My love of wine runs very deep and if you’re reading this, yours probably is too. Great wine in and of itself, however, is not the end of it. Because wine is so multidimensional there is seemingly endless amounts of information available and I enjoy the cerebral, academic, and intellectual aspects of wine almost as much as having it in my mouth. Almost.
From an academic point of view, a recurring theme that can provoke various reactions from me has to do with how accurately a wine’s name is pronounced, or the name of a region, vineyard, or a wine term but my reaction depends on the person speaking. If it is someone that’s intentionally not knowledgeable about wine or is just starting out with wine that mispronounces a wine name, it is completely forgivable. If someone is selling wine at retail, not so much. If the person speaking is even deeper in the trade such as a sommelier, the affront becomes more serious yet. I don’t want to come across inimical in any way but professionals absolutely cannot afford to mispronounce these words although I hear it very frequently in every single corner of America.
A few months ago I was looking for anything on the Internet that would help me learn how to properly pronounce the Champagne brand, Mumm (not Mumm Napa). Because I speak a bit of French I seriously doubted it would be pronounced, as it would seem, few French words are. From a Google search, I came upon this site that had a list of Champagne producers and I was suddenly in pronunciation heaven. From a list of eleven Champagne producers, I was horrified to discover I was pronouncing only four of them correctly; Mumm was not one of them. Granted, Champagne is not my wheelhouse but still!
And so began a collaborative project that I have been dreaming about for years: a central repository of pronunciations for the world of fine wines. This is a HUGE and remarkable resource for anyone that loves wine, teaches wine, sells it, writes or talks about it, or is a professional in the trade. No one has set out to do what Marie-Ora de Villiers is doing with her website, www.howdoyousaythatword.com. It is a formidable commitment to make and she has not only stepped up to get it done but has also in the process done everything with great integrity and painstaking attention to detail to ensure that this is the definitive, most reliable source for the correct pronunciation of French wine names.
Initially, we started with, of course, Classified Bordeaux and will eventually get into the Grand Cru vineyards of Burgundy along with other important wine regions in France. Perhaps Madame de Villiers will even venture into other regions of the world but for Americans, French is certainly the most difficult to master in terms of pronunciation. In addition to wine related pronunciations there are great resources for food and travel as well so I’m positive you’ll want to bookmark this growing treasure-of-a-site and refer to it often.
Marie-Ora is a person for whom I have great respect for many reasons, but not the least of which is due to her substantial accomplishments. She is extremely erudite in the fields of languages, law, writing, food, wine, and travel, to name a few. And she is so great to work with that my part of the collaboration has seemed like a walk in the park (with a ’61 Latour). For more fascinating insight about Marie-Ora’s world, please read on:
When did you start your website?
I started toying with the website way back in 2007. I didn’t know anything about the net, and it stalled a couple of times. My salvation was learning more about the technical aspects of website design, and discovering WordPress, as well as finding a really great designer who could implement all my ideas. The site was only properly released around February 2012. I have a stubborn streak, and I don’t give up easily.
Was there any particular event that happened when you recognized there was a need for people to have a resource for pronunciation?
Yes, I’d been laid up after an accident and I started watching a lot of the UK cooking programs. I’d studied languages, and I couldn’t believe that someone at the BBC couldn’t find out the correct pronunciation of so many of the words they were broadcasting. France is just over the Channel, there are loads of people who speak French in the UK, and the presenters were making mistakes – lots of them. With other languages, like Spanish, I could see exactly where they were going wrong. You often hear people saying Spanish words with Italian pronunciation, and so on. They know some rules in some languages, but they misapply them. Because I’ve studied 8 languages at university level, I can easily pick up that type of error, and predict where English speakers are likely to go wrong.
When did you get into wine?
I spent a lot of time in Europe growing up. Part of my family is Italian, so wine was a part of any special meal and weekend lunches and dinners. As kids, we always had a splash of Chianti in our glasses – it sounds outrageous to some now, but it was normal, and you learned to enjoy wine for itself and not as a vehicle for inebriation. The first time I tried Château d’Yquem was a revelation – it was in Zurich, years ago. I thought I had discovered the Nectar of the Gods.
