Why Wijk?

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WijkChess players, perhaps insisting on their world-wide status as 'smart people', have always seemed to me more formalistic and pedantic than your average customer at the grocery's. But sometimes being 'wrong' is much more fun.

How do you spell 'Korchnoi'? The questions rears its ugly head from time to time on chess forums and blogs. At first, it seems a very straightforward matter: you just transcribe the letters from the cyrillic alphabet into latin letters and there you are. But of course the problems only start there, because the Russian sounds are written down differently in different languages. For instance, the 'ch' in Korchnoi is written 'tsch' in German and 'tch' in French. In English, it's either 'tch' or 'ch' (depending on, if nothing else, taste) and in Dutch, it's 'tsj'. And this is just the 'ch' sound: similiar discussions can be held about the final 'i'.

On top of that, Korchnoi hasn't been a Russian citizen for quite some time now, so there's actually no need to spell his name with cyrillic letters at all anymore. Perhaps we should always spell it the 'Swiss' way? But Switzerland itself has many official languages, so which one should we choose? Or should we write it the way Korchnoi himself prefers to do it? These are all tricky questions, but with the rise of internet, the English version seems to have gained preference in most cases where the cyrillic alphabet is involved.

Even so, problems remain. Even if we could agree on how to spell foreign names, we're often unsure how to pronounce them. Korchnoi, again, is an interesting case in point. A Russian would probably pronounce his name as sounding, to us, something like 'Kahrchnoi', with the emphasis on the last syllabe and the kah in the first pronounced a bit like the English word 'car'. The 'o' in Korchnoi's name, not being pronounced with emphasis in Russian, sounds much more like what Western-Europeans would call 'a'. (This in turn raises the question why we don't write 'Karchnoi', too. The answer is, I'm afraid, quite unfair: convention.). Thus, a true formalist should probably insist on pronouncing 'Kahrchnoi'. The reason, I suppose, for why almost nobody does this (except, of course, Russians) is that it sounds so obviously pedantic. And, of course, even if people could approximate the Russian sounds with any certainty, the fact would still remain that most Russians would immediately hear, from their intonation and other clues, that the speaker is in fact not Russian at all.

Sure enough, problems occur in the other direction as well. A famous example is that Russians don't know how to pronounce nor spell the name of the Dutch World Champion 'Euwe'. Usually, having no good way to represent the typically Dutch (in Russian unknown) diphtong sound 'eu' in their own system, they write it like 'Eyve' - and I can't even begin to imagine how that sounds. Nor should it matter. It's impossible to do it right, so why bother? (Of course, there are several scientific methods of dealing with spelling and phonetics, but it's unlikely this will catch on with the general public.)

Still, as said, with chess players you never know. The most recent issue in what Language Log linguist Geoffrey K. Pullum has called prescriptivist poppycock, is the question of how to pronounce 'Wijk aan Zee', the name of the Dutch village where the current Corus chess tournament is being held. Over on ChessBase, they've already written quite a bit about it. Is 'wijk' pronounced like the English 'wake' or 'wike' (like bike)? Well, as any Dutch native speaker will tell you: neither!

(Their explanation that 'wijk' is derived from the Dutch word for 'area', by the way, is incorrect as well. There is indeed a word 'wijk' meaning 'area', but 'wijk' in 'Wijk aan Zee' - and, for that matter, several other coastal towns such as Beverwijk - is derived from another word: the old Dutch word 'wîk', meaning a name for water or a bend in a river or coastline. Dutch speakers will recognize the root of the verb 'wijken', 'de wijk nemen'.)

Both wake and wike, then, are at best approximations (and rather poor ones at that), for the fact is that the English sound system just doesn't have a good way of interpreting the Dutch sound for 'ij', exactly like the Russians don't have a way of interpreting 'eu' in Euwe. Any attempt to do so will inevitably lead to problems. Wijk is wijk and English speakers will just have to deal with it - or learn Dutch the hard way. In fact, I always find it rather sympathetic when foreigners don't always know how to pronounce words: I think it's cute when people pronounce foreign words in their own way - I once met a girl from Granada, Spain, who had such an irresistible way of pronouncing words in English that I couldn't help falling in love with her. I loved how she was ' wrong' all the time!

I think people who don't bother with trifles such as spelling and pronounciation are much nicer than those who strain themselves beyond end just to make an impression and please native speakers. (Offering me a coffee works much better to please me!) I guess chess players don't like to be cute. They'd rather be smart.

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