In a Word...

In a Word...

Just exactly how doyou pronounce the name of that whisky you're so keen on? Pip Hills guides you through some Gaelic, Scots and Nordic basics

Whisky & Culture | 07 Apr 2003 | Issue 30 | By Pip Hills

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For some years now, I have been getting a curious sort of phone call. It usually comes from overseas and it generally takes the same form. There is a few minutes’ chat, and then we get around to the real purpose of the call: a whisky is mentioned and my caller will ask if he or she has got the pronunciation right.Now, I’m pretty relaxed about such things, taking the view that as long as you can understand what someone is saying, it doesn’t much matter how it sounds. But my caller invariably wants to know the correct way to pronounce the name.There is no point in my saying that intelligibility is the only criterion of correct pronunciation. What the caller wants is the genuine, authentic way of pronouncing the name: the way it’s pronounced in Scotland, and preferably by the folk who make the whisky.And for some time now, my callers have been asking why I don’t produce something which will tell folks how to pronounce those very difficult names.It’s not easy to tell people in writing how they should speak names unless you have a common standard of some kind. Such a standard does exist – it’s called the International Phonetic Alphabet – but unless you have a technical interest in language and appropriate training, it won’t be much use to you, for it uses a lot of esoteric symbols. The only simple and reliable course is to let people hear the name – a matter which I will come to in a little while. In the meantime, some background may be useful.The great majority of Scotch whisky names are in the Gaelic language. Gaelic is a Celtic language, which until a few hundred years ago was spoken by almost everyone in Scotland.Think of the film Braveheart: the folk in it would have spoken Gaelic unless they were lords, in which case they would have spoken French. Only in a small corner of the south-east of the country did folk speak what we now call Scots – and, paradoxically, they called it Inglis.Over the last 700 or 800 years, Scots has gradually replaced Gaelic, and is now the common speech of the majority of the Scottish people. It is quite distinct from standard English in both vocabulary and the way it sounds, and it even retains some relics of the French.For most of the last two centuries, the people who governed Britain have refused to recognise the Scots and Gaelic languages – for the same reason that they didn’t rate malt whisky. Both were regarded as part of an inferior, barbaric culture which had to be civilised: the language to be eliminated through education and the whisky to be ameliorated by blending.But times have changed, cultural imperialism has declined, and if you take your whisky seriously and you don’t want to expose your ignorance by mispronouncing the name, then you have to get a handle on both Gaelic and Scots.How difficult that will be depends on where you come from and what your native language is. Being a native English speaker helps with the Scots names, for the spelling is a pretty good guide unless you speak a really far-out variant of English.Coleburn and Deanston, Millburn and Miltonduff are all fairly accessible. But when we come to the Gaelic names, the spelling is no help at all. This is because the orthography of Gaelic was invented about 1,500 years ago by some Brittonic-speaking Welsh monks who were trying to write the New Testament in the language of the wild Irish whom they were endeavouring to convert to Christianity. That is why Dailuaine doesn’t sound like Dyle-yewwain, but is pronounced dal–oo-an-yuh. It is made up of the two Gaelic terms, ‘dal’, meaning meadow, and ‘uaine’, meaning green. Bruichladdich is even stranger, Allt a’bhainne better still.There can be no doubt that the difficulty of pronouncing Gaelic names acts as something of a disincentive to people thinking of buying a whisky: most folk don’t want to risk embarrassment by ordering a spirit of whose name they are uncertain.The owners of Auchroisk thought this problem insurmountable, and so they changed the name of the whisky to Singleton. You can’t blame them for doing so, though you can lament their lack of imagination in picking the new name.But one has nothing but praise for the owners of the resurrected Bruichladdich, who have made a virtue of difficulty and proudly use the intractability of the name to point up the uniqueness of the spirit.Not all of the Gaelic terms are quite so bizarre. The sounds of Bowmore and Ardbeg, for example, are pretty straightforward. The problem with these is that most English speakers will naturally pronounce them with the emphasis on the first syllable, as Bowmore and Ardbeg, whereas the stress in Gaelic is normally on the second or subsequent syllable, and the names are correctly pronounced Bowmore and Ardbeg.Most Gaelic-based whisky names are made up of a noun and an adjective, with the noun first. The stress is on the adjective, irrespective of where it falls. Thus Knockando is composed of two elements: ‘knockan’ meaning small hill, and ‘do’ (pronounced ‘doo’), and the stress is at the very end.People from southern England pronounce this nockANdoh – and so, I’m sorry to say, do some of the folk associated with the distillery, so great is the penetration of some parts of Scotland by white settlers convinced of the correctness of their metropolitan diction.An American to whom I explained about stress said, “Yeah: so the correct pronunciation is Talisker, right?” Regretfully, I had to tell him that Talisker is one of the names which has its roots in Old Norse, brought by Viking invaders, and the stress is on the first syllable, and we pronounce it Talisker.If you speak English, it isn’t too hard to change the bits of names you stress, and so get it more or less right. But spare a thought for people who speak a largely unstressed language such as Spanish.In Spanish, each syllable is given an equal value, which is why it has a staccato sound to English ears. But we should reserve our sympathy for whisky-drinkers in Japan, China, Korea and Taiwan.Their languages are tonal, and the meaning of a word depends not only on the sound, or on the stress pattern, but on the tone in which the word is spoken.That’s why Japanese and Koreans can often be unintelligible when pronouncing whisky names: the sounds they make have a rising or a falling tone which renders them incomprehensible to a Scottish ear.And there is nothing you can do to help this by means of the written word. People have to listen to sounds and try to replicate them if they want to be understood.So what can be done to help? There is only one way: you record the names as spoken by an expert and make the recording available in a suitable format.I have been promising to do this for some years, and the callers whom I mentioned at the start sometimes remind me of my promise.So, a few weeks ago I brought together two of my friends in a recording studio in Edinburgh.Francis Peebles is an Englishman from Worcester who has no natural connection with either Gaelic or Scots. He is, however, a keen whisky-drinker who has a lovely voice, and, for years, when he wasn’t flying jet fighters or showing people how to drill oil wells, Francis has been recording books for the blind.Ian Fraser is a native Gaelic and Scots speaker, and a scholar of high reputation in his field. For many years, Ian was head of the Scottish Place Names Survey, which means he probably knows more about the names of whiskies – which are mostly place names – than anyone else
on the planet.The three of us have made an audio disc, which is mainly a conversation between Ian and Frank, in which Ian puts Frank right about the names of different whiskies.He also tells us something about what the name means, for most of the whisky names are place names and refer to something in the land or
its history. The names are arranged in alphabetical order, so the disk is fairly easy to use for reference.It’s also fun to listen to: at least I thought it was fun, though I must admit I was biased, not least by the whisky which was taken to lubricate
the discussion.The disk should be generally available by the time this appears, and you can contact me at
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