You did! And Champagne also seems like a favorite region of yours. Are there any other types of wine you are particularly fond of?
I do like Champagne, I must say, although all are not created equal. I’m a great fan of Veuve Clicquot. I also particularly enjoy Merlot varietals. Chablis is another favorite. There are some fabulous South African wines that are my staples, especially our excellent Pinotage blends and Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon varietals.
What is your background?
I was born in the north of Namibia – it’s a very remote region. The only point of international interest is the Hoba meteorite, which is the largest metal meteorite in the world, and which was on the family farm. There was no television and radio, so I grew up with a great love of reading, nature, and classical music, which was the only kind of music we had at home. I come from a long line of truly excellent cooks – my mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother were all legendary. We had a full set of the Time Life ‘Foods of the World’ series – I still have them, and I loved going through them as a child. So there is a strong attachment to food and wine that formed very early in my life. Academically, my undergraduate degree was in languages. I majored in French and Spanish, and my minor was German. I also have a postgraduate degree in law, but I have no interest in practicing. I had the opportunity of pursuing a Masters in French or Spanish, and I regret not taking that route.
How did your attraction to languages come about?
As I said, I was born in Namibia, but I went to school in South Africa, and as a family we spent a fair amount of time in Europe. I have recent German, Italian and Austrian blood, and going back, French and Dutch, among a few others. In Namibia, I only spoke English with my family and a few close friends. I went to a German Kindergarten, and everyone else in Namibia only spoke Afrikaans. My grandfather was Italian. So I’ve always been around different languages and cultures. When I started school, I had a German accent. My mother sent me for years of elocution to eliminate that. But that accent made me hyperconscious of my pronunciation, which created a life-long interest in the subject.
In what part of the world are you currently living? Is there anything special about it or anything that helps you with your website?
I live in South Africa, but many of my close friends are first language French and Italian speakers. The thing about South Africa is that we are exposed to a lot of the USA and the UK here, so I have a familiarity with those countries that someone living in for example, California, would not have about South Africa, or even the UK. I think my family background is the most helpful aspect – if I had grown up speaking only English, I doubt I would have had the same insight and awareness of the problems English speakers face when trying to speak foreign words.
There is an enormous amount of misinformation on the Internet. How do you ensure that you don’t become part of that?
I never take anything on the Internet as gospel. I have a lot of books – my office is piled high with dictionaries, books on wine, Larousse Gastronomique (I have uncovered errors in my edition), Escoffier, and so on. I never use a single source of information. I spend a ridiculous amount of time on some entries – I can’t help myself there – if I can’t get it clear in my own head, I feel uncomfortable putting it on my site. I often just have to compromise though, but I will frequently go back and rework entries as I find more information. And I’m very grateful to my readers who sometimes have personal insight and share it.
If a word or a winery name is not completely clear to you, how do you go about obtaining the proper pronunciation?
Skype! I phone around, if not the company, I get hold of friends in Europe and make them ask around if they aren’t sure. For wine pronunciations, I phone the actual châteaux and ask. I also check all their websites, and there are some truly awful wine websites. The French really do love Flash, and you can lose the will to live while waiting for everything to load up.
Because America is a ‘melting pot’ with so many different cultures, there are definite differences in how people speak between regions. Someone from Boston will have a different accent than someone from Austin. Or someone growing up in society’s upper class of London will sound different than someone growing up with a Cockney accent. How does this work in French? Do the French people also have different accents based on region?
Most definitely! European accents vary dramatically. This is what makes it so hard for students of foreign languages. You get your degree, and when you arrive in Europe, you don’t understand a word anyone is saying. Of course this happens to English students as well. They have learned ‘hello, how are you’ and then they are confronted with ‘what’s up’. This is exactly what happens with French and so on. They will understand you if your grammar and pronunciation are adequate, but you will struggle to follow them. Also, you must remember dialects. There are numerous dialects, which have very different vocabulary and grammar. There is no way you will understand most of them without living in the actual regions where they are spoken.
