24 September 2008

Gnu Pronunciation

I have been testing a GNU/Linux server recently which has GNOME (pronounced ger-nome) installed. This pronunciation is undoubtedly correct, as is the sounding of the G in Gnu/Linux, because the originators of these systems specified that the G should be sounded. My dictionary has 19 words starting gn, and apparently they should all be pronounced with a silent G, including gnu when referring to the African animal. This reminded me of the song "The Gnu Song" written in the 1950s by Flanders and Swann: the song is a clever satire which very gently pokes fun at those people who did not know that the G is silent. In the song they religeously pronounce all the silent letters in lines such as: You really ought to ker-now w-ho's w-ho's. The also add G's to all the other words beginning with N, as in the first two lines of the song:

I'm a Gnu, I'm a Gnu
The ger-nicest work of ger-nature in the zoo

The song was very popular in the 50's and 60's but I suspect the satire backfired however, as many people now sound the G when referring to the animal. Mind you, in the nearly 50 years since I first heard the song, the only times I can recall needing to use the word is when referencing the song!

I am told that if you go back far enough, the initial letters in words such as gnaw and knife were sounded but gradually over the years the initial letters were dropped in speech, but kept in the spelling. Maybe we should follow Flanders and Swann and start pronouncing all these silent letters; it would cause some ger-nashing of teeth in some circles but you never ker-now - it could catch on.

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