The Universe of Discourse

Wed, 15 Feb 2023

Multilingual transliteration corruption

The Greek alphabet has letters beta (Ββ) and delta (Δδ). In classical times these were analogous to Roman letters B and D, but over the centuries the pronunciation changed. Beta is now pronounced like an English ‘v’. For example, the Greek word for “alphabet”, αλφάβητο, is pronounced /alfavito/

Modern Greek delta is pronounced like English voiced ‘th’, as in ‘this’ or ‘father’. The Greek word for “diameter” διάμετρος is pronounced /thiametros/.

Okay, but sometimes Greeks do have to deal with words that have hard /b/ and /d/ sounds, in loanwords if nowhere else. How do Greeks write that? They indicate it explicitly: For a /b/ they write the compound μπ ('mp'), and for a /d/ they write ντ ('nt'). So for example the word for the number fifty is spelled πενήντα, 'peninta', and pronounced 'penida' — the ‘-nt’ cluster is pronounced like English ‘d’. And the word for beer, borrowed from Italian birra, is spelled μπύρα, ‘mpyra’, and pronounced as in Italian, ‘birra’.

There is a Greek professional basketball player named Giannis Antetokounmpo. The first time I saw this I was a little bit boggled, particularly by that -nmpo cluster at the end. But then I realized what had happened.

Antetokounmpo's family is from Nigeria and their name is of Yoruba origin. In English, the name would be written as Adetokunbo and easily pronounced as written. But in Greek the ‘d’ and ‘b’ must be written as ‘nt’ and ‘mb’ so that, when pronounced as written in Greek, it sounds correct. This means that the correct, pronounce-as-written spelling in Greek is Γιάννης Αντετοκούνμπο.

The Yoruba-to-Greek translation was carried out perfectly. The problem here is that the Greek-to-English translation was chosen to preserve the spelling rather than the pronunciation, so that Αντετοκούνμπο turned into ‘Antetokounmpo’ instead of ‘Adetokunbo’.

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