Columns | January 31, 2010 20:12

Why Wijk?

WijkChess players, perhaps insisting on their world-wide status as 'smart people', have always seemed to me more formalistic and pedantic than your average customer at the grocery's. But sometimes being 'wrong' is much more fun.

How do you spell 'Korchnoi'? The questions rears its ugly head from time to time on chess forums and blogs. At first, it seems a very straightforward matter: you just transcribe the letters from the cyrillic alphabet into latin letters and there you are. But of course the problems only start there, because the Russian sounds are written down differently in different languages. For instance, the 'ch' in Korchnoi is written 'tsch' in German and 'tch' in French. In English, it's either 'tch' or 'ch' (depending on, if nothing else, taste) and in Dutch, it's 'tsj'. And this is just the 'ch' sound: similiar discussions can be held about the final 'i'.

On top of that, Korchnoi hasn't been a Russian citizen for quite some time now, so there's actually no need to spell his name with cyrillic letters at all anymore. Perhaps we should always spell it the 'Swiss' way? But Switzerland itself has many official languages, so which one should we choose? Or should we write it the way Korchnoi himself prefers to do it? These are all tricky questions, but with the rise of internet, the English version seems to have gained preference in most cases where the cyrillic alphabet is involved.

Even so, problems remain. Even if we could agree on how to spell foreign names, we're often unsure how to pronounce them. Korchnoi, again, is an interesting case in point. A Russian would probably pronounce his name as sounding, to us, something like 'Kahrchnoi', with the emphasis on the last syllabe and the kah in the first pronounced a bit like the English word 'car'. The 'o' in Korchnoi's name, not being pronounced with emphasis in Russian, sounds much more like what Western-Europeans would call 'a'. (This in turn raises the question why we don't write 'Karchnoi', too. The answer is, I'm afraid, quite unfair: convention.). Thus, a true formalist should probably insist on pronouncing 'Kahrchnoi'. The reason, I suppose, for why almost nobody does this (except, of course, Russians) is that it sounds so obviously pedantic. And, of course, even if people could approximate the Russian sounds with any certainty, the fact would still remain that most Russians would immediately hear, from their intonation and other clues, that the speaker is in fact not Russian at all.

Sure enough, problems occur in the other direction as well. A famous example is that Russians don't know how to pronounce nor spell the name of the Dutch World Champion 'Euwe'. Usually, having no good way to represent the typically Dutch (in Russian unknown) diphtong sound 'eu' in their own system, they write it like 'Eyve' - and I can't even begin to imagine how that sounds. Nor should it matter. It's impossible to do it right, so why bother? (Of course, there are several scientific methods of dealing with spelling and phonetics, but it's unlikely this will catch on with the general public.)

Still, as said, with chess players you never know. The most recent issue in what Language Log linguist Geoffrey K. Pullum has called prescriptivist poppycock, is the question of how to pronounce 'Wijk aan Zee', the name of the Dutch village where the current Corus chess tournament is being held. Over on ChessBase, they've already written quite a bit about it. Is 'wijk' pronounced like the English 'wake' or 'wike' (like bike)? Well, as any Dutch native speaker will tell you: neither!

(Their explanation that 'wijk' is derived from the Dutch word for 'area', by the way, is incorrect as well. There is indeed a word 'wijk' meaning 'area', but 'wijk' in 'Wijk aan Zee' - and, for that matter, several other coastal towns such as Beverwijk - is derived from another word: the old Dutch word 'wîk', meaning a name for water or a bend in a river or coastline. Dutch speakers will recognize the root of the verb 'wijken', 'de wijk nemen'.)

Both wake and wike, then, are at best approximations (and rather poor ones at that), for the fact is that the English sound system just doesn't have a good way of interpreting the Dutch sound for 'ij', exactly like the Russians don't have a way of interpreting 'eu' in Euwe. Any attempt to do so will inevitably lead to problems. Wijk is wijk and English speakers will just have to deal with it - or learn Dutch the hard way. In fact, I always find it rather sympathetic when foreigners don't always know how to pronounce words: I think it's cute when people pronounce foreign words in their own way - I once met a girl from Granada, Spain, who had such an irresistible way of pronouncing words in English that I couldn't help falling in love with her. I loved how she was ' wrong' all the time!

I think people who don't bother with trifles such as spelling and pronounciation are much nicer than those who strain themselves beyond end just to make an impression and please native speakers. (Offering me a coffee works much better to please me!) I guess chess players don't like to be cute. They'd rather be smart.

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Arne Moll's picture
Author: Arne Moll


Castro's picture

(Was Sumatra a Dutch colony? Maybe so. Anyway:)

The first name that the europeans (Portuguese) gave to Sumatra was Samatra. The first (and also the last) 'a' is the portuguese closed 'a', similar to the english 'u' in 'suck'. (The middle 'a' is portuguese open 'a', like german 'a' in 'raus', and makes the bold sylabe).

Years (decades? centuries?) latter, English navigators and authorities adapted the name, in order to sound as closely as posible to that portuguese name. In English, Samatra is called 'Sumatra', which is very, very similar to the original.

