"It depends on where you are in the spectrum"

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Martin Heymann writes (Tue, 2 Dec 2014 22:26:55 +1100):

Tonight, I was watching the Australian federal Minister of Education interviewed on TV.  He was discussing a senator called Dio Wang (see also here), and got in a bit of a scrap with the interviewer about how to pronounce the surname.

According to the Minister, "it depends on where you are in the spectrum" as to how the surname is pronounced.  Here's the clip (it's quite hilarious, especially because the recording keeps repeating in a loop).

The Minister's statement sounds authoritative, but it's also a bit loopy, since it's not clear which spectrum he's talking about.  On the other hand, the Minister was actually much closer to the correct pronunciation than the presenter, so she should not have contradicted him, unless she insists that the English pronunciation of the senator's surname is the correct one in Australia.

There are video and audio recordings, plus a not entirely accurate transcript, of Dio Wang's maiden speech in the Senate here.  Notice how the President of the Senate pronounces Senator Wang's surname when he introduces him.

As for his first name, Dio, I don't yet have a clue where it came from, though I'm working on it.  My first instinct is that Dio comes from some Romance or Slavic language and would, of course, mean "god".  Conceivably, though, it could also come from Ido or Fijian.

Dio was a heavy metal band named after vocalist Ronnie James Dio that started in the 80s, but I would be surprised if Senator Wang was such a fan of that group that he named himself after them.

[Thanks to Geoff Wade]


  1. Richard W said,

    December 2, 2014 @ 8:12 pm

    The interviewer, Leigh Sales, perhaps doesn't know much Mandarin, but she probably has a sense of how most Australians pronounce Wang's surname.

    By the way, she was the host for Hilary Clinton's final town hall interview as US Secretary of State.

  2. Shubert said,

    December 2, 2014 @ 8:21 pm

    Minister's pronunciation of Wang is right.

  3. Richard W said,

    December 2, 2014 @ 8:24 pm

    Link: Interview with Dio Wang
    You can hear how the interviewer pronounces Wang's name at the start of the video.

  4. Victor Mair said,

    December 2, 2014 @ 10:07 pm

    Here's a follow-up interview with the senator himself:


    Leigh Sales is very gracious in handling the matter.

  5. Richard W said,

    December 2, 2014 @ 10:38 pm

    Australia also has a Senator Wong, but her Chinese surname is written with a different character: 黃 (Wong4 in Cantonese, or Huáng in Mandarin) rather than 王 (Wáng), the character used for Dio's surname.

  6. Richard W said,

    December 2, 2014 @ 10:51 pm

    How do you pronounce your name again? Again?
    – article in The Ann Arbor News, by Frances Kai-Hwa Wang

  7. Gordon Campbell said,

    December 3, 2014 @ 12:40 am

    They're from opposite ends of the political spectrum. We have a left wing Wong and a right wing Wang.

  8. Richard W said,

    December 3, 2014 @ 1:10 am

    Re: "it's not clear which spectrum he's talking about"

    I suppose the "spectrum" is a notional continuum of pronunciation that ranges from ignorant "Wang" (rhyming with "bang") … through "Wong" as pronounced by education minister Pyne … to Wáng (complete with the tone), as pronounced by, say, former prime minister Kevin Rudd.

  9. JS said,

    December 3, 2014 @ 1:30 am

    No idea what guy meant, but a spectrum is the perfect way to think about this phenomenon: that is, as a range between, on one end, an entirely naïve pronunciation based in general on spelling and, on the other, the source-language pronunciation. The idea that the latter could or should be achieved in most cases is tantamount to suggesting that, to take the example of the story linked just above, American elementary school principals ought to be able to produce all the phonemes of the world's languages in the native manner, absurd on its face. In fact, what we ought to strive for, and what those with various kinds of oft-mispronounced surnames tend to want even without realizing it, is a compromise rendering of the name wherein foreign phonemes are mapped to those of, e.g., American English in a manner felt or agreed to be most direct or natural (of course an inherently subjective matter but one regarding which consensus is crowd-sourced). This is what the author of the article really asks for in favoring in Wang/Wong the Am. Eng. vowel of "song" to that of "sang." Neither is right, of course, when we get down to the nitty-gritty, but it is fair to say that the former is closer and therefore preferable. (And note I'm here ignoring the complicating issue of the variation that exists within Chinese to begin with..)

    So in short, yes, I find it silly to expect high school principals to produce flapped r's in Spanish names, uvular r's in French ones, etc. Even the preference of the person whose name it is can't trump this principle, I think, though it can trump all else — consider for example the Chinese who come to request that Qin be pronounced like "keen," or Jie like "gee," adapting the spelling pronunciations as their own…

  10. JS said,

    December 3, 2014 @ 1:34 am

    So what Richard W said while I was typing, only longer-winded. :-/

  11. Richard W said,

    December 3, 2014 @ 1:50 am

    @Gordon Campbell
    I don't suppose you're the Gordon Campbell I know, are you? The one I occasionally bump into on the 10th floor of the BA building?

