From then on, I never laughed at anyone who mispronounced an artist’s name, because it usually only meant that what he had read had run far ahead of what he had heard, and I knew too well how that can happen. When you are learning a new language, there is a blissful moment when, from not knowing how to, you pass to not knowing how not to. The second phase is the dangerous one, because it leads to sophistication, and one of the marks of sophistication is a tendency to forget what it was like to be naïve. But it was when we were still naïve that we knew most intimately the lust of discovery, a feeling as concentrated and powerful as amorous longing, with the advantage that we never had to fear rejection. Art will always want us. It finds us infinitely desirable.
— Clive James, Cultural Amnesia
My mom still likes to tell the story of how, as an angry seven-year-old, I called someone an EYE-doyt. How embarrassingly ironic.
It’s not a heavy burden, but one of the definite downsides to autodidactic learning is an unfamiliarity with the sound of certain words, even when they’re familiar by sight. These days, most of the words I’m well-acquainted with through reading but not exactly sure how to pronounce are (mostly Latin) loan-words — pace, ne plus ultra, and several others which will no doubt spring to mind as soon as I press “publish” on this post. I have looked up their pronunciations, of course; they just never seem to stick. Words alone are too abstract until one becomes familiar with them through the melody of speech (I can still sing the lyrics to “Cielito Lindo,” which we learned in fifth-grade Spanish, even though I would probably stumble over the same words in a Duolingo session).
As for names, I only learned a couple years ago that apparently the great man’s name is officially pronounced mon-TEN rather than mon-TAYN. I remember having a Nietzsche reading group at a local coffee shop with a few friends, where they confirmed that “Hegel” rhymed with “bagel.” (Had I not first encountered Nietzsche’s name by hearing it pronounced by my philosophy teacher, I can only imagine what a mess I would have made of it on my own.) The most cringeworthy example was when I went to a book fair with a friend and attempted to impress her by casually mentioning that I had picked up a book of aphorisms by Goethe, which I pronounced as “Goath.” (Luckily, she was none the wiser, so I still looked suave.) Fortunately, I learned early on that only plebes pronounced it MOW-zart instead of MOAT-zart, but I’m not clear on whether I should say SHOE-bear, shoe-BEAR, SHOW-bear, or show-BEAR, despite having been informed (in an email, by the same friend who clued me in to Hegel/bagel) that he is the greatest composer of all time.
It occurs to me that these days, I could probably render all this moot by just looking up any unfamiliar word on YouTube, and find both pronunciation guides and videos of lectures where the words are used.