Miles Kington Remembered: It's pronounced 'Bach', bach. You mach my words

I am constantly amazed by the inability of the English to enunciate the soundwhich occurs at the end of the Scottish word 'loch'
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The Independent Online

(28 February 2002) I take great pleasure in welcoming back our expert on modern English, Dr Wordsmith. Dr Wordsmith spends his time at the cutting edge of the evolution of the English language, in the bars and pubs of this country. (Several bars he frequents have even created cocktails in his honour: there is a place in Edinburgh which has a lethal potion called a Split Infinitive, and a health bar in Spitalfields where you can get a nutritious Mixed Metaphor.) But he is in the office with us today, with his cocktail shaker and a bag of exotic ingredients, ready to answer all your questions. Take it away, Doc!

Dear Dr Wordsmith, I am constantly amazed by the inability of the English to pronounce the sound which occurs at the end of the Scottish word "loch". This seems to be present in many languages. Hebrew has it. German has it in abundance. Spanish has it, of course, as in the opening of the word "Jerez". But whenever we encounter it we hardly even try to enunciate it. I have noticed, for instance, that the man who runs Radio 4's Front Row, Mark Lawson, always refers to the German composer Bach as "Bark". Surely it wouldn't take much effort to put a bit of spit into it?

Dr Wordsmith writes: You had better add the Welsh to your list. They will feel very offended if they are left out. Besides, they have almost more -ch sounds than the Scottish. Don't forget that the Welsh also have a word "bach" which is an endearment, meaning, I think, "small". Does not Dylan Thomas make some play in 'Under Milk Wood' about Organ Morgan's liking for Bach, bach?

Dear Dr Wordsmith, Does he?

Dr Wordsmith writes: I don't know. That's why I asked you.

Dear Dr Wordsmith, But I thought it was up to me to ask the questions!

Dr Wordsmith writes: So it is. And you haven't asked one yet. Get on with it!

Dear Dr Wordsmith, Well, the other day I went to get a new razor. I thought I would experiment with the Mach 3 that Gillette is marketing, so I carefully enunciated my request in the chemist's, making sure that it sounded as guttural as JS Bach, and asked for a "Mach 3" razor. The woman said she'd never heard of it. I pointed it out on the shelf behind her. She looked round, and said, "Oh, Mack 3!". Now, this travesty of a pronunciation ignores the fact that Mach 1 or 2 or 3 is named after Ernst Mach, the Austrian physicist, who did much research into supersonic speed, and who was assuredly not pronounced "Mack". And of course to pronounce it "Mack" risksconfusion with things that really are pronounced like that, such as Apple Macs, and rain macs, and Big Macs.

Dr Wordsmith writes: And Mack the Knife.

Dear Dr Wordsmith, Pardon?

Dr Wordsmith writes: Nothing. Next, please!

Dear Dr Wordsmith, Talking of Germanic people who have given their names to things, what about the Richter Scale?

Dr Wordsmith writes: What about it? I have always thought the Richter Scale a little over-rated. Very good for measuring earthquakes, no doubt, but which of us ever needs to measure an earthquake? Be honest.

Dear Dr Wordsmith, That's not the point. The point is that if you are going to pronounce Bach and Mach with a Germanic "-ch" full of spit and crackle, should we not say Richter in the same way?

Dr Wordsmith writes: No.

Dear Dr Wordsmith, Why not?

Dr Wordsmith writes: Because the man who gave his name to the Richter Scale, Charles Francis Richter, was not German or Austrian, but American, and Americans never pronounce European names properly if there is a wrong alternative to choose. They always say "the Rikter Scale", for example.

Dear Dr Wordsmith, Give me another example.

Dr Wordsmith writes: Certainly. The American writer Thoreau is always pronounced by Americans with an English "Th", as if it were a lisping version of "sorrow". But in the original French – and it is assuredly a French name – it would have been pronounced "Toreau", because French has no "th" sound.

Dear Dr Wordsmith, Give me another example.

Dr Wordsmith writes: No.

Dear Wordsmith, Why not? Don't you know any more?

Dr Wordsmith writes: Plenty, but we have run out of space and time.

Dr Wordsmith will be back soon. Keep those queries rolling in!

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