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How to Say: Van Gogh

11:40 UK time, Friday, 22 January 2010

An occasional guide to the words and names in the news from Esther de Leeuw
of the BBC Pronunciation Unit.

During his lifetime, most people would not have given much thought to the pronunciation of Vincent van Gogh's name. Nowadays, getting it right has become a priority for many, especially those who plan to visit The Real van Gogh exhibit which opens at the Royal Academy later this month.

But what is the real pronunciation of Van Gogh? Native English speakers can be heard saying van GOFF (-v as in vet, -a as in pan, -g as in get, -f as in fit) or van GOH (-oh as in no).

In fact, most Dutch people pronounce his surname along the lines of vun KHOKH (-v as in vet, -u as in bun, -kh as in Scottish loch) or fun KHOKH (-f as in fit, -u as in bun, -kh as in Scottish loch). I know that as a child in Anglophone Canada, my Dutch father would have cringed if I ever pronounced one of the former possibilities because he wanted me to say Vincent van Gogh like a native Dutch speaker.

At the Pronunciation Unit, we don't expect non-native Dutch speakers to pronounce his name with a perfect Dutch accent. Instead, we recommend the established Anglicisation van GOKH (-v as in vet, -g as in get, -kh as in Scottish loch) which is codified in numerous British English pronunciation dictionaries.

This recommendation represents a compromise between the aforementioned English pronunciations and the Dutch pronunciations.

The benefits of this recommendation are twofold. Firstly, recommending a single pronunciation ensures consistency across the BBC which in turn supports ease of perception for our audience.

Secondly, this particular pronunciation is rendered by our broadcasters with relative ease (who are for the most part English native speakers) - and approaches the native Dutch pronunciation.

Moreover, we explain the Dutch pronunciation vun KHOKH to our broadcasters. This is helpful for those who want to understand the reasoning behind our recommended established anglicisation van GOKH.

Accordingly, our recommendation aims to satisfy - at least to a certain extent - voices such as as those coming from my father, whilst at the same time ensuring ease of perception and production for English native speakers.

To download the BBC Pronunciation Unit's guide to text spelling, click here.

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