Q: I’m a pre-kindergarten teacher in New York and my British assistant is constantly correcting my pronunciation. If I pronounce “emu” as EE-moo, she says it’s EE-myoo. Now, we are at odds about the pronunciation of “Van Gogh.” I say van-GOH and she tells me it’s van-GOFF. Which one of us needs to go back to school?
A: Your assistant needs a couple of lessons in the history of English.
As we wrote in our book Origins of the Specious, British English (including pronunciation) is not more (or less) “correct” than American English.
This was such an important subject to us that we devoted our first chapter to it.
The truth is that most of the characteristics that distinguish modern British pronunciation from our own developed in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, after the American Revolution.
Having said that, we’ll move on to the pronunciations you mention.
The word “emu,” the name of a large flightless bird, has two proper pronunciations in American English.
We can say either EE-myoo or EE-moo, according to Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.).
Both are standard American pronunciations, and both are given equal weight by Merriam-Webster’s.
But there’s only one standard pronunciation in British English: EE-myoo.
The name “Van Gogh” has three proper pronunciations in American English, according to most standard dictionaries: van-GOH (the most common), van-GOKH, and van-KHOKH (which comes closest to the Dutch).
The “-kh” in the second and third pronunciations are not the hard “k” of “kick,” but the guttural one we hear in the German pronoun ich and the Scottish word “loch.”
In Britain, the Dutch artist’s name can be heard as van-GOKH, van-GOFF, or van-GOH, according to the BBC’s Pronunciation Unit.
But the BBC recommends only the first, van-GOKH, with the “-kh” sounded as in “loch.” (Update, 2014: This opinion has been confirmed by a correspondent of ours from Oxford, who insists that the other two pronunciations are “nonsense” in British usage.)
This recommendation, the BBC says, “is codified in numerous British English pronunciation dictionaries” and “represents a compromise” between the English and Dutch pronunciations.
One source, the Collins English Dictionary, makes things easy. It gives only one pronunciation for American usage (van-GOH) and only one for British usage (van-GOKH). You can listen to them here: American and British.
And in case you’re interested, we wrote a blog entry last year about names with nobiliary particles (like the “van” in “van Gogh”).
Check out our books about the English language