April 20, 2006

Heated words about "sauna"

In the Apr. 14 installment of Jef Mallett's comic strip "Frazz," the title character (an enlightened school janitor) argues over the proper pronunciation of the word sauna with Caulfield (a young student at the school).

In the first panel, Frazz "corrects" Caulfield's pronunciation of sauna, though we don't yet know how since the word is spelled the same way in both speech balloons. The second panel elucidates the distinction Frazz is trying to make by way of pronunciation spellings: Frazz explains, "It's pronounced sow-na," presumably indicating /ˈsaʊnə/ to match the pronunciation of sow meaning 'female hog,' not sow meaning 'plant seeds.' He continues, "You said saw-na," suggesting a pronunciation of /ˈsɔːnə/ with a first syllable like the word saw. (I've represented the vowel in saw with the IPA symbol for an open-mid back rounded vowel, but American pronunciations can differ quite markedly from this, particularly among speakers with the cot-caught merger.) When Caulfield stakes a laissez-faire position on pronunciation in the third panel ("It's just sounds"), Frazz pretends to agree. Then he gives Caulfield a taste of his own medicine in the final panel by intentionally mispronouncing his name as "cow field," shifting the /ɔː/ in the first syllable of Caulfield to /aʊ/ and vocalizing the /l/ for good measure. Hoisted on his own petard, Caulfield objects to the mispronunciation and presumably learns a valuable lesson about the perils of permissivism.

But wait... among Americans, who pronounces sauna as /ˈsaʊnə/? This was the question raised by Washington Post columnist Gene Weingarten in his online chat of April 18. The "Frazz" strip was ripe fruit for Weingarten, combining two of his favorite topics: daily comics and language use. (The previous week's chat contained discussion of Jesse Sheidlower's piece in Slate about the controversy over the New York Times crossword puzzle using the word scumbag, with forays into the putative offensiveness of dork and schmuck.) Weingarten launched this opening salvo in his chat:

I now direct your attention to last Friday's Frazz, which contains a perfecty good gag, well told, and beautifully drawn, as Frazz always is. Does anyone notice a small problem with this cartoon, namely that ITS ENTIRE PREMISE IS WRONG? Every source I have consulted pronounces the word, foremost, SAW-na. Some say it is also SAH-na. Most don't even list SOW-na. We are all patiently waiting for Jef Mallett to explain himself, as we are sure he will.

Since Weingarten and Mallett are old friends, it wasn't long before the cartoonist himself weighed in:

Jef explains himself: Gene checked every source for the pronunciation of sauna EXCEPT for the people who invented the damn things, and use them the right way, and sell and maintain them, and ... and eat lutefisk on purpose. I'm not sure that last bit helps in the credibility department, but hey.
Nordics of the world, stick up for me. In my experience, this is actually kind of a sticking point for Scandinavians, with whom I share some heritage whenever it's convenient or flattering.
In my experience, which I seem to be compiling at an alarming rate, I'm also finding that it's a good idea to run to the dictionary and check even those "facts" that seem obvious to me. That, or stop drawing a comic strip that asks its readers to do it every so often.
I stand humbled and chastised. I promise to avoid such inexcusable lapses from here on. Because my only alternative is to draw a crass, crude comic strip for the simpler folk, and I promised
["Pearls Before Swine" cartoonist Stephan] Pastis I wouldn't horn in on his territory.
The Finns and Swedes and Norwegians are still encouraged to give Gene hell and salvage a little bit of my day, though. I'm off to flog myself with birch branches.

Mallett is quite ready to fall on his sword, accepting Weingarten's appeal to lexicographic authority. But perhaps he should have put up more of a fight, since Weingarten overstates his case about the accepted pronunciations of sauna. True, most if not all dictionaries list /ˈsɔːnə/ as the primary pronunciation, but most also include /ˈsaʊnə/ (or something close to it) as a secondary choice. This is true of the major collegiate dictionaries from Merriam-Webster, American Heritage, Oxford American, and Random House. The Oxford English Dictionary lists the pronunciations as (ˈsɔːnə, ǁˈsɑuna). According to the OED's special characters page, the double-pipe preceding the secondary pronunciation (charmingly labeled "tramlines") represents an "alien status marker," so it appears to indicate the proper Finnish pronunciation before being nativized into English phonology.

