If you’re reading this reading this on the day it was posted, there’s a good chance that I’m in Paradise right now. Well, Pairi Daiza, to be more specific, which is the name of a zoo in Belgium. The similarities between the two words are not coincidental though.

The name was deliberately chosen to sound like the English word paradise. It’s not quite the same though. The most accurate way to represent it using English phonology would be Pai-ree-die-za. I think they changed it a little to jazz it up, and perhaps not raise people’s expectations too high. It probably won’t really be paradise, after all.

For me, it’s interesting as an illustration of the difficulties of pronunciation when learning a second language. Notice how in French, it’s necessary to use ai to create the sound of the letter I in paradise. In English we usually just use I (though the letters on either side help determine its sound) and ai is never used for that sound.

Now consider a French-speaking learner of English, for whom the letters ai either sound like eye or ah. Imagine how confusing it is to encounter these letters almost exclusively in words in which they have the sound they do in hair or stairs. The obvious error would be to use French pronunciation conventions and mispronounce the words.

However, even if one learns the right pronunciation in the classroom or through real-world exposure, mistakes are still very easy to make. If letters have certain sounds in our native tongue, it’s very difficult to use those letters with other sounds, no matter how much we consciously know what sounds they should have. At some point in our childhood, the range of sounds we can make, determined by our native tongue, becomes set. Learning a second language’s pronunciation after that point therefore becomes very hard. This is why you tend to notice higher levels of proficiency in English in Northern Europe. The structural similarities between their languages and English help, but so too does the fact that the languages feature the same sounds as English, and use similar spellings for them. The more different a language is from English, the harder it is to get a grip on English pronunciation. Which is why it’s usually more difficult for speakers of Romance languages to perfect English pronunciation, as their languages tend to feature sounds not found in English, and to use different spellings for sounds that they share with English.

Usually of course this isn’t a big deal, and one can become quite proficient in English without mimicking the pronunciation of native speakers exactly. But there are some curious side-effects of these differences in pronunciation, particularly when English words are used in other languages. Take the simple word wow, for example. For an English speaker, the spelling is perfectly logical. But in French, words aren’t spelled with -ow, and the sound of the word would therefore not be obvious. The French spelling of wow is therefore waouh, as that’s the best way to represent the -ow sound using French spelling. And recently, I’ve heard a lot of ads on the radio for an upcoming music festival near Liège. One of the performers is Liam Gallagher, and the voiceover artist (and some DJ’s) pronounce his first name as Lie-am. Initially I put this down to an understandable and insignificant difference in pronunciation, with everyone just pronouncing it as if it were a French name. But after hearing it a few times, something struck me: pronouncing it as a French name would actually sound pretty much like it does in English, just with a stronger A sound, making it two distinct syllables. But the first two letters would still sound like Lee. Why then, do they pronounce it like Lie?

I can’t say for sure, but I think they’re overthinking it. They’ve probably said to themselves that because it’s an English name (it’s not), the pronunciation must be different from how it’s pronounced French-style. And then they probably thought of the similarly-spelled Brian and assumed that it sounds the same. But of course the name is actually originally from the Irish language, in which the letters ia together usually sound like “ee.” Some impressive thinking going on there, if that’s what happened, but as I said yesterday, sometimes it’s better not to overthink things. You just need to get out there, look at some cute animals, and get inspired to write ten different posts about the etymologies of their names.

6 thoughts on “Paradise

  1. I have a nephew called Liam. His mother is Polish, but she and my brother live in Ireland, and they wanted a name that both sides of the family could pronounce. Her parents in Poland initially thought it was a Chinese name, as if it was spelled Lee Am.

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