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September 15, 2009

I always ponder on the question of whether one should pronounce a word according to its origin.

A few years ago, when Pret A Manger opened in the campus of the University of Hong Kong, there was a promotion that you would get a free drink if you pronounced “Pret A Manger” in the “right way”, i.e. using French pronunciation. “Pret A Manger” is indeed French for “ready to eat” (see, but it is founded in Britain. Do the British care about pronouncing the name “correctly”, or is it just us, Hong Kong young people who receive a mixed-style education which blurs us and makes us insist on something we shouldn’t be?

Pronouncing a word with the language of its origin is logically the right thing to do. However, this is not always what most people do. When you say “Pret A Manger” in French (which sounds something like “Pri-ta-mun-ger”), most people in Hong Kong have not the slightest clue what you mean. Does pronouncing it in French gives you satisfaction of showing other people your knowledge of French? Are you willing to sacrifice effective communication for this? What about “Delifrance”? To somebody like me who has no training in French, pronouning the ‘r’ as something like ‘h’ is an ordeal. How many people pronounce it as “De-li-f-hon-ce”, and how many people would understand you if you pronounce it this way? How about Cafe de Coral? It is 100% based in Hong Kong, but strangely enough has a French name. I am sure “Coral” sounds different in French, but do you think French pronunciation is necessary for this fast food restaurant?

Looks like all the examples I have given above are in French. How about Japanese? A lot of Japanese restaurants have their names written in English. Should you pronounce the ‘o’ as ‘or’ and not roll you tongue when you pronounce ‘r’? Is it really necessary, so as to stick to the word’s origin, or does it just make you feel that you know some Japanese?

Consider the following two sentences: 1) 我去食麥當勞。2) 我去食McDonald’s. Which one do you prefer? I personally like language consistency, as a language, after thousands of years of development, should suffice for expressing all sorts of ideas on its own. I believe many people like me do not prefer mixing different languages in one sentence. What about “I am going to Pret A Manger.”? Are you using two different languages in one sentence if you say “Pri-ta-mun-ger”? Does pronouncing the word using English pronunciation gives a more consistent feeling? You might argue that 麥當勞 is the Chinese translation of McDonald’s while Pret A Manger (in its English pronunciation) is not a translation of the original name. Can we consider those words as “English translations” of the other languages? You may say that Pret A Manger is just the exact same word as the French name, perhaps only with the accents removed. But if you agree that Paris, not “Pali”, is the English name of the capital of France, I see no point why a translation cannot be obtained by simply removing the accents.

My knowledge for European languages other than English is extremely meagre. My perspective may very well not be comprehensive. Please let me know your opinion.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Miah permalink*
    September 16, 2009 9:58 am

    This is a really interesting topic, it’s true that I most certainly hate it when I mix languages in my speech, but I also hardly ever call Google “谷歌” in Cantonese conversations. I probably need a bit more time to organise my thoughts, but here are some points to rationalise how I have been approaching the subject.

    Fundamentally, company names are names, if I know how they are intended to be pronounced when they were chosen, I will pronounce it that way if it is within my ability, especially when the company itself does mind about how the name is pronounced, which I think is the case with Pret (based on the mentioned promotional event). It might be that the owners think Pret a Main Ger doesn’t sound as cool as Pret他芒些, or that they don’t want the restaurant to sound like a container of horse food, whatever the reason, I think it is good manner to respect that.

    As for names with official translations, I need to think a little bit harder. Shall let you know when my thoughts are lined up.

  2. Siuto permalink*
    September 16, 2009 4:03 pm

    Listening to a French CD bought in 誠品 at the moment, and imagining how it would be like if I tried to sing the songs by pronouncing the lyrics as if I were reading English. It must be unbearable. Just as how I would try to learn to pronounce words in foreign songs as well as I could when I have to sing one, I do try to say foreign words/phrases in the right way, partly to respect the language, and partly to not cause pain to my own ears. If I know how to say the words correctly but I have to deliberately pronounce it as something else so that someone else would understand, I’d rather not say it and try to explain what I want to say in plain English or Chinese, or point to the restaurant I am talking about, or write out the name as I say it out correctly to educate the other person if I know he/she does not know how to pronounce the word(s). If they don’t know it, they should learn it, then they can teach others about it. I personally don’t have a problem with people using words from other languages when speaking in Chinese, as long as they’re doing it naturally, not trying to show off or doing it excessively. I think this is just part of our culture and history that we sometimes mix Cantonese with English and some other languages when we speak. I think this is something quite unique about HK people, and I actually quite like it. Having said all these, I do pronounce Delifrance as “Deli-france”, coz’ I think Deli-France still makes sense, unlike Pret a Main Ger =P

  3. Joe Ho permalink
    September 30, 2009 4:01 am

    I try to pronounce words in its original language. Say, in the example of Pret a Manger – I will say Pret a Manger like I am speaking French. For Mcdonald’s, since there is a translation, I will use the Chinese translation pronounced like a Cantonese, when I mention it. Cafe de Coral…I haven’t quite decided. I don’t think I’ve ever called it Cafe de Coral, actually…

    I think I follow miah’s line of thought, in terms of pronouncing what the name was intended to sound like. Say Delifrance, clearly it wasn’t intended to be pronounced as Deli-F-honce, then I just won’t bother.

    On an interesting note, whenever citing Chinese names, I often insist on pronouncing it with tones even in English speech. If I say “I am going to Shanghai”, I will say “I am going to Shang(4) Hai (3)”.

  4. Miah permalink*
    October 13, 2009 7:03 am

    As for company names which have official translation in other languages, I guess my rules are much looser and I basically just pick the one I like. More often than not, it will be the original name (if it is in English and therefore I know how to pronounce it) because it is usually the case that some meaning of the original name is lost in translation.

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