The /ˈsaʊnə/ pronunciation did get support from Scandinavians and other sauna snobs, much to Weingarten's disbelief:

Porcupine, S.D.: The Frazz cartoon only proves that Mallett is a serious sauna junky. The Finns, who invented the things, pronounce it SOW-na, and since it's a Finnish word (or rather, a Suomi one, to use the Finnish word for Finnish), that's probably technically correct. Doesn't make the joke any better to anyone who hasn't sat through a long lecture on the history of saunas by a Finn, though, I'll give you that much.
Gene Weingarten: But that's ridiculous. If we cared how things are pronounced in other countries, we would say "Osterreich," instead of Austria, and pronounce everything the way the Brits do. The Brits invented English.

SOWNA!: I can't believe I'm finally seeing this in a public forum! As a Finn who married an Irishman (there has to be a joke there), it took me years to teach him to say sauna correctly.
Thanks Jef!!!!
Gene Weingarten: Good god, people. Sowna is not correct, it is simply Finnish.

Mallett's right about this pronunciation peeve being a "sticking point" for those of Nordic descent. See, for instance, this discussion among "Yoopers" (those hailing from Michigan's Upper Peninsula), many of Finnish or other Scandinavian ancestry:

* Oh yeah - - nuttin like a nice hot SOW'-nuh when yer chilled to da bone by swimmin too long in da river or da Big Lake. Slide over, kiddies, and make room for ole Toivo.

* (Toivo's right, it's sow-na, not saw-na)

* And yes....Don't ever forget...it is SOW-NA

* People out in the west will argue forever on that pronunciation of sauna. They say SAW NAH. And when you tell them it's Sow-Na, they repeat SAW NAH. They tell me I'm wrong. Then, I get my swedish secretary to say it for them.

* As a former inhabitant of the Left Coast, not only did I forever hear the name pronounced wrong, I was in constant argue with the majority of people who considered a "hot" sauna about 120 degrees F, when a true yooper knows you don't even get good "laulua" until you exceed 160 degrees.

* Cracks me up/ticks me off how people here in Sconie are so adamant that it is saw-na and how people (even of finnish heritage) that say sow-na are wrong. Try asking one what they call the minnow looking fishing lure (Made in Finland). Amazing how angry pronunciation can make these people!!

Yes, it is amazing how angry pronunciation can make people, especially when there are two conflicting claims to authority: in this case the authenticity of the Finnish-style pronunciation on the one hand, and the standard English nativization of the word (as recognized by all major dictionaries) on the other. For the /ˈsɔːnə/crowd, the /ˈsaʊnə/ variant sounds plain wrong, even when the Finnish origin is explained. Meanwhile, the embattled minority sticking to /ˈsaʊnə/ seem to treat the standard nativized pronunciation (obviously modeled on such forms as fauna) as an affront to their Scandinavian-American identity. Call me a loosey-goosey latitudinarian, but I think there's plenty of room for both variants without people getting too steamed about the difference.

[Update #1: Emailed comments are arriving fast and thick here at Language Log Plaza. First, Nicholas Sanders (among others) points out my sloppy usage of Scandinavian to encompass Finns:

Just one thing - Finland is not actually part of Scandinavia. Nordic yes, Scandinavian no!

Sorry about that — I was a bit misled by Jef Mallett's use of the term. But it's fair to say that the pronunciation of sauna is a sore spot for those of Finnish descent and those of Scandinavian descent.

David Williams also catches the Scandinavian goof and raises a question about pronunciation spelling:

However hot and bothered the Fins might get about getting sauna right, it's nothing compared to the scandal caused by calling them Scandinavians, as you and the quoted others seem to do in your recent post. OED will back me up on this, but seems equally restrictive on "Nordic", also used in your post, which I take to include Fins and Estonians as well as Scandinavians. OED also seems to deprive Icelanders of a natural class.
BTW, I think there's an interesting point to be made about amateur phonetic spelling in that cartoon. The first time I read it I heard SOW as "to plant", and so didn't get the joke at all, even wondering if anyone actually said SOH-na. Even looking at it now I still have to think hard to hear the sound meaning "lady pig". Presumably for the author the default hearing is reversed. For me the unambiguous phonetic spelling [other than IPA] is actually SAU-na, which is how it's actually spelled.

Roger Shuy writes:

I now take great pride in my Finnish pronunciation of that word ever since my Finnish friends pounded it into me during my visits there. I guess they take pride in it too — one thing they have over us snooty Americans. I hate to admit this but I can't think of many pronunciations that make me feel that I really "know" something that my listeners don't. But this is one. Better than Latin words even.

