I no longer remember quite why, but a few weeks ago I had a professional need to know how to pronounce the name of Auguste Kerckhoffs.
He was a 19th-century Dutch linguist and cryptographer, long active in Paris, by the way. I hadn't heard of him either. But with just a few keystrokes I had arrived at a Web page that gave me just what I needed. I had only to click on a "play" button, and I could hear the name as pronounced by an authentic contemporary European, if not exactly a 19th-century Dutchman.
I had discovered the site Forvo.com, which purports to be "the largest pronunciation guide in the world."
The idea is pretty simple, and so is the interface: You enter a word or name in a search box, and if it's in Forvo's database, you're taken to a page where you can click a play button and hear "your" word spoken aloud.
The speaker of each word is identified by a "handle" or user name, by country of residence, and as male or female. Keep clicking and you can often find more precise geographic locations for speakers – down to street level in one case I found – as well as biographical notes that, in this age of personal mobility, help explain people's accents.
Registered users at the site can request pronunciations of words, record their own pronunciations of words already listed, and vote other speakers' renderings of a given word up or down to maintain quality.
Forvo, based in San Sebastián, Spain, has been online since 2008 and claims more than 85,000 users. It has listings in 258 languages, from Abkhazian to Zulu, although the main Western languages, plus Arabic and Persian (Farsi), dominate the Top 10.
Spend any amount of time on the site and you'll start to recognize the handles of some of the superstar speakers, such as "pathgs," a Brazilian woman whose recordings of tens of thousands of words may explain why Portuguese beats out English as Forvo's No. 1 language.
Forvo's aspirations are at this point well ahead of its achievement. But its achievement is nothing to be sneezed at. For a language lover who delights in individual words as pieces of music, poking around this website can be a lot of fun – and like all such Web toys, alas, a time sink.
Forvo is an example of crowd sourcing, with all the advantages and disadvantages that implies. Its word lists skew toward pop culture – film stars and football players. And if you don't know a speaker's language, it's hard to know just how well-spoken he or she is – although the voting up or down presumably helps weed out the truly inarticulate.
The little audio snippets may be most helpful for people using it as I did – to get some approximation at least of the rhythm, the syllable stresses, of an unfamiliar term, and some indication of silent letters. For a student preparing an oral presentation, for instance, and wanting to mention a historical figure of the type more often read about than spoken of, this could be useful.
I have some concern, though, about someone who comes cold to a word in a language with whose basic sound system he or she has no familiarity – however superb the recorded pronunciation is.
But I'm being way too serious. Forvo urges, "Join us whatever your language and help the world communicate better." What's not to like about that?