Saturday, February 26, 2011

UE #60 How to Pronounce "Ukulele"

Editor's Note:
The following column was written by Ralph Shaw (The King of the Ukulele) for his email group, "The Ukulele Entertainer" and is copyrighted by him. I saw Ralph play and met him at one of his workshops in St. Helena at the Ukulele festival there last September.


Ukulele players are used to having friendly disagreements over which tuning is superior (GCEA or ADF#B), whether it is preferable to use a high or low 4th string, or even, whether a banjo-uke is a ukulele at all.

Heck, we can't even agree on how to pronounce the thing.

For most of my life the pronunciation of ukulele was never in question. It was spoken like this: Yoo-ka-lay-li :with the i sounding like the i in, well, in in. I never heard anyone pronounce it any other way. That is, until I went to California. Which, by far, sends more tourists to Hawaii than any other State.

I should mention: although I did visit Hawaii before I had my first California visit, I never noticed that Hawaiians spoke the word 'ukulele' differently to myself; this was probably because almost every word they uttered was different than in my South Yorkshire brogue.

In California I found it slightly surreal to walk into a room and see several dozen ukulele players all dressed in colorful Hawaiian shirts. Do other musical instruments inspire their own dress codes?

I wondered: what had given these people the strange and identical need to dress in such a way; Have they been brain-washed by some strange Tiki-Guru into joining a bizarre Polynesian cult? Are Hawaiian shirts and leis a secret fetish clothing that enthusiasts like wearing in group situations? Do loudly patterned fabric prints help dull people to feel more interesting? The answer to all these questions is, in most cases, No.

The people who bedeck themselves in colorful shirts just happen to have been caught up in the wondrous spirit of all that is Hawaiian (that, plus the fact that a carefully chosen flowered print instantly takes between 10 to 25 pounds off the wearer). The Aloha spirit is reflected in Hawaii's music, food, clothing, attitudes and words. Travelers can't help but bring some of these cultural keepsakes back to the mainland. Ukuleles, Leis, Macadamias and Mahalos are all part of a cultural oneness. Their presence is what keeps the visitor's Inner Island Spirit alive.

But, I have to confess, when I heard people pronouncing ukulele as 'Oo-koo-lay-lay' it bothered me.

My thinking was (note the past tense) that saying, 'Oo-koo-lay-lay', while being correct in Hawaiian, sounds somewhat pretentious when used in an English language context. It is similar to hearing an English speaker refer to the capital city of France as 'Paree' or the capital of Germany as 'Bearrr-leen'.

The English language is full of words that have been taken from, or imposed on us by, other cultures. Over time the pronunciations of these words have adapted and changed, often becoming quite different from their origins.

Conquerors are loathe to learn the language of their defeated subjects: which is why Hawaiians now speak US-English. Similarly, after the Normans defeated the army of King Harold near Hastings in 1066, French became the language of successful English-folk. It was the language spoken in English Parliament (a French word) and for 300 years French was the language of the English Legal system. That is until the great plague killed so many people that there were no longer enough French speaking judges available.

The English language was flooded with French words. Crafts people maintained their anglo-saxon job titles: Fisher, Shepherd, Weaver, Baker and so on. But the skilled artisans were known by French trade names: Plumber, Carpenter, Butcher, Mason. And, if you know an Irishman with Fitz as part of his name, then that too is French - it comes from 'fils de' meaning 'the brother of'.

We also get a myriad of words that are pronounced quite unlike their French counterpart. Take the following French words that all take the same ending: voyage, plumage, pillage, village, cage, bandage, mariage, image and visage. All of those words rhyme with 'nuage'; the French word for cloud. In English however, not only do we not pronounce those words like the French, but, with the exception of village and pillage, the words don't even rhyme with each another.

What would we think of an English speaker who insisted on saying all the above words with their original French pronunciation? I imagine it would sound a little pretentious. Or, we might wonder what obscure upbringing had caused them to develop such a mannerism.

But if that person also happened to wear a beret, carried an accordion and had a Joann SFAR comic book poking out of his pocket, perhaps then we'd say, "ah, I understand, this person is embracing French culture."

Several years ago it hit me how much of a fluid state all language is in. An erudite compiler of a British Dictionary said that the word 'ask' was now being pronounced 'aks' by so many people around the world that 'aks' has become an acceptable pronunciation. As he talked about this, in his rich Oxford tones, I was struck by how this fact didn't bother him at all. He took the organic, ever developing, nature of language quite for granted.

It seems to me that the ukulele has traveled so far and so widely that it is no longer an instrument of a single culture. To a Californian (and countless others) the ukulele speaks to them of Polynesia, particularly Hawaii. To a Brit or a Baltimorian it might be the era of Music Hall or Vaudeville to which the ukulele transports them. To a Japanese teenager it'll be something else again.

It's a wonderful thing that the ukulele has been a part of so much cultural diversity. Surely this diversity ought to be reflected in all the ways people choose to pronounce it.

'Oo-koo-lay-lay' and 'Yoo-ka-lay-li' both sound so right to me now; both are perfect ways to pronounce the name of the petit chordophone that has been instrumental in creating so much cultural togetherness.

All I ask, is please don't call it, as I have sometimes heard, a 'Yoo-kyoo-lay-lee'. That is just plain wrong!

source: Singers & the Song Gene Lees, 1987 
© Ralph Shaw 2011

His website: Ralph Shaw

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