The post also generated responses about other attempts at reproducing "authentic" pronunciations of loanwords into English. Melissa Fox writes:

At least those pronouncing the word 'sow-na' (I don't have IPA in my e-mail, alas) have a leg to stand on (a couple of legs!) when they claim that's how it's pronounced in the language of those who invented it. A friend of mine says 'haggis' with the 'a' vowel of 'father', which is just silly; granted, the correct low-front 'a' in Scots is more back than the equivalent vowel in most North American dialects (my friend is from North Carolina, but if he were from Minnesota he'd no doubt say 'haygis'), it's still a recognizably different vowel than the low-back 'a'. 'Hahgis', indeed. I finally asked him where on earth he learned to pronounce the word that way, since no Scot I've ever known has said anything of the kind, and he said Oh, that's just how I pronounce it. (One can only think of Alice saying to Humpty-Dumpty, "But 'glory' doesn't mean 'a nice knock-down argument'!")

Bruno von Wayenburg chimes in from the Netherlands:

Your Language post about sawna vs sowna reminds me of a story by a Dutch newspaper correspondent in London, who was chronicling his blending in with the British. He met with uncomprehending (or even disgusted?) stares when he pronounced the famous Dutch name 'Van Gogh' the Dutch way (with plenty of throaty friction in the g's), instead of 'Van Go'.
It would feel very awkward to apply the accent of the foreign language you are speaking to a name from your own language. But apparently, the (dare I say) 'correct' pronunciation still sounds sort of snobbish to English ears, even if they know you and Vincent are countrymen.
Later on, he noticed that the same thing goes for English French like 'deja vu' or 'je ne sais quoi'. Pronouncing these in his best (Dutch) schoolboy French would raise eyebrows. You're supposed to say Dayzha Voo and Zhe ne say quah, except if you're a snob, he concluded. I wonder if a French speaker would get away with it. Or does my correspondent just hang around with ubercritical (glad I don't have to pronounce that) journalists too much?

And from Jim Gordon:

Your comments begged a question (or an entire discussion, perhaps), though: If we should respect the original form of a word borrowed from another language, does that respect have to continue forever? When we take ownership after some period of time, are we allowed to impose an English or American pronunciation? And if so, why and when should we shift to the version preferred by the original owners? E.g., look at the names of national capital cities such as Yangon or Mumbai. Contrast those with antennas, octopuses, repertories, lox and gefilte fish, and anything that evolved from a precursor language. You could even stray into looking at the effect on English of arbitrary "romanization" systems used to transliterate Chinese or Arabic or other languages.
And since you mentioned the NYT crossword, one of my cherished peeves is their willingness to use foreign words without accent marks that make a significant difference. The prime example is "year, in Spanish." /Ano/ is different from /Año/.

Finally, another recent comic strip ("FoxTrot," Apr. 19) continues the theme of pronunciation pet peeves:

One wonders if the precocious character Jason has been reading Going Nucular by our own Geoff Nunberg.]

[Update #2: Two readers write in with surprisingly similar comments on the Finnish-Swedish sauna connection. From Bertilo Wennergren:

There are several mentions of Swedes insisting on the "sow-na" pronunciation of "sauna" in English. Being a Swede myself I'm totally mystified by that, since in Swedish the word is "bastu". (It's not really relevant now how "bastu" is prononunced since that's a completely different word.)
As far as I know Swedes living in Finland say "bastu" as well.
The mistake of including Finland in Scandinavia has already been mentioned, but this seems to be another weird confusion that goes more or less in the other direction: treating Swedes as if they would speak Finnish.

And from Ken Arneson:

Just an FYI, the assumption that a Swede would have an opinion about the correct pronunciation for "Sauna" is incorrect. The Swedish word for sauna is "bastu".
Now, how in the world Swedish ended up with that word for it, I have no idea. But the Swedish language seems to have a strong aversion to importing Finnish words. Why? The Wikipedia entry for Finland-Swedish says:
Swedish as spoken in Finland is regulated by the "Swedish department" of the "Research Institute for the Languages of Finland". There is an officially stated aim that Finland-Swedish should remain close to the Swedish spoken in Sweden, thus the Swedish department strongly advises against loanwords and calques from Finnish.
So as a result, in Swedish, Helsinki is called "Helsingfors", Turku is called "Åbo", sauna is called "bastu", and Nokia is called "Ericsson".
(that last one's a joke...)

This article provides some fascinating history on the Finnish sauna, the Swedish bastu, and other Nordic baths.]

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at April 20, 2006 01:31 AM