Forvo, the pronunciation wiki

There was a time, years ago, when even clever, well-informed programmers pronounced name of the operating system “Linux” much like the name of Charlie Brown’s friend Linus. Lye-nix. One of the things that eventually set people straight on this (it was certainly the thing that set me straight) was a little audio recording of Linux author Linus Torvalds himself pronouncing it. It was an argument stopper: don’t argue with Linus. As this video shows, he doesn’t much care how you say his name, but there is only one way to say Linux.

That’s good news, so far as it goes, but we can’t run to Linus Torvalds and ask him to pronounce everything for us. For instance, suppose you want to know how to say São Paulo. What is up with that little twiddle thingy? I’m not even sure that Linus speaks Portuguese.

Via (which, in turn, I learned about from St. Frank) I learned about Forvo, which is a kind of wikipedia of pronunciation. Want to know how to say São Paulo? They’ll tell you.

Forvo is very cool, but it’s also got the upside and downside of all wikis. Anybody can improve it, but then again anybody can damage it too. It seems to be working pretty well, but who knows? I could be learning joke pronunciations for all I know.

Another problem stems from the very international flavor of the site. If you don’t know how to read the script, then there’s not much you can do to find the pronunciation. I have heard that the country name Qatar happens to combine in one small package the three most difficult Arabic sounds for an English speaker to reproduce. Qatar, Gutter, Cutter, Khattr, Flickr, none of the transliterations comes close to the right sound. So how do you say it? Take a look at this list and pick the right one.

It’s a trick question. It’s not on there (as of this writing, anyway).

But Forvo can tell you that you’ve been mispronouncing Lech Walesa all these years. So it goes. The web can settle all arguments, and here is one more way for tedious know-it-alls with WiFi access to correct you.

8 thoughts on “Forvo, the pronunciation wiki”

  1. This is the greatest! I haven’t been keeping up with Make Use Of..lazy me. I was keen to find the pronunciation of the Vietnamese soup Pho, which my friend from Viet Nam told me was clsoe to “fuh”, but I was emabarased when, in a Las Vegas restaurant, in an attempt to school my Mid Western co-worker, the waitress corrected my pronunciation to “foe”! I think she was Chinese, not Vietnamese, but boy did I feel like a clown.

    Anyway, I can’t find it, but I did find some joker’s pronunciation of gyro to be spot on for an American tourist in Athens:

    PS How come no one on the Sopranos pronounces Italian food like they on Forvo??

  2. I have a slight issue with this pronunciation site, though – which is that often words enter into a new language and take on a new pronunciation which is considered standard in that language -so that, for example, if you are speaking English and you say the word “genre”, wouldn’t it sound pretentious and jarring to use the pronunciation a French person world rather than something more like “john-ruh”?
    And how “should” we say “adobe”? “aloha”? “yacht”?
    How about Van Gogh? If I say “Van Go” am I saying it “wrong”?
    Seems like the site does not make allowances for this…

  3. I’ve always been puzzled by the English pronunciation of the appropriated French word “lingerie”. We give it an affected foreign sound, with the last syllable coming out like “ray”. This is not how we would pronounce it if it weren’t Frenchified, but neither is it how the French themselves say it. It seems more honest to anglophonically conquer and subdue it like the English did to French during the Napoleonic wars. Jacques became “Jay-queeze” and the good ship Deux Frères was the “Dukes Freers”.

  4. Moreover, they’ve only got one pronunciation for “roof”! And, along St. Frank’s comment, how DO they stabilize submarines with Greek food?

  5. I’m pretty sure there’s a ver-SAY-leez in Ohio, and there’s a town in Nebraska a little bit west of Offutt AFB (do I say ‘what used to be Offutt AFB’ or did the base survive SAC’s demise?) whose butterfly on the water tower doesn’t prevent the natives from calling it puh-PILL-yun.

  6. There’s a ver-SALES in Missouri (they say Muh-zur-ruh, down in the Ozarks). We also have Urn (sometimes “Arn”) County: the county seat is Urn’n. The area is locally renowned for its excellent float trips (canoing) on scenic waterways, including the Hoo-zaw and the Cord-away.

    (Urn County is at the bottom of the map.)

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