Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Is it hard for you to pronounce the word Queequeg?

This is not meant to be accusatory. Just curious.

Back in 2001, my brother Tim Watts named their dog Queequeg, after the face-tattooed Maori harpooner in Moby Dick. As far as I know, the name is pronounced "Kwee-kwegg." We've had Queequeg living at our house in Maine since fall 2008. He likes it. I think.

But I have noticed, upon introducing Queequeg to various folks around town, that many people have a hard time pronouncing his name, even after I repeat it to them slowly, one syllable at a time. Some of them literally give up.

I've never found this name, Queequeg, a hard name or word to pronounce, at least as we pronounce it. But apparently a lot of people find it very frustrating to vocalize. I wonder why.

I'm not sure where or how Herman Melville came up with the word, or if it is actually the name of a Maori harpooner he might have met or heard of during his whaling days, or even if we are pronouncing it correctly.

But it does get me to thinking about my friend Ralph Keef of Hermon, Maine, outside of Bangor. Ralph was president of the Maine Council of the Atlantic Salmon Federation during the late 1990s when I was the secretary. At that time, I was living where I do now, in Augusta, on the lower Kennebec River, and I had a project I was trying to bring to fruition which involved removing a small, 19th century dam on Cobbosseecontee Stream in downtown Gardiner, Maine. And Ralph, God love him, could not pronounce the word Cobbosseecontee, and he would always ask me at meetings to pronounce the word for him when that item came up on our agenda.

And he didn't even want to touch Passagassawaukeg, the stream running into Belfast Bay in Belfast, Maine. And he definitely didn't want to touch Sedgeunkedunk, the stream running into the Penobscot River in South Brewer, across the river from Bangor.

All these names are Abenaki Indian place names, of course, and the latter two are Penobscot with a bit of Passamaquoddy language thrown in, since the two languages are quite closely related. Once you get the hang of how to let the repeating syllables roll off your tongue, they are very easy to say quickly. Since Abenaki was never a written language, the words Cobbosseecontee, Passagassawaukeag and Sedgeunkedunk are nothing more or less than phonetic depictions of how they were spoken by native speakers, like a paper map with lines and arrows of how to get to someone's house, as in the map is not the territory. Just a map.

This makes me wonder if there are some cultural barriers to pronouncing words, as in if some combinations of syllables are literally harder for some people to pull off than they are for other people. Certainly in French, there is a set of nasal and mid-throat sounds, like in the first names Raoul or Real or Guillaume, which are not easy for English speaking people to master since English has no spoken words that utilize these vocalizations. It's almost like a guitarist used to playing blues in E natural and suddenly has to play a polka song in C# minor. Everything goes haywire and nothing is familiar.


When I ran for the Maine Legislature in 2000 I did door to door visits all over Sand Hill in Augusta, which is the old French and Franco-Canadian section of town, where for the older set, French is their first and preferred language. On one nice sunny fall afternoon I stopped at the house of Real Doyon, who was mowing his lawn. I had his name on my voting list so I asked him if he was Real Doyon and introduced myself, and in doing so completely mangled both his first and last name. He was very patient and friendly and taught me how to pronounce his name but I still mangled it and I was very embarrassed.

Suffice to say that there is no way to write in letters or syllables how to properly pronounce Real Doyon, except that it is pronounced nothing like it is spelled. Basically you have to ignore all the consonants and pronounce all the vowels completely differently than they look. I can sort of do it now, but certainly not as well as Real Doyon can. But at least he was nice about it.

UPDATE: There is good authority that Abenaki Indians in Maine during the Contact Period had a very hard time saying English words with the phoneme "r" within them and pronounced them with an "ell" sound. And obviously, as anyone from eastern New England knows, the phoneme "r" in the middle of word is silent, as in pahk the cah, whereas the same speakers freely use the phoneme "r" when it begins a word, as in railroad yahd. My brother Tim uses the typical southeastern Massachusetts dialect, such as pronouncing "effort" as "effitt", here.


Anonymous said...


Lori Watts said...

I have often had this thought, about Queequeg's name. It's only two syllables and contains no unfamiliar or illegal (in English) phonemes, such as sr. However, since he can neither pronuonce it nor spell it, and is happy to accept attention regardless of the name he is called by, I tell perfect strangers his name is "Buddy." Saves a lot of time on explanations.

Anonymous said...

I had the most difficult time trying to say a friends name when he first told me! It was Karam, ( said like car om) I kept saying "crumb" or "Quron". But when I finally got it right it seemed so easy and natural to say that I now can't understand why I had trouble with it at all!

mermaidmandy0409 said...

I'm from Maine, I had friends from Hermon. None of us had problems saying it. I guess it's an individual thing, some people can and some can't?

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