Say my name, say my name...

Some musicians’ names with counterintuitive pronunciations.

Photo by Steve Harvey on Unsplash

What do Robert Moog, Glenn Frey, Neil Peart, Vinny and Carmine Appice have in common? Apart from being icons in their respective subgenre of modern music, these people’s surnames are often mispronounced.

Bob Moog, the founder of the eponymous company and inventor of the synthesizer, called himself /moʊɡ/; and here’s why:

In an English-speaking context, music professionals are well aware of this subtlety:

The late Glenn Frey, singer and guitarist in the band The Eagles, pronounced his name as if written “Fry”. I randomly picked news excerpts announcing his passing in 2016, and they all had the correct pronunciation.

Neil Peart, drummer for the legendary Canadian rock band Rush, is /pɪərt/, as this funny short clip confirms:

As I was about to publish this post, the sad news came out that Neil Peart had passed away. The most recent videos on Youtube have either /pɪərt/ or /pɝːt/; could this reflect the degree of professionalism of journalists and presenters?

Now what about the Appice brothers, two iconic drummers in the heavy rock genre? Well, believe it or not, each of them has his own preferred pronunciation. Worse still: there are actually three Appice brothers, and three different pronunciations (as Vinny Appice explains here):

  • Carmine (/ˈkɑːrmaɪn/ BTW) calls himself /əˈpiːs/
  • Vinny says /ˈæpɪsi/
  • their brother, Frank, says /əˈpiːtʃi/

The situation is quite complex for native speakers of English; so it’s easy to imagine that most French speakers don’t even suspect that these subtle distinctions exist.

As far as Moog is concerned, I’m quite sure I’ve only heard /mug/ in France. I feel that if you came up with /mog/ (the most straigthforward adaptation of the American /moʊɡ/), people would regard this as erroneous. Or perhaps they’d ask why you say /mog/ and you’d have to explain, thus showing that you “know better”, which is quite awkward in some cases.

The very few news items in French I found on Youtube about Glenn Frey’s passing had /fʁɛ/ or /fʁɛj/ (except Euronews who had the correct sound), suggesting that French speakers interpret the English vowel as the one in “prey”.

I haven’t had the opportunity to talk about the Appice brothers or Neil Peart recently, so I have no clear idea as to how French speakers would pronounce these two names.

More generally speaking, the pronunciation of English loanwords in French, and in particular proper nouns, is extremely interesting because it involves not only a linguistic act (i.e. naming) but also, quite often, a social act as well. Before giving a couple of examples from my own experience, let me clear a specific point straight away: if you’re a native speaker of French, it’s never a good idea to shift to an English accent within a French sentence. The first obvious reason is that people will be much more forgiving if you get the phonology wrong while keeping your French accent. The other reason is that it sounds terribly pedantic and snobbish.

Although I’m an academic who specializes in English pronunciation, I think I’d never pronounce English names with an English accent within a French sentence (except when talking to native speakers of English), without feeling a bit uneasy. However, many colleagues do this on a regular basis so it’s probably a matter of personal sociolinguistic self-positioning. And I don’t think I would try and improve the pronunciation of a loanword if it is already “established” in French even if it clearly shows that the English phonological values have been misinterpreted.

To illustrate the latter, take the band name Iron Maiden: in a French-speaking context I would, like most people, produce /ajʁɔn mɛjdœn/, with the initial /aj/ occasionally turning to /i/. But I’d never go so far as to drop the “r” in “iron” even though this version would be closer to the correct English form. And I, like most French speakers, adapt the foreign sounding interdental fricatives by producing /s/ and /z/ instead of English /θ/ and /ð/. So band names like Dream Theater or Megadeth become /dʁim siatœʁ/ and /megadɛs/. I might sometimes take reduced vowels into account and replace English schwas with their phonetically closest French equivalent - /ø/: /siøtœʁ/ - /megødɛs/; but I’d have to record myself unintentionnally (!) to be 100% sure.

But here, a caveat is in order: I grew up in the 1980s so I had access to artists’ names only through written media (magazines, cassette and CD covers). Maybe younger music fans, who have had direct access to the oral form of artists’ names through the Internet, produce more “informed” French adaptations of English names?

In this short post I have:

  • given examples of counterintuitive musicians’ names in English;
  • shared my intuition on how French speakers deal with artists’ names from the English-speaking world;
  • touched upon sociolinguistic aspects;
  • suggested that different generations might adopt different standards.
Emmanuel Ferragne
Emmanuel Ferragne
Professor of Phonetics