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The question changed during the formulation from

What is the correct 'British English' pronunciation of Van Gogh?

to

Is there such a thing as a 'correct' English pronunciation of a Dutch name -- specifically of Van Gogh?

Failing that, is there at least a commonly accepted convention? For personal usage I'm interested in 'British English' variants including Irish English, but extra padding concerning US variants would not go amiss.

Wikipedia gives the correct Dutch IPA pronunciation as [ˈvɪnsɛnt ˈʋɪləm vɑŋ ˈɣɔx] and even has an audio file of same.

The solution might be to use the correct Dutch pronunciation, but it doesn't sit naturally with me. This answer on the ELU site made me think there might not be a definitive answer.

Another consideration is that there is often no one established “correct” pronunciation for foreign names in English. Usually for famous or well-known people, some kind of conventional pronunciation is established over time, but what that pronunciation will be is not always predictable. Some people try to pronunce names as close to the original language as they can. This means that it would be difficult to figure out how to spell these names if it was based on how English speakers pronounce them


Google wasn't as helpful as I thought it would be. Several sites gave the correct Dutch pronunciation and noted that English native speakers (both sides of the Atlantic) pronounced it incorrectly. But then I found an ever so British perspective

Something that drives British people absolutely bonkers is hearing an American "mispronounce" the name of Dutch post-impressionist Vincent van Gogh. Pangs of rage fill up the collective consciousness as the nation retorts in one voice: "it's VAN-GOFF, not VAN-GO!"

Though not a big fan of the style of the piece, as an Irish English-speaker this is also the pronunciation I use. So can I assume in British and Irish English usage that Van Gogh rhymes with cough??

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    I suspect you're right. On a side note, there are many different ways the name can be pronounced in Dutch, as there are many different accents. In standard Dutch, it would be more like /xɔx/. In the south, where I believe he came from, it will be more like /ɣɔx/. A map of various Dutch dialects around the world, many of which are not even mutually comprehensible: external-preview.redd.it/… The number indicates the linguistic distance from standard Dutch. – Cerberus_Reinstate_Monica Aug 17 '19 at 20:02
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    Let it drive you crazy, but I've never heard anything other than "van go" on this side of the pond. Occasionally it's pronounced with a slight throat-clearing "gh" sound at the end, but the sound is rarely emphasized. – Hot Licks Aug 17 '19 at 20:18
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    @HorLicks - That could mean either side. – nnnnnn Aug 17 '19 at 22:42
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    @JohnLawler: Have you really read the question? – Cerberus_Reinstate_Monica Aug 17 '19 at 22:43
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    To my ears the standard British pronunciation is more like Goch (to rhyme with loch) than Goff. – Kate Bunting Aug 18 '19 at 7:58
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There's an interesting note on the Wikipedia entry:

The pronunciation of Van Gogh varies in both English and Dutch. Especially in British English it is /ˌvæn ˈɡɒx/ or sometimes /ˌvæn ˈɡɒf/. American dictionaries list /ˌvæn ˈɡoʊ/, with a silent gh, as the most common pronunciation. In the dialect of Holland, it is [ˈvɪnsɛnt fɑŋˈxɔx], with a voiceless v and g. He grew up in Brabant and used Brabant dialect in his writing; his own pronunciation was thus likely [vɑɲˈʝɔç], with a voiced v and palatalised g and gh. In France, where much of his work was produced, it is [vɑ̃ ɡɔɡ(ə)].

I would have put this as a comment but it's too long and I didn't feel I should truncate it.

When I listened to the sound file file there, I was surprised it was so different from the 2 variants (van go and van goff) I've previously heard people debating.

I removed the cross-references from the quote but see original note at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vincent_van_Gogh#cite_note-6

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It may not be correct, but in my experience as a native south Londoner the name is pronounced GOFF. There's a recent meme showing the artist not being able to wear a face mask properly, as you see it hanging from his remaining ear.