  12. GH said,

    December 3, 2014 @ 2:59 am

    Shouldn't it be "on the spectrum" rather than "in the spectrum"?

    If that's what he meant to say, it's rather common shorthand or slang for "on the autism spectrum." He would thereby be implying that worrying overmuch about the correct pronunciation (and correcting someone else on it) is autistic behavior.

  13. Keith said,

    December 3, 2014 @ 3:36 am

    I have a Brazilian colleague named Diogo, who when speaking English instroduces himself as "Joe".

    That reminded me of the pronunciation of the name Dilma Rousseff in the audio version of the Economist magazine: there, her name is pronounced (IIRR) ˈdʒiwmɐ ˈʁusɛf.

    So although Dio Wang is reportedly born in Nanjing, maybe he deliberatey chose a Portuguese name beginning with a dʒ sound to approximate that in his Chinese name of Zhènyà.

  14. DMT said,

    December 3, 2014 @ 3:51 am

    @JS: Adoption of spelling pronunciations for surnames – e.g. Italian surnames containing "gli" or Polish surnames ending in "-cki" – seems to be more widespread in the US than in other Anglophone countries (I am mainly thinking about Australia and the UK – I don't know anything about Canada or Ireland, for example). I wonder about the history of this phenomenon. Did immigrants (first or second-generation?) choose this route as an alternative to outright Anglicization, which apparently became less popular in the second half of the 20th century?

  15. Gordon Campbell said,

    December 3, 2014 @ 5:48 am

    @Richard W: no, not that one

  16. hwu said,

    December 3, 2014 @ 7:22 am

    Dio reminds me of Dior, the famous fashion brand.

    I know ASD is well-known in the US. but I am still surprised to see people talking about it here.

    Believe it or not, My "character amnesia prevention device" was actually inspired by an occupational therapy for ASD children with vestibular disorders.

  17. Victor Mair said,

    December 3, 2014 @ 8:11 am


    When I typed out this post, I initially wrote "on the spectrum", but then after listening to the clip about 30 times (it's quickly captivating), I realized that — despite what I was expecting him to say — Christopher Pyne was saying "in the spectrum".

    Good point about autism.

  18. mollymooly said,

    December 3, 2014 @ 8:22 am

    Wikipedia notes BrE/æ/ versus AmE /ɑː/

    "A" in the anglicised pronunciation of many foreign names and loanwords, e.g: CaracasB2,[226] chiantiA2,[227] gulag,[228] kebab,[229] Las (placenames, e.g. Las Vegas[230]), MafiaA2,[231] MombasaA2,[232] pasta,[233] PicassoA2,[234] rallentando,[235] SlovakA2,[236] Sri LankaA2,[237] Vivaldi,[238] wigwam,[239]

    Also possibly relevant: many Americans have LOT rather than TRAP in "mishmash", though not "mash".

  19. Brett said,

    December 3, 2014 @ 9:45 am

    @GH, Victor Mair: To me "in the spectrum" sounds at least as natural as "on the spectrum." However, I'm a physicist, so my intuition may be colored by experience with unrelated contexts.

  20. Brett said,

    December 3, 2014 @ 9:50 am

    @mollymooly: "Mishmash" may be a very old eggcorn of German "Mischmasch." Its widespread pronunciation in American English was heavily influenced by the German, via Yiddish "mishmosh."

  21. J. W. Brewer said,

    December 3, 2014 @ 10:20 am

    I have an intuition-plus-vague-anecdotal sense that "Huang" is less likely to cue rhymes-with-bang for a native Anglophone than "Wang." (They are not perfect homophones in Mandarin, ㄏㄨㄤ v. ㄨㄤ, but they certainly rhyme.) I have been told by someone surnamed Chang that she has noticed the same difference in Chang v. Zhang (which are the same name in Mandarin, romanized differently). Could there be some general principle that a spelling which violates the typical orthographic conventions for native-origin English words is less likely to cue a pronunciation based on native-word orthographic conventions? (No matter how often I recall that the Korean surname "Park" reflects a romanization done for the benefit of non-rhotic Brits, it is very difficult for me to pronounce it non-rhotically.)

    Although consider the fate of descendants of German immigrants to the U.S. surnamed Braun. If they kept the spelling, the pronunciation generally shifted (to become homophonous with "brawn"), but if they respelled it as "Brown" they ended up with a pronunciation of the vowel much closer to the German original.

  22. Linda said,

    December 3, 2014 @ 1:04 pm

    And I for some reason had assumed to start with that Dio was the surname under discussion.

  23. Mark F. said,

    December 3, 2014 @ 1:06 pm

    When I was a math TA, I lost count of the number of different ways people named Nguyen asked me to pronounce their names. I remember "wen", "nooWEN", and "NEEyen", but I think there were others.

  24. Richard W said,

    December 3, 2014 @ 2:20 pm

    I agree with Brett that "in the spectrum" does not sound particularly odd. Of course, if you imagine that it was a reference to autism, then it would sound odd, but for various reasons, I feel that it's unlikely that Christopher Pyne intended his use of the word "spectrum" in this instance to be a reference to autism. I think he probably meant it as I interpreted it in my comment above ("a notional continuum of pronunciation …").

