use the latter form."
    Aren't you generalizing a bit too much? I know some people who would never say "['maikol] Schumacher".

  13. @ Jack-of-all-trades:

    You're right about the variants Canepàri provides in his DiPI, but the fact is that I think he is all too prescriptive: he prefers to tell people how to pronounce words rather than describe how Italians actually say them.

    Read my blog on that:

  14. @Limey: As you can't accept 'error', let's call it 'infelicitous substitution' or a 'whim of nature':
    "The [ʋ] may also be associated with a infelicitous substitution for /r/ typical of some (even famous) native speakers of English - the 'weak r'".
    BTW: "It's not acceptable to call [ʋ] for English /r /a pronunciation 'error'." I have the impression that these are perhaps somewhat harsh words.