This pronunciation has probably stuck due to its use in a lot of British humour. Consider this example:

The scene is the back yard of an art gallery. Two men come out of the gallery carrying boxes. Their delivery van has been driven away. "Where the van go?" asks one, "it's van goff, not van go you tart," says the other.

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  • Another version of the joke that butchers even more artists' names: Did you hear about the poor art thieves' failed heist? They got caught in the getaway because they didn't have the Monet to buy Degas to make the Van Gogh. – Nuclear Hoagie Mar 9 at 15:36
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Here is the best round-up I have found on this issue:

CNN, Emma Reynolds

How do you pronounce "Van Gogh"? You're probably saying it wrong, according to insiders at the launch of an interactive exhibition on the artist in London. The "Meet Vincent van Gogh" experience on London's South Bank promises "breathtaking projections, interactive installations, state-of-the-art set-work and a compelling narrative" as it transports the viewer through the Dutch artist's life.

But the audio guide for the installation, created by the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, has raised a few eyebrows because it gives the artist's last name as "Van Go," the typical American pronunciation. In Britain, people tend to say "Van Gof."

The guide's choice of "Van Go" sparked discussion at the news conference between the Dutch ambassador to the UK, Simon Smits; Adriaan Dönszelmann, managing director of the Van Gogh Museum; and the artist's great-grandnephew, Willem van Gogh.

Martin Bailey, author of "Starry Night: Van Gogh at the Asylum," told CNN Style there are yet more variations on the name across the world -- and it even affected how the legendary artist signed his paintings. 10 most famous paintings in the world "There's an audio guide you go around with (at the London exhibition) and they pronounce it 'Go,' as they do in America," said Bailey, who writes a blog about Van Gogh for The Art Newspaper.

"English people say 'Gof,' the French say 'Gog' and the Japanese say it differently, too. The Dutch pronounce it with a guttural sound -- 'Khokh.'

"It is always very difficult to know how to pronounce -- it's not easy for someone English or American, we just don't have that sound. Then it sounds pedantic if you insist on the Dutch pronunciation." Van Gogh regularly traveled around Europe, moving to London to work as an art dealer when he was 20, and living in France. His paintings are all simply signed "Vincent," and the artist is often named as Mr. Vincent or Monsieur Vincent in letters and documents. "He always wanted to be 'Vincent' because the French and English couldn't pronounce his name," said Bailey.

Two stolen Van Gogh paintings are finally returning to public view after 17 years In a letter to his brother Theo in March 1888, soon after Van Gogh moved to Arles in France, he explained that "in future my name must be put in the catalog the way I sign it on the canvases, i.e. Vincent and not Van Gogh, for the excellent reason that people here wouldn't be able to pronounce that name." The Van Gogh Museum has even created a video in which it asks visitors from across the world how they pronounce Van Gogh.

So what are we to do if Van Gogh is simply too hard to say? Bailey has a suggestion. "I tend to do a slight fudge," he said. "Something between the English, French and Dutch."

              ---- *** -----

My advice is that if you can make the proper back-of-throat sound of that kh of the Dutch ending, please feel free to do so. :)

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Is there such a thing as a 'correct' English pronunciation of a Dutch name -- specifically of Van Gogh?

This is one of the simpler questions. The convention is: The correct pronunciation of anyone's name is the way that they pronounce it.

There is no English, French, Russian, etc., pronunciation that can be described as "correct" - if it is not exactly as the owner of the name pronounces it then, regardless of the native language of the speaker, it is wrong or, at best, an approximation or a guess.