If there are regional differences, how do you deal with this for pronunciations on your website?
All European languages have an academy or institute that teaches the formal, standardized accent and grammar of a language. This is what you learn at university, and what every school child in Europe learns at school, regardless of what dialect or accent they have at home. I stick to the formal language, unless there is a definite reason not to. You can’t just blindly follow rules, you have to look at convention too. For instance, the final ‘s’ in ‘pastis’ should be silent according to traditional French pronunciation rules, but this is a well-established exception, so I follow that. Saying ‘pastee’ is wrong and indefensible.
I always tell users of my site to remember that there is a difference between pronunciation and accent, and this is critical to my approach. Pronunciation is how that word is correctly said, and this can vary wildly from the orthography of a word. For instance, look at the English words ‘bough’ and ‘cough’. Whether you speak with the Queen’s English, or with a Texan accent, you are never going to pronounce ‘cough’ like ‘cow’. That mispronunciation makes the word incomprehensible – it sounds like you are talking about something entirely different.
When people sneer at pronunciation as being ‘pretentious’ they don’t realize that if you don’t pronounce words in a language correctly, you can easily be talking gibberish or worse. There are a lot of words, particularly in Italian that have obscene meanings when you mispronounce them. You want to get the pronunciation right. However, I don’t believe in altering your accent at all. Unless you have really studied a language you sound pretentious when affecting a French accent in an English setting. And it’s hard to pull off without a lot of practice.
For this reason, I give phonetic pronunciation as well as audio of the word with an authentic accent. Each user has to find a happy medium between the two, so that they are correct in their pronunciation, but still speaking with their own accent – exactly as you would when saying ‘cough’ and ‘bough’. You are looking for substantial correctness, not perfection.
What are your goals or what ideally would you like to accomplish with your site?
I really hope that I demystify the pronunciation of foreign (and many English) words. There is a veneer of ‘class’ and ‘worldliness’ attached to knowing the correct pronunciation of a wine, for example. And people who don’t know it, and I have spoken to many people about it, can feel quite embarrassed and even defensive about that. There is a perception that you have to learn a language or have traveled to be able to pronounce words from it. It’s not true.
I wanted to create a reference where people could reliably learn how to pronounce a word on their own, as well as get a snap-shot of what it’s about and where it comes from. Moët et Chandon, for instance, is one of those words that people always argue about the pronunciation of: do you pronounce the ‘t’ or not? Just throwing in audio and phonetic spelling of the correct pronunciation doesn’t address that. For that reason, I mention the history of the name, and give a reason why Moët is an exception to French pronunciation.
I want the user to get a complete picture. I like to give some detail and background on entries, as far as is possible, so that if a user needs to sound like he/she knows what they are talking about, they have just enough. I had some MBA students who had never traveled to Europe that I helped out a short while. They felt awkward when they had to do corporate entertaining. It was so gratifying to be able to help them feel more confident and at home with food and wine. This is a part of life that is meant to be enjoyed. It shouldn’t be intimidating.
I get a lot of queries – I’ve even been asked to check the pronunciation of a dog’s name – the owner had rescued him from a shelter. I love getting queries from readers: I’ll answer anything from the most expensive champagne, to a question from someone learning English and wanting a basic word explained. I have contacts in most places, and I have access to a lot of native speakers across Europe who are immensely helpful – I’ve dug up Icelandic and Croatian, so anything goes.
I’m completely impressed! I cannot thank you enough for providing such a great service to the world of fine wine and beyond. You have been fantastic throughout and I wish you great and continued success with your site!
Dear Readers, please visit her site often as Marie-Ora will no doubt be adding many more wine, food, and travel pronunciations in the months to come. I will have a link permanently in the ‘Class of 1855 Recommended Sites’ area of the blog page (this home page) and also on the home page of the Classof1855 website (www.Classof1855.com); you can click on the banner at the top of the page to easily get there from here. Happy learning!
Photo: Marie-Ora de Villiers