or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Friday, July 14, 2006


I was writing over on my other blog about gardenias, and naturally this made me think of the fuchsia; not the flower itself, which has little interest for me as it's odourless (though arresting to look at), but the name.

The fuchsia is named after a German botanist, Leonhard Fuchs. This name is pronounced in German to rhyme with "kooks" in English, though the casual English reader would be forgiven for assuming it was pronounced exactly like "fucks". One might logically think that adding the "-ia" to the word would lead to the pronunciation "fook-see-ah", but it doesn't; "fuchsia" is universally pronounced in English as "fyoo-shah".

That's why I find this contention on Answers.com so baffling:

Pronunciation of "Fuchsia" is difficult for many English language speakers, as the correct pronunciation from the German origin of the name is "fook-sya" /ˈfʊksja/, readily confusable with the profanity "fuck". As a result, most English speakers tend to say "fyew'sha" /ˈfjuːʃə/. This tends to lead to misspellings like "fushcia" or "fuschia".

Most English speakers? Try all English speakers, except possibly botanists and the fanatically and misguidedly precise. The fact is that the German pronunciation is about the most irrelevant thing about the word, or any other. It's our word, and we can pronounce it as we damned well like. Indisputably, every language which borrows words adjusts the pronunciation to suit its own set of consonants and vowels; why should English be any different? Why should we pronounce "Handel" in the German manner, umlaut and all, to sound like "hendle", when we have a serviceable and in fact sensible English pronounciation, "handle"? Germans don't pronounce "Canada" exactly as we do, with that broad first "-a-" and schwas for the other two. (They pronounce each "-a-" the same, as "ah".) All this is natural; it's as it should be, in fact.

"Fuchsia" isn't difficult for English speakers to pronounce in the German manner: we can manage German pronunciations well when we need to, having no problem, for example, with "gesundheit", even though that second vowel, according to the usual rules of English, should be a short blunt one rather than the elongated "-oo-" it actually is in both languages. But for whatever reason, "fuchsia" has been pronounced "fyoo-shah" for so long that the original, correct-in-German pronunciation is gone. It no longer exists in English, and to aver otherwise is misguided. (A related word, "fuchsin", a purplish-red dye, is, however, pronounced in the authentic German manner, probably because it hasn't made it into the common parlance: borrowed words in specialized disciplines tend to hang onto their original pronunciations, at least in part because people in specialized disciplines tend to be precise about their language.)

The point about the spelling is well taken, though. Hardly anybody can spell it correctly, because the spelling and the sound don't match. I can't count the number of times I've seen it at work on some label or package spelled "fushia", which, given its invariable pronunciation in English, does make some sense. (It's still wrong, though, and it still bugs me.) Part of being good at spelling in English is managing that frequent disconnect between the look and the sound of a word: for some people (like me) it comes naturally; others have to work at it, or not bother--the usual state of things, I would say.


Post a Comment

<< Home