Tuesday, October 04, 2016

Why on earth is Toews pronounced "Tayvz" anyway?

Having just finished an early novel by Miriam Toews, and watched Canada handily retain the World Cup of Hockey partly thanks to the sterling services of Jonathan Toews, I got to idly wondering why the name Toews should be pronounced "Tayvz" (or perhaps "Taves") anyway.
It turns out to be one of those weird historical quirks of pronunciation, similar to the way that the name Ralph is sometimes pronounced "Rayf", or St. John "Sinjin", or Beauchamp "Beecham", in some upper class English circles, and the Oxbridge colleges of Caius and Magdalen are pronounced the same as the common words "Keys" and "Maudlin", or for that matter Leicester is "Lester", Worcester is "Wuster", etc. Except in this case it is a weird historical quirk of Anglicized-Dutch-German pronunciation.
Novelist Miriam Toews, hockey-player Jonathan Toews, and rather obnoxious ex-politician Vic Toews, are not related, or at least not closely. But they do all hail from Manitoba, and trace their roots back to Mennonite families. Toews is a common Mennonite Low German name, originally of Russian or Dutch Mennonite origin, and many Mennonites historically settled in the Winnipeg area of Manitoba, as well as in Southern Ontario, Saskatchewan, and some parts of the American Midwest.
That may well be, you might say, but surely that's no excuse for mangling the pronunciation as "Tayvs", is it? Well, the best explanation I have found is the following:
The original Dutch name was "van Toovs" which became 'Töws" at some point when the family sought refuge in Germany. The German letter "ö" (with an umlaut) is sometimes rendered as "oe", for example where the typing of the accented letter is not possible, a change which often becomes permanent (e.g. Schröder/Schroeder, Schönberg/Schoenberg, etc).
As for the pronunciation, the initial "T" and the trailing "s" are, thankfully, pretty straightforward. The "w" is pronounced, in the usual German way, as a "v", as in  wunderbar ("vunderbar"), and, yes, Volkswagen ("wolksvagen"). The "oe" or "ö" is a German vowel unlike anything in English, and is pronounced kind of like saying the long "a" in make, but with rounded lips, as though actually saying the long "u" in "rude" (try it, you will see what I mean). As English-speakers are very uncomfortable with anything as foreign-sounding as that, the "oe" in Toews typically comes out more like just a plain long "a" (as in "make"). The final result? "Tayvz".

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