“It’s Levi-O-sa!” Why Pronunciation Matters in Magic and Literature

It’s no secret that everyone here at Hogwarts Professor takes reading pretty seriously.  As serious readers of texts that often feature fabricated vocabulary, we have all, at some point, wondered how tImage result for hermione leviosa memeo say some of the remarkable words we run across at Hogwarts and elsewhere. Sometimes, after reading and re-reading a book for years, we are stunned to hear an audiobook or movie adaptation that completely contrasts with the way we have been saying the word in our heads (or in nightly read-alouds). With film adaptations, there are even some pretty divisive opinions about whether the movie people are, as Hermione would tell us, saying it wrong. It would be easy to say that it’s just potato/potAHto, and Sca-mander/Scam-ander, but, the fact is, words have power, literally and figuratively, especially in the books we discuss here, so let’s think about a few reasons that it does matter how we say words, whether we are making a movie, having a conversation, or just reading aloud at bedtime….

1. Saying a Word Differently can Affect Reality—As Professor Flitwick reminds us, a minor mispronunciation of a magic spell can land us with a buffalo on our chests if we aren’t careful, so, in the Wizarding World, anyway, pronunciation matters a great deal. It can make a harmless spell into a dangerous one; perhaps that is even the kind of “experimenting” Luna’s mom was doing when she was killed. It can also really interfere with transportation, with a mouthful of ash sending one down the wrong fireplace. Even in our Muggle world, if we don’t speak clearly and slowly, our wondrous devices, like phones and GPS, will send us on fool’s errands or get us in all sorts of trouble, like the six-year-old who recently accidentally ordered a dollhouse and big box of cookies.

Voice-activated tools often misunderstand us, even if we are saying the word correctly. Recently, my phone, like many others, would light its flashlight if I told Google “Lumos,” and turn it off with “Nox.” It was a cool trick, when it worked. Most of the time, my phone wanted to look up limo services for me. I could blame my accent, but I prefer to blame my phone which clearly does not know me, or it would know I would never order a limo, but I am very likely to shout at objects, hoping they will respond accordingly.

How we say a word can even have life-altering impacts, if we are calling 911 or speaking to a doctor, or if we get a Xanax instead of a Zantac.  When we are reading, we are unlikely to cause a significant issue by using whatever pronunciation we like, but even in our non-magical world, saying something differently can change everything.

2. Pronunciation Affects how Others Think of Us—One of my favorite Garrison Keillor pieces is the one in which he talks about how kids who read a great deal but who do not have very cosmopolitan lives grow up using posh words like “suave” and “hors d’oeuvres” but saying them totally wrong.  Such people are clearly telling the world, “I read about swanky places though I don’t actually go to any.” We are careful about how we say words because we don’t want others to think we are stupid or uninformed. Strangely enough, once a celebrity or newsperson starts saying a word a certain way, even if it is conventionally wrong (I think this is how the variant pronunciation of harassment—conventionally ha-RASS-ment, has been mangled. Some people of television said “HARASS-ment,” so loads of people say it that way now.), it begins to be used that way by the general public.Image result for pronounciation

Sometimes the pronunciation we choose just says we come from a certain background. Since Latin is my second language, I tend to use hard Cs for Latin-root words (like the Celts).  People who had read or seen a bit of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale did not need the handy in-text notes about how to say Hermione’s name.  While we sometimes think we are just saying the word we are saying, how we say the word is also saying something about us.

3. Pronunciation is a Statement of Allegiance–Pronunciation does not just indicate that person might have grown up in a certain place or if a person is just a little confused. The pronunciation we choose can actually make a statement of our beliefs. Nowhere is this more noticeable than in the pronunciation of Appalachia. I make this point often in my Hunger Games lectures, as District 12 is Appalachian in geography and culture.  Appalachian Magazine just published a piece about this issue, quoting the incomparable Sharyn McCrumb, who has long equated the choice to say “App-a-LAY-cha” instead of “App-ah—LATCH-a” with the choice to ask directions to “Londonderry” rather than to “Derry.” It is a political decision. The outsiders, the invaders, say “Londonderry,” while the locals say “Derry.”

Image result for hermione appalachia meme People who use the non-local (read: “wrong”) pronunciation are, of course, perfectly entitled to do so, but they are declaring their allegiance.  I once had a neighbor who had moved to our mountains from California on the advice of her dog’s psychic. Really. She insisted on using the “outside” pronunciation until I assured her that she would be less likely to get ripped off by mechanics and get extra refills at the coffee shop if she used the “insider” pronunciation.

Such pronunciation loyalty is also rife among readers, from those who get very testy about how to say an author’s name (Tolkien most usually, since Rowling works to get hers said correctly whenever possible) to how we say a fictional place (like more or less French-ified versions of Beauxbatons). Certain camps declare themselves sole proprietors of the correct pronunciation, denouncing everyone else as an ignorant rube. Whether one buys into these claims or not, if we say something, we have to choose how to say it, and sometimes, that means choosing a side.

These are, of course, only a few of the complexities that come with our wonderful language and the amazing stories it tells in the books we love. The important thing is that we do read and say the words, no matter how we say them, though it is important to know what the way we say them means to us, and to the world around us.

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  1. All I’m saying, is that I was convinced for years that Ginny had a hard G, like “guinea.” I got into a huge argument with a friend over, but since she was also making a case for “Cyrus” instead of “Serious” Black, I still feel okay about it. 😉

  2. Kelly Loomis says

    I’m confused on “Accio”. I’ve read the books, listened to Jim Dale’s audio, seen all HP movies and now FBAWTFT. It’s said differently depending on the source.