Ironicaly, nowadays, some portuguese (after centuries forgeting about mentioning the land they named Samatra), are beggining to refer to it simply by reading the english word 'Sumatra' like a portuguese one, and that gives some funny result, something like 'soomatra'.

That is the power of the conventions, of media, and of winning (economics or otherwise) wars. One of these days, calling it by their own (right) name may cost a "pedant" accusation!

Serdal's picture

Nice article, thanks. But what can you do to have a cute accent if you're German (and not a girl)?
And, I'm wondering, why doesn't the English transcription of cyrillic names have a 'y' instead of an 'i' if it's not a vowel? The Russian version (as well as the German and probably the Dutch) is not pronounced Ee-yen, but Yan. And it's Ponomaryóv, not Ponomáreeov. That's what's bothering me with the English transcription that is spreading over the web into other languages. Ok, as you say, it's a matter of taste how far you approximate the original pronounciation...

Jens Kristiansen's picture

I think we should settle this by asking Kortjnoi how to write his name.

Chronograph's picture

I agree that 'wake' and 'wike' are approximations of 'Wijk', but a foreigner should say 'wike' to the taxi-driver to be in Wijk aan Zee as soon as possible.

Coco Loco's picture

Here's what I got out of the article: it's neither "wake" nor "wike" and Arne fell for a Spanish girl once, so everything she did he considered adorable. Did I miss anything? :P

As far as it comes out of respect for another''s culture, why not try to pronounce words correctly? Basically, I think it's all dependent on the context: while in Holland, people might try to say "Wijk" like the Dutch do, but in another context they would probably just use an English-like version of it. Or if the people conversing had similar backgrounds, say Spanish and Portuguese, they might knowingly choose a wrong pronunciation just because it comes more naturally and not even give it a second thought.

Christian's picture

Why not simply give the pronunciation with phonetic signs as by the International Phonetic Association: ??ik a?n ze?

Christian's picture

??ik a?n ze?

Christian's picture

hm, It doesn't take it. So here is a link:

Markus's picture

wow Arne, you surprised me with this one, I wd thought you were more the sort of 'formalistic and pedantic' guy, no offense, you also write cool articles! :)

Arne Moll's picture

@Christian, one reason is that, as you've just experienced yourself, the font is more often than not unavailable. Another is that casual readers simply can't be expected to understand this scientific system. All we can do is make sure people don't take it too seriously and are aware that these things are not as straightforward as the language prescriptivists sometimes portray them to be.

Michael X Tractor's picture

This whole article sounds like another desperate attempt to score points off Chessbase. You poor guys have such an inferiority complex! But then again, to paraphrase Churchill, I guess you have much to feel inferior about...

J.A. Topfke's picture

Here's a link to an audio pronunciation:

Arne Moll's picture

@Michael X Tractor: Indeed the article was directly inspired by the discussion on ChessBase, which I thought was remarkably shallow and inaccurate. As the great George Michael once put it: "If you're gonna do it, do it right..."
Anyway, we get the same kind of questions all the time at ChessVibes, also during Corus, so I thought I'd shed some light on it from a different angle. I don't see what's 'desperate' about it, unless, of course, you regard all reference to ChessBase as desperate anyhow.

Bert de Bruut's picture

Well, Michael, Churchill throughout his life bore a grudge versus the Dutch, who ahd the nerve first to towe the flagship of the English fleet off the Thames in 1666, and even exhibite it to the general public (for a fee off course), and finally managed to invade England in 1688 with a lot more success then the enemy he fought in his own time!

We appreciate Merijn van Delft being courteous in confirming to Chessbase that they had the pronounciation more or less right, but here, on a Dutch site, you should not be surprised, nor bothererd, by learning the very different truth...

S's picture

"I guess chess players don’t like to be cute. They’d rather be smart"

Oh the irony.

Peter Doggers's picture

Well, the article is written by a chess player... ;-)

Castro's picture

"Of course, there are several scientific methods of dealing with spelling and phonetics, but it’s unlikely this will catch on with the general public"

Indeed, and for two types of reasons:
1. Because, in fact, it's way too complex for the common people, and this mainly because each language has a small (and usually very own) set of sounds, so it is always difficult to learn and use lots of allien sounds; These are reasons out of scientific limitations.
2. Because of the conventions, the badly written or spoken words that some first journalists or translators invented for transmiting home some foreign words. (Those that stick, of course). It's sad, mainly because transmiting and making stick the right words and pronounciations --- as right as posible, at least --- would be as easy to sell as that "crap selling".
Can it anyway be "fun" to do the role of the "Allo-Allo" french policeman? Yes, it can! It can even be part of the (spanish) charm, and trigger romance! :-)
All in all, every laughable thing has some element of "wrong" (even if from the amused part itself), by definition, I think.

Arne Moll's picture

Quite true, Coco Loco. This is what's called sociolinguistics (using different words and pronounciations in different contexts) and it's probably the most underestimated aspect of language of all time.
Come to think of it, one of the things I found particularly charming about this Spanish girl is that she didn't care about context in her way of speaking at all. So no, you didn't miss anything else :-)

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