oo or u

A document referred to the “Pashtoon” people of Afghanistan, which is the spelling used in the applicant’s written submissions. The usual spelling is Pashtun, and quotations from other sources in the document used that spelling. 

The advantage of using <u> instead of <oo> is that it’s one less letter. The disadvantage is that the default pronunciation of <u> is /ʌ/, so Pashtun would possibly rhyme with Dunne, whereas the default pronunciation of <oo> is /u:/, so it would definitely rhyme with Doone

According to Google Ngrams, Pashtoon dates from 1945 and 1953, which is puzzling, given the British wars in Afghanistan from 1839 (maybe they were just Afghans or natives in those days, because there was no reason to distinguish any one group from any other). The two spellings were used about the same until Pashtun became the preferred spelling from the 1980s (the Soviet invasion) and especially 2005 (the US invasion).

Compare Hindoo and Hindu, where there is no ambiguity of pronunciation: <u> at the end of a word can only be /u:/. The two spellings were used about the same until Hindu became the preferred spelling from the 1940s (leading up to Indian independence). 

Two more words which spring to mind are igloo (Inuit) and kangaroo (Guugu Yimithirr). Igloo is now linguistically transcribed as iglu, while the first recorded spelling of kangaroo was kanguru (Joseph Banks) and the linguistically reconstructed spelling is gangurru. (Various other spellings were used along the way.) Needless to say, the standard and most common spellings in English are igloo and kangaroo (and Pashtun and Hindu). While the plural of iglu is igluit and the plural of gangurru is gangurru-ngay (Haviland 1979),  the plurals in English are igloos and kangaroos (though Linus van Pelt attempted to make igli out of eggshells). Note that in Inuit, iglu refers to any kind of house, while in Guugu Yimithirr, gungurru refers to one specific species of macropod. Also, the people of the Sydney region had no idea what the British were talking about when they used this North Queensland word.

There are also the Chinese names Hu and Hoo, Wu and Woo, which seem to be interchangeable, but for some reason Hoo Jintao looks less presidential than Hu Jintao. Korean 문 can be Mun (ambiguous) or Moon (unambiguous, but possibly causing confusion with the the identically-spelled English word). I once had a colleague with the first name Mun (rhyming with Dunne), who I think was of Malay or Singapore Chinese heritage.

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2 thoughts on “oo or u

  1. I find the “oo” spelling rather embarrassing and redolent of old prejudices about Asians; similarly for the “ee” spelling of the “i” sound. I can see “Moon” as an exception because it is an instance of spelling a Korean name like the corresponding English word, like “Young”, even though it doesn’t follow the standard transcription rules. (The Reverend Sun Myung Moon comes to mind, as having two heavenly bodies in his name.)

    As for “kangaroo”, I guess the old story about it being an indigenous word for “I don’t know” or “I don’t understand you” is more or less defunct now?

    I wondered if a similar story could apply to “llama.” Perhaps a Spanish explorer pointed to the animal and asked the native resident “¿Como se llama?” and the native resident just echoed the final word out of incomprehension?

    Liked by 2 people

    • To me, names with ee or i seem to work differently than those with oo or u. Kee and Ki feel the same but the former would be more likely to be Chinese and the latter Korean. Conversely, Lee feels Korean (or Singapore (Lee Kwan Yew*)/Hong Kong) and Li mainland.

      * I first typed You. I didn’t consider Yoo, Yu or other alternatives in my post. Chinese names are complicated by the fact that the same character is pronounced differently in different regions.

      In North Queensland, Cook, Banks and Parkinson collected about 150 words. If one of them meant ‘What on earth are you talking about?’, it surely would have cropped up multiple times during the process. Banks even explains: “Our acquaintance with them was of so short a duration that none of us attempted to use a single word of it to them, consequently the list of words I have given could be got no other manner than by signs enquiring of them what in their Language signified such a thing, a method obnoxious to many mistakes … To avoid however as much as Possible this inconvenience Myself and 2 or 3 more got from them as many words as we could, and having noted down those which we though[t] from circumstances we were not mistaken in we compard our lists; those in which all the lists agreed, or rather were contradicted by none, we thought our selves moraly certain not to be mistaken in. Of these my list cheefly consists, some only being added that were in only one list such as from the ease with which signs might be contrivd to ask them were thought little less certain than the others.”
      Also, the linguist John Haviland spent some time in the community in the 1960s-70s, and confirmed the animal’s name.

      Liked by 1 person

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