Wednesday, February 08, 2006

menzies the merciless

If you have an interest in both the ethnical complexities of the English language and the scandal and intrigue of political life, this story is for you.

The Liberal Democrat party is the thorn in the side of the British political establishment’s desire for a duopoly to match that of the USA. Their gradual increase in their representation in the House of Commons has been steady despite the grossly unfair "first past the post" electoral system which stacks the odds firmly against them.

When you take into account that Tony Blair’s premiership is well into its final phase and the Conservative Party is getting used to yet another new leader, one would think that it would now be time for the LibDems to strike.

Well, talk about freefall! First their leader Charles Kennedy admits to having problems with alcohol and is forced to resign after a Julius Caesar-like rebellion from those immediately beneath him, then the party is left with four candidates vying for his job, two of which are linked with sex “scandals”, one who is perceived to be too old [the LibDems are supposedly the most liberal party in the UK yet he is older than both Blair and new Tory supremo David Cameron], and the fourth of which is perceived to be just plain boring.

And so it will be very interesting to see who the grassroots of Britain’s influential third party will appoint.

In the meantime, I was very glad to learn yesterday courtesy of the Green Ribbon blog just how the “old” candidate I mentioned, Sir Menzies Campbell MP, pronounces his name and why.

I will leave it to to take up the story. I got a real kick out of the poem at the end, but unfortunately you have to read the whole thing first before you get it.

I also found it interesting to learn that the BBC actually has something called the "Pronunciation Unit".

Why is Menzies pronounced Mingis?

He's the frontrunner for the Lib Dem leadership, but why is Sir Menzies Campbell's first name pronounced Mingis?

Blame the "yogh", a letter in old English and Scots (see image, above) which has no exact equivalent today.

Pronounced "yog", it used to be written a bit like the old copperplate-style "z" with a tail, which helps explain the discrepancy between the spelling of Menzies and the pronunciation.

The rise of printing in the 16th Century coincided with the decline of the yogh, and so it tended to be rendered in print as a "z", and pronounced as such.

But there's more to saying Menzies than simply transposing the "z" for a "g" when speaking the name.

"You've got the upper 'y' sound from the back of the mouth and the 'n' sound going to meet it," says Chris Robinson, director of the Scottish Language Dictionaries. "There's a sort of assimilation of the two sounds."

According to the BBC Pronunciation Unit, the name can be phonetically transcribed as "MING-iss".

"It rhymes with 'sing' but without the hard 'g'," says BBC pronunciation linguist Catherine Sangster.
[I wonder how SHE pronounces her "g"!!! JLP]

"Think of the difference between 'finger' and 'singer'. In Menzies, you want the 'n' to immediately form into the soft 'ng' from singer."

The yogh takes a softer "y" sound in the word capercaillie, the name of a large grouse, which the Oxford English Dictionary spells "capercailye" or "capercailzie".

The same goes for the Scottish surname Dalziel, pronounced Dee-ELL.

The yogh owes its origin to the Irish scribes who arrived in Saxon Britain in the 8th Century and began teaching the Anglo Saxons to write - before this, old English was written in runes, says Ms Robinson.

It fell out of favour with the Normans, whose scribes disliked non-Latin characters and replaced it with a "y" or "g" sound, and in the middle of words with "gh". But the Scottish retained the yogh in personal and place names, albeit mutating into a "z" to please the typesetters of the day.

Inevitably, however, the euphemistic "z" became a real "z", in some quarters at least. The surname "MacKenzie" now almost universally takes the "zee" sound although it would have originally been pronounced "MacKenyie".

"I had two girls in my class at school with the surname Menzies, one pronounced 'Mingis' the other 'Menzees'," says Ms Robinson.

Often pronunciation can be an indicator of class and status, or geography. But in the case of Menzies it's purely arbitrary, says Ms Robinson, who advises to always check.

Those south of the border might be surprised to know that the newsagent chain John Menzies takes the old pronunciation, and so should be John Mingis.

The company's website has a bit of fun with the potential for misunderstanding, invoking the following poem to make its point:

A lively young damsel named Menzies
Inquired: "Do you know what this thenzies?"
Her aunt, with a gasp,
Replied: "It's a wasp,
And you're holding the end where the stenzies."

1 comment:

James Howard Shott said...

The pronunciation of names is an entirely different world. I cite as an example "Favre" being pronounced "Farve."

Oh, well.