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Verbal Energy

Pronouncing Ralph Fiennes

Preparing for a London theater outing, the Monitor's language columnist stumbles upon a YouTube clip purporting to help her get the leading man's name right – but maybe not.

By Ruth Walker / October 4, 2011

In this Sept. 12 photo, actor-director Ralph Fiennes poses for a portrait to promote the film, 'Coriolanus' during the 36th Toronto International Film Festival in Toronto.

Carlo Allegri/AP

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Kevin Spacey's performance in "Richard III" at London's Old Vic this summer drew raves from the critics. But on the nights that would have worked for us, the show was sold out.

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And so for the Shakespeare element of our trip, as we e-mailed back and forth, we turned to "The Tempest," with Ralph Fiennes as Prospero.

In the mad rush to get ready for the airport, though, a lurking question nagged – one that seems to come up in just about every interview the man does: How does Ralph Fiennes pronounce his name?

I thought I'd gotten a grip on this one some years ago – after all, Fiennes has been a big name, pronounceable or otherwise, at least since his performance as a Nazi death camp commander in "Schindler's List."

Fortunately, The New Yorker came to my rescue, with a blog post titled "How Do You Say Ralph Fiennes?" Talk about news you can use.

Writer Ian Crouch was writing in response to another New Yorker piece, on the alleged wonder fruit/drug açai. After discussing the article with friends, he realized – horrors! – he'd been hearing "açai" (uh-SIGH) wrong in his head all along. And to help lead fellow readers out of the mispronunciation wilderness, he pointed them to the Pronunciation Book channel on YouTube.

It's a collection of very short audio clips giving the standard American English pronunciation of all kinds of words. It's evidently targeted for English-language learners. But it's not without value for people whose reading vocabulary is larger than their speaking vocabulary and who don't want to be embarrassed when they start conversing about things they've only read or maybe written about. This group turns out to be most of us, sooner or later.

And of the examples Crouch cites in his blog post, many are foreign or literary terms where the real question is not really, how is this pronounced in its original language, but rather, how do educated English speakers say this in conversation? In French one does not pronounce the "s" at the end of "Paris," but in English one does. So there.

But then comes a surprise embedded in the post: The pronouncer for "Ralph Fiennes" actually comes from a spoof channel, PronunciationManual. And this version goes on for about eight syllables.

Not quite clued in to the joke, I did some quick checking of my own. I found, among other things, this headline, supported by a video clip of the man himself: "IT'S PRONOUNCED RAFE FINES."

Crouch had this to say about seeking guidance from such sources: "PronunciationManual's crude mangling of 'highbrow' language gets at the underlying tension in turning to Pronunciation Book for guidance: that something perfectly useful and seemingly not pretentious, still feels a little, well, pretentious."

Travel broadens, as they say, especially when it's to a country from which we are separated by a common language. The gap between active and passive vocabulary widens with our distance from original sources. I knew Norwich rhymes more or less with "porridge," but had missed that Berwick rhymes with "derrick" until I heard English friends comment on how lovely the place looked from the train recently.

Now that I'm back from England, I can report that we enjoyed "The Tempest." But in talking about it, I don't think we said the star's name aloud once.

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