Pronouncing my name

A little posting, something I can get done in the time I have. I should explain that since 7 pm yesterday, I have slept 14 hours (and it’s not yet 2 pm). I don’t feel feverish, don’t have a fever, do have periodic crippling joint pain and muscle cramps in my hands and arms, but mostly narcolepsy rules; as the days roll on, it is, however, becoming less ferocious and more bearable.

Meanwhile, in my waking moments, while I practice muscle relaxation, I’ve had time to think about stuff. Thoughts that have expanded today’s intended Big Posting, on name mockery and Benedict Cumberbatch, into something even more ambitious. And random thoughts inspired by stuff that’s come in my mail, including an old topic: what (American) English speakers do with the somewhat challenging pronunciation of my family name, especially that word-initial consonant cluster [zw].

The story I’ve told before is that the challenge of [zw] is overcome by a variety of strategies, must commonly epenthesis, yielding [zǝw] (spelled ZAW, ZEW, or ZOW, which then looks like it comes from a Slavic language). But also by devoicing the [z]: [sw] (spelled with an S). Occasionally by the two in tandem: [sǝw]. Or by reduction of the cluster, most often to [w], occasionally to [z]. Or by postponement of the pesky [w] to the first available comfortable position, after the [k], giving [zɪkwi]. (Which then sounded Slavic to one speaker, who went on to give it a Slavic patronymic –ich [ɪč]: [zɪkwɪč], which they spelled ZICKWICH, a spelling they had to be coaxed away from.)

All this was old stuff, pleasant to reminisce about as I lolled in my recliner chair. And then: recollections of my childhood in Pennsylvania Dutch Country, where almost all the kids spoke a variety of English with a noticeable Pa. Dutch substratum, and some of the farm kids spoke Pa. Dutch English (PDE), with a phonology much closer to Palatine German than to American English.

So that initial [zw] was nativized as [šv] and the [k] between vowels was voiced to [g]. Giving [švɪgi]. Well, that’s the careful-speech variant; the intervocalic [g] was almost always spirantized in casual speech: [švɪɣi]. I guess you’d spell it SCHWIGGI in German, but I’m sure I never saw it spelled. Meanwhile, I was [švɪɣi] to the farmboys.

(Meanwhile, I’ve elsewhere told (some of) the story of the Swiss viticultural diaspora to Crimea in the 19th century, which resulted in ZWICKY (in a German pronunciation) being nativized in a Russian variant and spelled in Russian orthography, which was then transliterated into the Latin alphabet as TSVIKI, so that I now have distant Zwicky cousins with a name spelled TSVIKI who have migrated from Slavic lands to the US. The mind reels.)


2 Responses to “Pronouncing my name”

  1. Robert Southwick Richmond Says:

    Before I read this, it hadn’t occurred to me that initial zw- might not be pronounceable in English. I don’t have any trouble with it, nor with the German pronunciation tsv- but since I speak German I’m disqualified.

    OED2 pronounces most of the English words beginning with zw- with the German pronunciation, clearly impossible for uneducated English speakers. It does offer zw- in Zwinglian, a word I don’t use very often.

    There’s a kind of rock-hard cracker grown-ups eat (I’m only 83), called zwieback. I’ve always thought it was pronounced zwee-back, but I learned the word off the cracker package. Checking the usually unreliable English pronunciation sources online, I find that a number of speakers pronounce it like I do, others with sw- or tsv-, in any combination you can think of.

    My wife pronounces it in German, but she learned the word from her German-speaking grandmother, and anyway my wife speaks some German.

    It never before occurred to me to pronounce Zwicky any way but zw-.

  2. Robert Coren Says:

    You might remember (or not, it was a while ago) my reporting after the Minneapolis motss.con of the bartender who told me that you had already paid for everybody’s drinks, whose slight addition of a schwa between the initial consonants I represented as “Z’wicky”.

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