Thursday, July 14, 2011

"Differences of habit and language are nothing at all if our aims are identical and our hearts are open. " -- Albus Dumbledore

Aloha and alohomora, language hippogriffs! Tonight is the midnight release of the last Harry Potter movie, and I thought a Potter-themed Language Hippie post seemed in order. If you're not a Potterhead, don't turn away just yet -- I'll be focusing on those stories, yes, but I believe the conclusions I'll be drawing are not so limited in scope.

Language diversity and tolerance might not seem to immediately apply to the adventures of a young boy wizard, but I think the series can actually teach us a lot. Anyone who has both read the books and watched the movies has surely noticed some differences between the two. In addition to details that were changed in the transition from novel to film, there are also elements that were unspecified in the original stories and had to be filled in by the moviemakers: from the tune of the song the mermaids sing, to the way werewolves transform at the full moon, to the exact design of Voldemort's wand. Most likely, readers imagined such details quite differently in their own minds, before witnessing how they were presented on film. As a result, the story we watch is somewhat different from the one we had experienced before.

This, I believe, is a fairly obvious point that has probably occured to all of you before now. And it is my hope that you will also accept as noncontroversial my further claim, that the version of events and details presented in the Harry Potter movies is not the only legitimate one. That is, I hope you will not consider yourself to be incorrect in how you imagined the stories before, just because the filmmakers viewed and presented them differently. While their vision may have the original creator J.K. Rowling's seal of approval, and yours likely does not, that does not mean that your own version of the story is in any way misguided or wrong.

I mention all of this as set-up for my ultimate point, which is about the language of the Harry Potter books. This is another element of the novels that had to be filled in by the filmmakers, either with or without consultation by J.K. Rowling. (I am guessing the former, but I consider the matter to be ultimately moot.) Although Rowling's books are full of unusual character and creature names, magical spells, and so forth, she usually provides little indication beyond spelling as to how these words are to be pronounced. And so, when those words are spoken aloud in the movies -- or the audiobooks, for that matter -- the producers must decide on one interpretation, one vision, to present to the audience. And like any other detail, those pronunciations might not agree with how we imagined the world of Harry Potter ourselves.

I urge you, then, to not be swayed by how the movie characters pronounce J.K. Rowling's magical words, if you have always believed in your heart that they were said differently. If you think 'accio' should have a 'CH' sound and not a 'K', if you rhyme 'muggle' with 'frugal', or if you pronounce 'Voldemort' with a silent -t, don't be discouraged that the people in the movie franchise do things differently. Theirs is but one interpretation, one dialect, of the words J.K. Rowling has gifted to us. Your own is just as valid, and just as worthy of celebration.

Mischief managed.


  1. A number of good points, Joe. Your Voldemort point led me to a eureka moment. Having read HP by listening to the audiobooks, I always assumed / liked the fact that Voldemort was pronounced with a silent 't.' After listening to the later audiobooks, I started to think I was losing my mind because Dale kept pronouncing it WITH a 't'. Had I just imagined the 't' was silent initially?!

    Looking it up online just now, though, it seems that Dale changed the pronunciation based on the movies! What an interesting mix of interpretations...

  2. I'd guess that many of the canonical pronunciations (in Rowling's mind anyway) would come from Latin phonology since that's the language many of the spells are derived from, but how far the producers/directors/script-writers would be aware of those convention is up for debate.

    For what it's worth, I always read 'Voldemort' with word final /t/ (most likely influenced by 'post-mortem)!

    Another one is Dumbledore - 'Dumbl-e-dore' (as one of the characters does in one of the book, Madame Maxine?) or 'Dumble-dore'. Maybe we've been doing wrong all this time... ;)

  3. Thanks for the comments, guys! Colin, you're absolutely right that Dale switched from a silent -t in Voldemort to a pronounced one at some point. I don't have a source handy, but I've heard before that the silent -t was J.K. Rowling's original intended pronunciation for the name. "Voldemort" is derived from the French phrase "vol de mort", meaning "flight from death" -- a reference to the character's obsession with gaining immortality.

  4. No problem, Joe. "Flight from death" -- interesting.

  5. I just saw the final film last night, and it was the first time I realized that they pronounced "accio" differently than I did—and, apparently, you: I always imagined it to be /aksijo/, as in one 'c' was hard and the other 'c' was soft (because of the 'i'). That's the way it works in Spanish, too, I think: acción.

    Of course, if you pronounced "muggle" to rhyme with "frugal", I have no sympathy for you: the double-'g' indicates a short vowel. ;)

    And I guess it has long been settled how "Hermione" is pronounced, eh? 'Twas her-me-own-ee for me until the first movie came out.

  6. To be fair, I've never heard any variant pronunciations of "muggle." But I'd be supportive of them if I did! I don't have nearly enough faith in the consistency of English spelling-to-pronunciation rules to insist that the double-g precludes a tense vowel.

    For what it's worth, I believe the audiobooks pronounce "accio" as "assio" with a 'soft c' while the movies prefer "akkio" with a 'hard c.' I've always said "achio" (like someone sneezing) myself.

  7. Dumbledore is a standard word meaning 'bumblebee', so its standard pronunciation can be looked up. The dog-Latin names of spells I pronounce according to the traditional English pronunciation of Latin, which would indeed be "aksio".