  3. Brian Basore says

    It could be worse. I just discovered a made-up word in Through The Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There: substraction, a “word” used only in connection with the White Queen. I’ll never know what it means. It’s been hiding in the open, like a trap, in the text since 1871.

    There is a county in Texas, the name of which is spelled “Bexar”. In my experience, Texans tend to avoid the Spanish language pronunciation of Spanish words, but I was informed that the name is pronounced like ‘bear’ and ‘bare’ in English. (I do not live in Texas. I was the foreigner in that case. I had no idea there was an exception to the ‘rule’.)

    As for “Accio”, I’m with you. It looks like Latin, so it must be pronounced like Latin. And then there’s the Greek sandwich the Gyro. The old Greek guy at the Greek restaurant pronounced it “year-o”. But now everyone around here orders a “j-I-roe”.

  4. David Llewellyn Dodds says

    Ah, the vicissitudes of ‘harass(ment)’! At oxforddictionaries.com, I find the note, “There are two possible pronunciations of the word harass: one with the stress on the har- and the other with the stress on the -ass. The former pronunciation is the older one and is regarded by some people as the only correct one, especially in British English. However, the pronunciation with the stress on the second syllable -rass is very common and is now accepted as a standard alternative”! (The same choice is given at their ‘harassment’ entry.) I, however, grew up with ‘ha-RASS-ment’ and kept it when I was living in Lincolnshire, and when I was living in Oxfordshire.

    But the Latin pronunciation of spells seems fraught with fascinating questions! My Roman-British Archaeology professor (from Lancashire), the excellent Brian Simmons, insisted on the hard C for ‘Celt’, noting that soft C ‘celt’ (to put the oxforddictionaries.com formulation in his mouth) was a ” prehistoric stone or metal implement with a bevelled cutting edge”. And the Latin ‘Celtae’ came from the Greek ‘Keltoi’ – but, then again, it seems to have entered English from the soft C French form, ‘Celte’.

    Now, Ollivanders announced itself/themselves as “Makers of Fine Wands since 382 BC” – where, and with what Latin pronunciation, in that auspicious founding year? And was it passed on with transcendent purity, unaffected by the varied and changing pronunciations in the Muggle world down the millennia? Can (indeed, must) one go to the Wizards (of whatever nation and vernacular) to learn the true and ancient pronunciation of Latin? And, if not, what implications does that mysteriously have – or fail to have – for casting spells?

  5. Brian Basore says

    Prehistoric stone implements with beveled edges are common in North American archaeology; the people who made them and used them probably did not call them Celts. (I leave the subject of language and meaning to historians and Lewis Carroll.)

  6. Brian Basore says

    Did poor Seamus ever learn to pronounce spells properly (according to British standards)? In Deathly Hallows his unintentional skill at exploding things came in handy even though it came up as a rueful joke of sorts. (Ah yes, the Irish Problem….)

  7. David Llewellyn Dodds says

    Brian Basore,

    Indeed! The online Oxford dictionary I mentioned before suggests nobody called them ‘celts’ anywhere, before the 18th century: “Early 18th century: from medieval Latin celtis chisel.” The Fowler brothers’ Concise Oxford Dictionary (ed. 2, 1929) has a more detailed and very curious history: ‘word founded on a perhaps false reading in Vulgate of Job xix.24 – stylo ferreo, et plumbi lamina, vel celte (v.l. certe) sculpantur’. The online drbo.org Douay-Rheims translation of this gives “With an iron pen and in a plate of lead, or else be graven with an instrument”. Interesting here is, that the soft C pronunciation of (Biblical) Latin seems typical of England (no Italian Ch sound like I’m used to singing in ‘liturgical Latin’)! Also interesting is that, where the online Oxford dictionary gives ‘Celt’ (“A member of a group of peoples”) a hard C, H.W. Fowler in A Dictionary of Modern English Usage (1950 rpt. of corrected 1937 rpt.: ed.1, 1926) says, “Th spelling C-, & the pronunciation s-, are the established ones, and no useful purpose seems to be served by the substitution of k-.”

  8. Brian Basore says

    JKR says she’s for the underdog but the running joke about Seamus is only one “Pat” away from being the Stage Irishman. In 1848 political cartoonists in Great Britain drew Irishmen with ape-like flat faces, or as apes. (Religion versus Evolution, and anti-Catholicism here, too.) The standard slur was the Irish were the missing link between the ape and the negro. I wonder if she knows that? When I was young and watching the Howdy Doody Show on TV, I didn’t know that the area on the studio set where the children sat, the Peanut Gallery, was also a reference to the Black section in theaters.

    Is there a school of magic in Ireland or Britanny so that magic can work properly in Gaelic? (I’d think Celtic magic would be older than, and different from, British magic. Also, if the British made fun of the many Scots Gaelic dialects in Scotland, why is Hogwarts in Scotland, and did Professor McGonnigle have trouble with magic before she learned to speak properly? Would an American at Hogwarts have trouble with proper pronunciation? Was this a problem at Ilveremorny as colonial British English became American English? None of the Wizarding folk in the Fantastic Beasts movie have UK accents. Can French speaking Canadians go to Ilvermorny? Pronunciation and magic may be more complicated as a subject than it first appears.

  9. Brian Basore says

    Oh, that’s right. Newt is the only UK person in the movie, and Queenie says she has trouble reading his mind and the minds of other UK wizard people.

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