The arrival of Louis van Gaal at Manchester United has inevitably brought the manager’s cultural traits to bear; a recent example regarding van Gaal’s use of baked goods terminology has previously been highlighted in this very blog.  And while debate over the suitability of van Gaal as manager – with all the outspoken character traits that come with – has largely subsided in recent months, debate over the pronunciation of his surname is something that wont entirely go away.

BBC Radio 5 Live confirmed on the 16th August that the official Manchester United Twitter account endorsed the hard ‘g’ pronunciation of Louis van Gaal’s surname, with many pundits, commentators and the public alternating between the hard ‘g’ /van gaal/ and the “silent” ‘g’ of /van haal/. The /van haal/ pronunciation has even been occasionally embellished with a throaty articulation, bringing to mind the hiss of a perturbed house cat.

Presumably part of the reasoning behind Manchester United’s decision to initially encourage a hard ‘g’ pronunciation is to draw a line through the whole matter and maintain some consistency in communications.  This is an English language interpretation of a Dutch name and there is nothing necessarily wrong about that practice – indeed, it has been seen in the example of Gustavo Poyet before now.

 

Gouw now brown cow

However, debate over how to pronounce van Gaal’s name is all the more bewildering when you recall the long and intermittent career of Raimond van der Gouw at Manchester United.  Personally, I can’t remember an official statement from Manchester United on how to pronounce van der Gouw at the time and, ultimately, the native pronunciation of van der Gouw became the received norm in the UK.  It wasn’t that long ago that van der Gouw was playing in the Premier League yet we are apparently quick to forget and, subsequently, open up the ‘g’ debate once more (a most frenzied and necessary debate in football, I’m sure you agree)*.

Rather coincidentally, Manchester United now have another goalkeeper who has a similar sounding name, despite it being of a different language. Pronunciation of David de Gea’s surname was debated in much the same way as van Gaal and, after three-and-a-half years at the club, there now seems an assumption that the ‘g’ in de Gea is silent, much like in the example of van der Gouw.  Indeed, the English approximation of de Gea’s surname tends toward pronouncing it as /de hay/ which is, again, another perfectly reasonable phonological variation, taking into consideration our phonological tendencies in British English toward words and sounds we are comfortable with (in this case, ‘hay’).

The received Spanish pronunciation of de Gea features a sound familiar to British ears – the voiceless velar fricative – a sound used in the Scottish English word ‘loch’ or heard in Liverpudlian and Welsh accents (the sound is also heard in the surname of fellow Manchester United player Marcos Rojo).  The Dutch pronunciation of van Gaal is similar to de Gea in that it uses the same part of the mouth – the velum, or the soft bit at the back of the roof – but the articulation is voiced rather than voiceless.

Diagram of speech organs

The difference between voiced and voiceless articulations can be demonstrated by alternating between ‘v’ and ‘f’ sounds, using your teeth and lips.  Both sounds are articulated in the same part of the mouth, the difference being the vibration – while it is heard in ‘v’, there is a breathier sound heard in ‘f’.  This is due to what is happening in your larynx.  The doorway to the larynx is the glottis, where we find the vocal folds. When the vocal folds are close but not tense, it causes a vibration effect on our speech.  When the vocal folds are more open, it creates a breathier sound.

 

Roll in de Gea

With the examples of de Gea and van Gaal, the difference is minimal and – frankly – not worth getting hot and bothered about.  But the voiced articulation in van Gaal’s name is not far from the sound of a hard ‘g’ – indeed, the voiced velar fricative is perhaps best demonstrated in the native Spanish pronunciation of ‘amigo’, further underlining a similarity in pronunciation of these two names, despite the difference in language.

Taking this into consideration, one can now see more sense behind Manchester United’s decision to put the debate to bed – the ‘g’ in van Gaal is almost a hard ‘g’, so just pronounce it as a hard ‘g’. Although I can well imagine van Gaal being the kind of character who would appreciate an informed attempt at pronouncing his surname correctly, under pain of a frosty glare otherwise.

 


* To further support the native Dutch pronunciations of van Gaal and van der Gouw, it is worth also heralding the work of Chelsea F.C. in highlighting this particular area of Dutch phonology; over the last twenty years, they have welcomed Ruud Gullit, Ed de Goey and Marco van Ginkel.  Perhaps the latter was only purchased for this very reason because, let’s face it, he’s done pretty much nothing at Stamford Bridge. Yet.