It appears that incantations need to be spoken in a particular way to work out in the Potterverse. Imagine, for instance, that you have an issue (bureaucratic, with your exams, with obstructive adults in general) which you believe can only be solved with a well-timed Imperius Curse. Now I know both Italian and Spanish, so first I will wonder if the right pronunciation to make the spell most effective will be in Spanish /im-PE-rio/ or in Italian /im-PÊ-ri-o/, with a longer and more nasal, darker /ê/ sound, and whether the last two vowels form a diphthong /io/ or a hiatus /i-o/. It appears that reading the incantation is not enough. A timely YouTubing of Fake Moody in the Goblet of Fire film (even though bona fide Death Eaters frown at postmodern technologies) is enough to dispel these doubts. I hear him say /im-PII-ri-ow/ and watch the motion of his right hand holding the wand (even though I'm a leftie), and my head is clear at last.
Speaking of which...
I get always pissed when they say Sandra DeNmark. I mean, I must always explain that it's DeRmark with an R; from the German genitive "der Mark" ("of the Margraviate," ie Brandenburg, the Prussian heartland). My senpai Liza Pluijter (pronounced /PLÖY-ter/) has a similar but harder problem, and always has to spell her surname after saying it loud.
Like me (and that's only the very first similarity), Liza is a pan-European third-culture individual who has literally got Spanish for a mother tongue and a Germanic father tongue. I think Han Pluijter must have got as used as Sten Dermark to people getting his surname right; I understand only written Dutch and spoken Dutch confuses me -- and I bet Liz has the same issues with written Swedish and spoken Swedish.
One needs a complete grasp of the language to understand what certain sounds match the corresponding letters. It's why third-culture children glean more phonemes more easily.
I mean, some languages have an 1:1 phoneme-morpheme (ie sound-letter) correspondence, and others have not. French has got lots of those lovely-sounding nasal Ns and rolling Rs, and the three-letter combination E-A-U is meant to be pronounced like /aww/. Three vowels in a row for a single-syllable word, for a single vocalic sound.
On the other side of the spectrum, there are things like Cyrillic languages. Cyrillic letters, like those in Spanish, generally correspond to one phoneme alone. Now below is a place name (hint: it's in Ukraine):
ПолтаваIt says Poltava, and it's pronounced /pol-TA-va/. Even a person who knows very few Cyrillic letters sees the initial is a pi (the Greek letter), aside from the T, the As, and the L-like letter. Reading the names of Westerosi characters in Russian (the saga is rather popular in Eastern Europe) poses no problem to me either. It's easy to guess who Санса Старк and Лорас Тирелл are, who Игритт and Тайвин Ланнистер are as well (though the Russians and other Cyrillic speakers say /TAI-vin/ for "Tywin" for want of a /w/ sound). Knowing a few letters is like the Rosetta stone of Cyrillic, and the pronunciation cannot be easier.
On the other side of the spectrum, we have some British place names and surnames, like, for instance:
Before you feel tempted to think it's a mouthful of /FE-der-STOWN-HAWW/, it's actually far easier to say than "chubby bunny". This surname is pronounced /FAN-shaww/. Far further than the Russian /TAI-vin/ for Tywin, in which only a phoneme has changed.
Ditto for Wriothesley /RAIZ-li/ ("Risely"), Marjoribanks /MARCH-banks/ or /MARSH-banks/... Marylebone /MAR-ly-BONE/...
but it's far even more complicated in Welsh: Llewellyn /flu-EF-len/ (more or less), Llanelli /flan-EF-lii/, Ruislip /RAIZ-lip/ ("Riselip"), and, for a more extreme case, the more or less infamous Welsh village name Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch (no phonetic transcription needed). Mind that it has to be shortened in everyday use to a simple Llanfairpwll /FLAN-vayr-pufl/.
Welsh phonetics makes even the vowel clusters in lieutenant /leftenant/ and Pluijter /plöyter/, in which a single phoneme is altered as well, look as simple as /TAI-vin/ for Tywin... remember that, in Welsh, ch is a /kh/ sound as in "Bach", ll is /fl/ and f is /v/, ai is /ay/ as in Kai or pie, and ui equals the same /ay/ sound...
But the most extreme examples come from Far Eastern Asian script, or, as they say themselves,
/KAN-dji/, "kanji." From on now we will use transcriptions of kanji pronunciations into Latin letters. The second symbol, the "ji," 字 means (among maaaany other things), "sign" (any kind of sign). And the first symbol specifies that these are "kan signs." Back to the ji, this ji in kanji is meant to represent a child under a roof (or any other covering). A child under a roof.
大学This second combination means "university" and is pronounced /daigaku/. Notice the similarity between the "gaku" ("learning, education:" also a child under a roof, but with two extra strokes to the left and right) and the "ji." The first kanji means "great (big, large... any word for the concept)". So we can say it translates literally to something like "great educational institute," and what are universities? You get the picture. Asian children are immersed in kanji since early childhood, and by the time they make it to university, they must have acquired tens of thousands of kanji, two thousand and a half of which they learned in primary school. The order of the brush or pen strokes must also be precise, a kanji must be always written right (their kanji misspellings are more frowned upon than writing, let's say, "mispeling," with a single S and a single L!), and the laziest among them envy us Europeans for only having twenty-something letters to learn.
But of course we need to go the extra mile and offer some pièce de résistance the size of Featherstonehaugh /FAN-shaww/ or Тайвин Ланнистер /TAY-vin LAN-nister/. Just to see the extremes at which the outrageousness of it all can get.
But first we need to explain about onyomi and kunyomi. The onyomi reading of a kanji is typically one syllable long, while the kunyomi reading has more than one syllable. Onyomi is most typically used in compound words. So, for instance, this lone 女 reads "onna," while the same kanji as the second component of 王女 is the final "jo" in "ójo/oujo." The former ("onna") is the kunyomi reading while the latter ("jo") is the onyomi reading. The kunyomi reading is always taught first at school, while the onyomi reading requires a little more experience.
This is a compound word taught in secondary-school life sciences, whose three components the schoolteens will already know from their primary kid years, and which, if they don't know the proper pronunciation, they will surely mispronounce.
左心室Now take a breather. After the breather we'll return to the kanji.
Any school teen who comes across this term in life science class will recognize the first kanji 左
as meaning "left" (as in the opposite of right), the second 心 as meaning "heart," and the third 室 as meaning "room/chamber." They have seen these three kanji as many times as we Westerners the same young age have seen the three corresponding words in Latin letters and in our mother tongue. But someone who's only read this combination of kanji and not heard them out loud is most likely to get it wrong. They will read it all in kunyomi: "hidari kokoro shitsu." It's only the LAST kanji that reads in kunyomi. The first two kanji read in onyomi, rendering the compound word "sashinshitsu," ie "left ventricle" (which appears to have developed in parallel to its Germanic equivalents, which literally translate to the same: Sv. "vänster hjärtkammare", De. "linke Herzkammer", Ís. "vinstra hjartahvolf"...).
That's a great diversity as far as 1:1 correspondences between morphemes and phonemes go. My child self would never have guessed the meaning nor the pronunciation of any of the kanji combinations introduced here.