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Do you try to pronounce physics terms as they sound in their language of origin?

By Hamish Johnston

German words in the physicist's lexicon. (Image by Mathew Ward)

German words in the physicist’s lexicon. (Image by Mathew Ward)

Like many disciplines, physics incorporates words from a number of different languages – and this can often leave a physicist tongue-tied.

How should a native English speaker pronounce Einstein, for example? Should it be the Germanic “Ein-shtein” or the anglicized “Ein-stein”? How should one say De Broglie, Raman or Bernoulli? Should a native English speaker even attempt zitterbewegung, or translate it to “trembling motion”?

I’m sure that some physics terms of English origin are tricky for native speakers of other languages, and their pronunciations are sometimes adjusted accordingly.

Some believe that making an effort to use the original pronunciation shows respect and knowledge of the origin of a word. Others are happy to use the pronunciation they are most comfortable with.

In this week’s Facebook poll, we want to know what you think.

Do you try to pronounce physics terms as they sound in their language of origin?

It depends who I’m speaking to

Have your say by taking part in this week’s Facebook poll. As always, please feel free to explain your answer by posting a comment on Facebook or below this post.

In last week’s poll we asked whether you agree with the principle of academic boycotts. The question arose in response to Stephen Hawking’s decision to boycott a prominent conference in Jerusalem in protest against the policies of the Israeli government. The outcome of the poll was very close, with 51% saying “yes” and the remaining 49% saying “no”. The poll also attracted a lively discussion on our Facebook page, with several people expressing disappointment that Hawking will not be attending the conference in Jerusalem. One Facebook follower, Frank DiSalle, wrote “I view it as an oxymoron. The purpose of attending a scientific convention or seminar is either a worthy one or it is not. Where it is being held is irrelevant.”

Hawking had been set to talk at the 5th annual Israeli Presidential Conference but had changed his mind following correspondence with Palestinian academics. This U-turn disappointed another of our Facebook followers, Jefferson Stafusa Elias Portela, who wrote “I think Hawking should have gone and made the declarations against Israeli politics he meant to do…or not. If other scientists are boycotting it and asking him not to go, his mere presence there would seem to have more of a meaning than anything he said.”

Thank you for your participation in the poll and we hope to hear from you again this week.

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  1. James Turner

    Yes, I do, mostly — but I don’t use Facebook… How do you know there isn’t a correlation between pronunciation in native language and non-usage of Facebook???

    • John Duffield

      Doubtless because they checked that out with the people who “follow us on twitter”.

  2. Hamish Johnston

    Hi James

    As we have pointed out before, our polls are highly unscientific and any correlations can be ascribed to spooky action — or spukhafte if you like!


  3. Julio Herrera

    I answered yes, but if there’s a good translation, I’d rather use it when speaking in English or Spanish. I guess there wouldn’t be so much problem with “bremsstrahlung,” but how many people would recognise “zustandsumme”? Then, there’s the problem that translations may vary from country to country. Using Boyer’s example, “gauge” is often translated as “calibre” in many Spanish speaking countries, while in Mexico it’s translated as “norma,” Which some people believe is more adequate.

  4. Olly Price

    I have no preference. I pronounce names like Einstein and Bernoulli in my English pronunciation, but then I pronounce De Broglie as De Broy and Huygens as Hoy-ghens – their pronunciations of origin. However, I tend to try to pronounce technical terms in their pronunciation of origin. I’m not sure why, perhaps if I get told the correct pronunciation upon hearing the word, then I pronounce it correctly thereafter.

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