Greta Thunberg

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Since this teenager became world famous, I’ve heard her name pronounced in several ways by BBC journalists and announcers. I don’t know how she herself pronounces her name, as I’ve never heard her say it, and I’m no longer in a position to find out easily, but certainly, only one of the at least four ways that I’ve heard can be right.

I don’t expect journalists to be able to speak Swedish – the only one from the last quarter of a century who comes to mind as a Swedish speaker is Kate Adie, whose degree from Newcastle University was in Scandinavian Studies. There may be others. However, since they are unlikely to know anything of the language other than the imitation of it perpetrated by the Swedish chef in The Muppet Show, I should have thought that they would admit their ignorance and ask somebody – in the case of BBC journalists, the Pronunciation Unit. They don’t even have to ask any more, as the whole of the pronunciation index is available to them in a couple of clicks on whichever electronic device is their favourite.

I’ve heard the initial ‘TH’ pronounced as if it was English, as if the whole name was a portmanteau word composed of the first part of ‘thud’ and the last part of ‘fun’; or to rhyme with ‘boon’, again with the initial sound of ‘thud’. But Swedish has no ‘th’ sounds (and in this it is like the majority of European languages), so the ‘h’ is purely decorative – as it is quite often in English names as well: Thames, Thomas, Trentham, immediately come to mind.

Even when the ‘h’ is ignored, I’ve heard journalists make the first syllable rhyme with ‘fun’.

Perhaps Ms Thunberg has made her wishes known, and when she speaks Engish (which she does very well), she calls herself ‘thun-burg’, but that doesn’t excuse those who are pronouncing it differently.

I’m not advocating a totally Swedish pronunciation – this would mean pronouncing the second syllable with completely alien phonotactics, but consistency ought not to be out of reach. Ms Thunberg is going to be around for a very long time and it would be nice for broadcasters to respect her name a little more.

13 Comments

  1. ‘greːta ‘tʉːnˌbærj

    The ‘ for a primary stress is a Swedish convention for word accent 2 (produced in numerous ways in different regional varieties). To keep this short, imagine a delayed fall on each syllable. As this is a phrase, the surname is focal and more prominent, the forename weaker.

    Life is simpler here in the south where I live, a gentle rise across each first syllable then stay low. In fact many would have word accent 1 here, a sharp fall on each first syllable then stay low.

    The æ in the surname is allophonic, the phoneme would be /ɛ/.

  2. For an Anglicised pronunciation, why not follow the example of ‘Ingrid Bergman’?

    ‘Greta’ as usual, then ʹtuːnˌbɜːg (with goose fronting).

  3. Sidney – What do you call “usual” for the anglicisation of ‘Greta’? I was always taught to say ‘Greater’ as in Greater London (with the punning mnemonic “There’s no-one greater than Greta [Garbo]”, but the pronunciation I usually hear is ‘gretta’.

  4. Graham, I’ve only known ʹgriːtə in British English (I’ve only ever spoken regional home counties SBE, never RP)

    I see the Cambridge EPD has ʹgriːtə first for British ‘BBC’ English, second for American.

  5. PS. The Cambridge EPD has ‘gretta’ second for British, ‘greater’ third.

  6. Neither Longman (John Wells) nor Oxford Pronunciation even mentions ‘greater’, but they disagree about the order of ‘gretta’ and ‘greeta’.

  7. Jones own EPD 6edn 1944 is available here:
    https://archive.org/details/in.ernet.dli.2015.94053/page/n9

    This has ‘greeta’ first, ‘gretta’ second.

    Jones EPD 1stedn 1917 1919 reprint (watch the line break):
    https://ia801600.us.archive.org/1/items/in.ernet.dli.2015.83619/2015.83619.An-English-Pronouncing-Dictionary.pdf

    This has ‘greeta’ only.

    I wonder how the various dictionary editors quantify pronunciations in order to rank them. The current CUP EDP has 80000 words; if you canvas 50 informants, that means 4 million pronunciations. I’d hope to be forgiven for suspecting the ranking principles were more subjective. I imagine Jones putting his own pronunciation first, any alternative by his colleagues second.

  8. On Democracy Now, Amy Goodman asked Greta how she pronounces her name.
    https://www.democracynow.org/2019/9/11/greta_thunberg_swedish_activist_climate_crisis
    At 13:16 and 13:51 Greta pronounces her name as her parents named her.

  9. Eleanor – Thank you very much for sending this link: I’m sure that many readers of this blog will not have seen it. Greta makes it clear that she is very relaxed about the multiple pronunciations she hears, and I’m happy to accept that. However, the viewers and listeners to TV and radio programmes – in my experience at least – get confused if they hear different pronunciations within the same broadcast, so it would help if each broadcastinjg organisation could decide to standardise the pronunciation just as newspapers standardise the spelling of names originally written in different alphabets.

  10. When I listen to the recording of her own pronunciation (at 13:52 in the Democracy Now interview), her name sounds more like grjɛːta than greːta.

  11. Andy, yes something like that. She grew up in Stockholm, and still lives there, so she has a Stockholm accent. One prominent feature is diphthongization of /e:/, perhaps as much as [iə]. Any [j] you hear would be a normal intrusion between the beginning and the end. Now, her accent is more subdued, appropriate for her level of education so far, and family status. Additionally, her parents are an opera singer and an actor, people for whom speech is a tool of their trade. But she still has a slight diphthong for /e:/.

  12. Sidney -Thank you very much. I hope that answers Andy’s question?

  13. Yes, the news manglers of this world trample the pronunciation of this name under their many and varied ignorances, but they’ve got form going back decades. Remember how they pronounced Björn Borg, frinstance?

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