How do you pronounce "Helsinki?" A simple question made hard

Every now and again I get an email from the language officials at the Institute for the Languages of Finland (Kotimaisten Kielten Kesus, or Kotus, in Finnish) asking questions about English, usually about how English words are (or should be) used in the Finnish context. These questions are always brainteasers -- and I am happy to answer them -- but this time I got an especially interesting one.

Elina from Kotus wrote, "Should Helsinki be pronounced according to Finnish, ie according to the source language, or can it be considered that the name has a well-established pronunciation adapted to English?" In German, for example, she specifies further, Helsinki is pronounced [helziŋki] -- that is, with a "z" sound instead of an "s." Kotus had received feedback, she wrote, about the pronunciation of the name "Helsinki" in English announcements on the train and metro. What is the correct pronunciation? What pronunciation do we teach to English majors at the University?

How to pronounce Helsinki in English? This is a very exciting question, because when it comes right down to it, it is a question of language attitudes. Ask 10 people -- even 10 linguists -- and you are sure to get up to 10 different answers.

As Elina already pointed out, one choice would be to use the pronunciation of the source language, which, crucially, places the stress on the first syllable of the word: HELsinki. Stress placement is a critical component of making meaning in a language like English, so the ears of English speakers are especially tuned into this. Stress difference makes or breaks different meaning -- think of English word pairs like PERmit vs perMIT, where stress is the decisive factor telling if the word is a noun or a verb. (Such pairs are quite difficult for speakers of other languages to grasp hold of in English, including Finnish speakers. Word stress simply doesn't play such a significant role in Finnish, so the ears of Finnish speakers don't need to be so tuned into it. We naturally tune into what is important in our own language.) Multisyllabic words in English have a tendency to favor penultimate stress, or in other words stress on the second to last syllable. The word Helsinki is no exception: English speakers naturally put the stress on the middle syllable so that it sounds like HelSINKi. This sounds very different from the Finnish pronunciation of HELsinki, and for English speakers it could be potentially confusing, given the importance of primary word stress in making meaning. While this is unlikely scenario, what this could mean is that an English tourist is riding a metro in Helsinki and hears the announcement "Next stop is University of HELsinki" and momentarily wonders "Oh dear, does that mean the same thing as HelSINKi?" -- and misses the stop.

So what, then, is the correct placement of stress? Elina makes a good point in her email: we have a choice, use either the Finnish pronunciation (HELsinki) or the English (HelSINKi). There is no right answer, unfortunately. In English speaking contexts, I tend to use the English pronunciation, but I am fully aware that I alternate back and forth. When it comes to teaching our University students a "right" way to pronounce the word, I am not aware of this ever being specifically taught, although I assume most students know that English speakers pronounce the word as HelSINKi. (Comes to think of, this would make a good class activity--to find out who uses which pronunciation in English.)

But there was more to Elina's question. She also wanted to know about the pronunciation of the vowel in the first syllable in Helsinki. Oh boy, vowels are a tricky business. It is generally accepted that English speakers use a greater range of vowel sounds than Finnish speakers, although this varies widely, of course, depending on which variety of English (say, Scottish English compared to Jamaican English). Also, Finnish speakers actually use more vowel sounds than the textbooks would have you believe. So in the word Helsinki, for example, I would place the target vowel in the mid central region, or in the words this symbol: /ɜː/. That said, the Finnish pronunciation in particular probably goes more toward the front mid central region, or in other words this symbol: /e/. These sounds can be very hard for the naked ear to distinguish, and they vary widely across dialects. For example, many speakers of English say the word egg so that it sounds more like aig, while for others it has the /ɜː/ sound--so more like the vowel in bell. When it comes to the vowel sound my ultimate professional opinion is that people might object no matter what pronunciation is used. And that many people will disagree with my assessment of the situation.

There is still more to the story. According to Elina's email, it seems that people who have commented about the pronunciation of the vowel in the first syllable of the word Helsinki are tuning into something else entirely. That is, I think the quality of the vowel is colored through coarticulation by the consonant that comes after it -- namely the /l/ sound. For English speakers, the /l/ sound in the word Helsinki would likely be pronounced with the tip of the tongue relatively lax and thrust toward the front of the mouth, just behind the lips. This results in a very different /l/ sound than for many Finns, who would pronounce the /l/ with their tongue quite tense and pressed against the alveolar ridge -- the little hump right behind your front teeth. This subtle but significant difference in placement of the tongue results in a different overall pronunciation, both of the preceding vowel and the /l/ itself. The pronunciation of the /l/ as alveolar results in the word sounding distinctly "foreign," which I think is what some listeners are tuning into.

So there is my answer. It's a long and complicated one. After all, Elina simply wanted to know: which pronunciation should we use? If we have to choose just one, I suppose we could aim for 1) stress on the second syllable 2) /ɜː/ as the vowel sound in the first syllable 3) /l/ articulated in a more laxed and fronted manner than it would normally be in Finnish. But at the same time, be prepared for people to comment about any and all aspects of language, because that is just what people do. That's what makes it so interesting.

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