Forvo — You Say Tomato, I Say Tomato

Posted in resources, teaching resources by Editor on July 16, 2011

Note from the Editor

One of the challenges of ‘doing’ art history, whether at the introductory, student level or as an established scholar, is knowing how to pronounce lots of unfamiliar words and names. That making sense of the eighteenth century requires such a wide range of international knowledge just compounds the difficulties. A working knowledge of French and Italian go a long way, but they hardly solve all of one’s problems (and incidentally just reinforce how large the gaps are in what often counts as the field’s dominant terrain). The important addition of German helps a lot, but there’s still plenty of room for serious gaffes. Latin is always useful with languages, though sometimes it can hurt with pronunciations. And names can be tough even in one’s native language. At least for American speakers, British names like Albemarle, Derby, and Leicester are tricky enough without the likes of Featherstonhaugh (which is sometimes, maybe all the time?, pronounced Fanshaw).

The digital revolution has transformed lots of what we do, but until recently, the usage model depended upon reading as an exclusively visual (and thus silent) experience. How often have I heard fine presentations from my students, marred by their serious mispronunciation of some crucial term or person in their paper? How often have I done the same thing, realizing only a few moments before giving a talk that I’ve never actually heard that name pronounced before?

One indication of the expanding sensory dimensions of the web comes from a source that I stumbled across several months ago, Forvo. The site’s tagline is clear enough: All the words in the world. Pronounced. Well, they’re not there yet (at least as of today, no Featherstonhaugh), but what is included is impressive. This past May, the site passed the million mark, with 267 languages represented . . .

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We are celebrating these days our third year online and coinciding with this anniversary we have reached an amazing number of pronunciations: 1,000,000. We have no words to thank you for making this possible but we have a graphic instead : )

Our friend Asier has created this nice infographic where you can see the evolution of Forvo and also the key data in our way.

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The site allows users to see how the same word would be pronounced in multiple locations. The proper pronunciation, for instance, of the British surname, Albemarle, would be a mispronunciation of the eponymous town in North Carolina. Forvo gives you both.

I still have questions. Is it affectation for an American to pronounce the city Bath with a British accent? Or in fact a mispronunciation of the city’s name not to do so? It also is often quite useful to know how names were pronounced in the eighteenth century (sometimes the shifts have been substantial), and at least currently Forvo appears to deal only with the present. Still, I think it’s a really valuable tool. I’ll be pointing students to it and also checking words myself (likely much more often than I would care to confess). -CH.