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  • Can you add anything about the particular name here? How did Van Gogh pronounce it? – Mitch Mar 9 at 14:07
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    You'd lose a mark for spelling Germany 'Deutschland' in an English essay, and probably for pronouncing 'Paris' the French way in an English oral test. You're choosing a subjective sense of 'correct'. – Edwin Ashworth Mar 9 at 15:40
  • @EdwinAshworth You would certainly lose many marks for answering a question on pronunciation with remarks on spelling. Germans do not pronounce "Germany" as "Deutschland." -- You're choosing a subjective sense of 'correct'. On the contrary, I have given you the conventional and objective test for the "correct" pronunciation of any name: it can be tested against an absolutely correct source. – Greybeard Mar 9 at 16:13
  • @Mitch The internet provides us with this: vangoghstudio.com/how-do-you-pronounce-van-gogh – Greybeard Mar 9 at 16:23
  • The link you've given states 'There is no right or wrong.' And also ' So did Van Gogh’s parents and his governess speak with a hard g in 1850 as they do in The Hague, Benschop and Kampen nowadays? Probably.. not!' Or are you cherry-picking there too? – Edwin Ashworth Mar 9 at 16:25
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As in loch. English-born , as opposed to Scottish-born, people can learn to pronounce loch correctly with practice. As with any non native language speaker, sounds outside the native language have to be acquired with practice. Welsh presents the same problem for non native speakers.

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  • How does this answer the question? It’s a pretty unclear question, but it seems to relate to usage rather than learning Dutch. A really trick question is how do the Dutch pronounce Hieronymus Bosch? Not the way it’s pronounced in either England or Scotland. – David Jul 17 '20 at 20:27
  • Fair comment. Most British people I know pronounce it as in Van Goch. Goff is based on English ‘cough’, although it might just as easily have been ‘bough’. Go is, I assume, from ‘though’. And same comment applies. I don’t speak Dutch, so can’t say about Bosch, other than admit I’ve always said Bosh! – Liz Thompson Jul 18 '20 at 12:18
  • — I agree. I have never heard anything other than Goch rhymes with loch, in England or Scotland. I’m not sure how the Dutch pronounce it, and certainly wouldn’t change if it’s different from how I do. I looked down my nose at the yanks when I first heard van Go, but the smugness was wiped off my face when I was corrected in the Netherlands for saying Bosh instead of (wait for it) Boss. It appears there was a sound change in the North Germanic sphere, and although modern Dutch spelling reflects this, the spelling of surnames, especially historical figures has been retained. – David Jul 18 '20 at 13:21
  • I shall endeavour to remember it’s Boss! Thanks David. – Liz Thompson Jul 19 '20 at 14:58
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    — Add it to your store of useless information. I worked in The Netherlands for a couple of months which is why I know. I wouldn't dream of using standard British pronunciation at home though. I haven't checked out Van Gough, but the tricky thing in any case is the G sound. The Dutch for good day is "goede dag" which looks similar to the German (guten tag). Whereas the German is easy enough to approximate to, both g's in the Dutch are almost impossible. The first is something like a Y and the second a bit like the ch in loch. How they laughed at me! – David Jul 19 '20 at 15:19
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Pronunciation should be correct, and it should be understood by your peers. These can be opposing demands. Correct pronunciation is useless if nobody else knows what or who you are talking about. In the case of Dutch words, I would add that you should pronounce a word in such a way that saying it doesn't cause you damage.

Goch pronounced the same way that a Scottish person would pronounce Loch (Ness, for example) comes reasonably close to the correct way (although many Dutch people would disagree). It's definitely not like the gh in laugh or cough - but then lots of English people would have problems with the ch in Loch, so "van Gogh" with the same gh as in cough will be understood correctly by many.

If Americans say "Go" like the gh in "though", that's slightly worse than the English "Cough" in my opinion - no consonant is worse than the wrong one, and I bet they get the "O" wrong as well.

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  • Are you saying that the Dutch damage themselves when they speak? How does that work exactly? – tchrist Aug 18 '19 at 14:14
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    @tchrist The Dutch are trained from a very young age to produce certain sounds - hence they don't hurt themselves a lot when they do it. Asking foreigners to pronounce certain Dutch sounds is the linguistic equivalent of asking a normal grown-up to fold their legs behind their head; there are people that can do that without damaging themselves, but doesn't mean everybody should give it a go :) – oerkelens Aug 18 '19 at 14:52
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    @oerkelens it appears that with respect to R, Dutch children get a break because of where the TV studios are located. :) – tchrist Aug 18 '19 at 15:10

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