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Overcoming pronunciation problems

Some five years ago, I was sitting in one of the hospitality tents that had been erected outside Schalke's arena to keep the VIPs attending the Champions League final separated from the hoi polloi.

In one area of this huge tent, a godawful Eurotrash band was playing (or maybe this came out of the PA, I didn't stroll over to check), while somewhere else one of the competition's main sponsors was loudly urging people to come and have a look at a car or whatever is was they were selling.

Now, I'm not mentioning this to give you a broad hint as to my status in the oh-so glamorous world of big-time football. Rather, I want you to know it was not only crowded but primarily loud. Very loud.

Which is why I couldn't properly understand the question my friend from the London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham was asking me. I indicated I wouldn't mind him repeating what he'd just said and so he asked his question again. And again. And again.

He'd done this three or four times and was probably about to suspect I'm autistic when I finally made sense of what he was saying. More or less. Because what reached my ears was: "What do you think about Macbeth?"

Well, that was certainly a strange thing to ask in this place and on this day. But a few minutes earlier, someone else sitting at our table had told me he was from Macclesfield and that had a triggered a discussion about the artistic merits of an infamous Macc Lads song. So why not follow this with a debate about the great wordsmith?

Still, how can you transfer your feelings about Macbeth in two or three sentences? I think I gave it a try, but the look on my mate's face must have quickly told me I was on the wrong track. Because I asked him to repeat his question yet again.

And at long last it sank in. The previous week, Bayern Munich's business manager Uli Hoeness had announced his club had signed a new coach, and now my friend from England was interested in my opinion of Felix Magath.

It's a free country, so go ahead and call me slow on the uptake. But as short as the name "Magath" is, it leaves quite a lot of room for pronounciation problems.

A few years earlier, I had sat in the stands at Dortmund during the UEFA Cup final, listening to the Liverpool fans chant a German name. And even though they used the English "a" sound instead of the German one (which is more like the vowel in "pun" and "run") and then stressed the surname on the second syllable instead of the first, you could guess that they were celebrating Dietmar Hamann.

But "Magath" was more tricky, because my friend didn't just anglicise the a-sound and the stress, he also pronounced the "th" the way he was used to. And so a name that should - roughly - sound like "muggard" now resembled "Macbeth".

Then again, maybe there is no way it should sound. Maybe it's perfectly okay to pronounce a foreign player's or coach's name according to your own country's customs and not worry about phonology. Because an obsession with correctness can have bizarre and equally confusing results, and German reporters and broadcasters do tend to fall into this trap.

Take the case of Wolfsburg's Brazilian striker Grafite, who goes by a variety of names on our television screens. When he got into the league, some smart aleck pointed out that there are certain regions in Brazil where the "-fite" bit will be prononced more or less like "Fiji" if there's no diacritical sign on the "e".

That was contested in some quarters, as we've also heard versions with no vowel sound at the end (= Grah-fish) or with a harsh "t" (= Grah-phitch). A variation of this theory even made it into the player's German Wikipedia entry, and this is also the pronounciation used by Grafite's coach Macbeth. Sorry, Magath.

Still, there were a few agnostics who stuck to either "Grah-fit" or simply Graffiti. In March, the player appeared on a tv sports show and was asked to solve the riddle. Charmingly, he said he didn't mind how people pronounced his name. Then he added it was "Grah-fit-eh".

Not all our reporters, it seems, were convinced by this, as many continue to use idiosyncratic pronounciations. (Though Grafite's Wikipedia entry has since been amended to reflect the new party line.) I guess their reasoning is that there have to be rules for everything and that even a famous footballer can't just go out and simply pronounce his name the way he wants to.

However, the funny thing about Grafite's own pronounciation is that it's pefectly German. "Grah-fit-eh" is exactly how we would have pronounced the name in the first place, if we hadn't known that it's a Brazilian or Portuguese word we should be careful with.

But even deceptively simple Scandinavian names can demand a university education, if we are to believe our reporters. During a Cup game between Bremen and Duisburg in October of 2007, the TV commentator Rolf Töpperwien suddenly and unexpectedly, and in a schoolmasterly fashion, lectured us all on the correct pronounciation of the Dane Leon Andreasen's family name. His pedantry was penalised quickly. It turned out Töpperwien was dead wrong and the reporter had his leg pulled by the football-show host Arnd Zeigler. (If you can speak a bit of German, watch it here)

I wonder if such dogged efforts to pronounce foreign names the way they are pronounced in their countries of origin is a particularly German thing. Maybe you could leave a few comments to enlighten me as to how it's done in your neck of the woods?

At least I think the English are less finicky than we are. (As is their wont, I'm tempted to add.) Just the other day I saw Guus Hiddink on the BBC after the Everton game, and the reporter began the interview by saying: "Gus, you got a point against a good side here tonight."

Hiddink didn't protest against being called Gus. And I can understand why. My own name is a considerable challenge for most non-Germans, which is why I go with Uli instead of Ulrich. (Besides, only my mum calles me that.) In foreign countries, I'll also cut a few syllables from my surname whenever it's possible.

I guess if I were a footballer and playing abroad I would adopt the Brazilian custom of giving myself a pitch name, just to make things easier for other people. Johnny Rotten or something.

P.S.: "Guus" starts with the sound you have at the end of the Scottish word "loch". (Which is not pronounced as "lock", though only Gaels and the Welsh get this right.) And the vowel sound in "Guus" is not as in "bus".

P.P.S.: Grafite's real name is Edinaldo Batista Libano. And we all know how to pronounce his wife's name. He is married to, I kid you not, Grace Kelly.

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