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Omicron

I do wonder why the scientists plucked omicron out of the alphabet for the latest variant, rather than working their way sequentially through the Greek alphabet. But I am also interested to discover that I appear to pronounce it differently from others, at least from the BBC. They say o-mi-cron, I say oh-my-cron, and I put the emphasis on the second syllable rather than the first.

This is not a new experience for me; I’m trying to remember what common word reduces my grandchildren to fits when I pronounce it, just as I could never understand why my mother pronounced ski as shee. Nor am I saying either is correct. You say potahto I say potayto… … (Forgive my ignorance of phonetic symbols, but my American friend, Dessa, and I never cease to marvel at the variations in our pronciation of common words, let alone differences in vocabulary.)

My familiarity with omicron goes back to childhood. In those days I could recite the entire Greek alphabet – I almost can today. Why? I think it was because it was a subject which cropped up regularly in our Sunday lunch family quiz game, known unoriginally as “Questions”. Apart from Greek and Roman mythology, other gems I can remember were the ability to identify Italian Renaissance painters by their relative dates and location, and even more obscure, the battles of the War of Spanish Succession. (There again, I can still remember the battles of Blenheim, Ramillies, Oms and Malplaquet, though their dates and significance elude me.)

My dad was the quiz master and he adjusted the questions according to our relative ages. Given his background (classics and politics) I fear there may have been a relative absence of scientific questions. There was certainly an abundance of questionably useful facts. My brother, Daniel, was a sponge for facts and dates, though this did not help him much a few years later in the TV show, ‘University Questions’.

Going back to pronunciation differences, it seems to me that often these may be words which entered the English language from other cultures (potato and tomato from South America, for example). Then again the English language is such a mishmash of other languages that pretty well everything came from somewhere else originally. Sometimes the language is so ancient, nobody knows the correct way to pronounce things. I have one Latin teacher at school who said Veni, Vidi, Vici with a w and a hard k. Then my (Sudeten Deutsch) Latin teacher used a v and ch.

I always feel so sorry for foreigners learning how to say all the English words ending in ough. In contrast, I’m struck by how French pronunciation conforms to basic rules much of the time. We may find it difficult to get round the rrr sound or to distinguish between ou and u, but there is a perceived correct way to pronounce these, albeit with regional variations.

We are all guilty of deciding to give other people’s countries and towns a local pronunciation. Why on earth, for example do the French insist on calling our capital Londres while we refuse to pronounce theirs Paree?

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