  25. J. W. Brewer said,

    December 3, 2014 @ 2:34 pm

    "In the spectrum" sounds odd to me, but I was interested to learn from the google books n-gram viewer that it is in fact the more common variant when compared to "on the spectrum" (which "sounds right" to me), although not nearly as dominant as it once was — about 2.5 times as common in 2007, compared to >8 times as common in 1962, for example. Maybe if I looked at a bunch of hits the context would make the "in" variant seem more natural than it does in the abstract, but it's always good to be reminded that our native-speaker intuitions are not foolproof.

  26. Sili said,

    December 3, 2014 @ 2:35 pm

    Richard W,

    How do you pronounce your name again? Again?
    – article in The Ann Arbor News, by Frances Kai-Hwa Wang

    My surname is spelled “Wang,” but it is pronounced \wong\.

    That linked soundfile sounds nothing like \o\ to me. Going by the samples on the Pfft it's definitely unrounded and fully open to my ears. I can't place it on the back-to-front scale, though.

  27. George Amis said,

    December 3, 2014 @ 4:48 pm

    Probably the most famous Dio in the west is Lucius Cassius Dio, or Cassius Dio, or, as I first heard of him, Dio Cassius, a Roman consul and historian who died in 235 AD. He was born in Anatolia and wrote in Greek.

  28. Philip L said,

    December 3, 2014 @ 5:26 pm

    I think if you ever referred to Wang computers as 'Wong' computers (during the '80's when Wang Laboratories was a high flying company) you would see a blank face (notice I didn't succumb to the obvious pun here.)

  29. J. W. Brewer said,

    December 3, 2014 @ 7:47 pm

    George Amis, I assure you that if you check with any statistically valid cross-section of present-day inhabitants of "the west," such as, for example, the guys I went to high school with, you will learn that the identity and life's work of Ronnie James Dio are much more widely known than those of L. Cassius Dio. But the former died comparatively recently, so if we wait a century or two maybe things will equalize.

  30. Brett said,

    December 3, 2014 @ 9:21 pm

    @J. W. Brewer: I'm certainly not a statistically valid cross-section of anything, but I had no idea who Ronnie James Dio was, whereas Lucius Cassius Dio was quite familiar (even though I don't think I've read anything he wrote, except in as brief excerpts).

  31. Dave Cragin said,

    December 3, 2014 @ 10:37 pm

    A Chinese friend of mine in the US has a last name of Shi2 (石). The phonetics of it are relatively easy for non-Chinese speakers because it sounds like "sure" (or with the right tone "sure?")

    An American colleague pronounced it as "she" (i.e., English pronunciation of "she", rhymes with sea). I corrected her.

    Then I heard my Chinese friend telling other English speakers her last name was pronounced "she." I asked why she told people this.

    She explained she didn't like how Americans said "shi" ("sure"). That is, they said it with the wrong tone and it had the wrong meaning, so she preferred it be pronounced with the wrong phonetics in a way that had no meaning.

    An American who doesn't speak Chinese might not fully understand this, but it's illustration of how both tone and phonetics are integral to words in Chinese whereas in English, phonetics are of primary importance.

    When I'm learning a Chinese word, I'm very aware of the need to learn BOTH the tone and phonetics (i.e., I need to learn 2 things every time I learn a word) . I'd guess that Chinese much more unconciously learn tones when learning words.

  32. George Amis said,

    December 3, 2014 @ 10:56 pm

    @J. W. Brewer: With respect, I would suggest that a decade or two will suffice to sink R. J. Dio.

  33. John Swindle said,

    December 3, 2014 @ 11:01 pm

    Isn't Dio a common nickname for Dionisio?

  34. ThomasH said,

    December 4, 2014 @ 7:32 am

    The presenter uses the East Tennessee pronunciation of Wang.

  35. J. W. Brewer said,

    December 4, 2014 @ 11:25 am

    I think the advocates of the older Dio may be in denial about how complete and devastating the loss of general cultural awareness of classical writers has become over the last few generations outside ever-shrinking specialist circles. There are maybe a dozen or fifteen names who retain widespread brand recognition (including e.g. Euclid more or less by backformation from Euclidian, or Julius Caesar considered as a Shakespeare character rather than a writer in his own right) but if you haven't made that cut, it's a long way down. The fate of guys like Plutarch and Livy (who a hundred years ago would have been not only known to but have been read by a significant percentage, and possible majority, of college graduates) is pretty grim if you try to estimate current levels of name recognition, and I expect the older Dio was never as prominent as they were.

  36. Coby Lubliner said,

    December 4, 2014 @ 12:07 pm

    It's interesting that an actor named B.D. Wong plays a character named Huang on "Law & Order SVU".

  37. GH said,

    December 4, 2014 @ 4:16 pm

    @J.W. Brewer

    Yup, that sounds about right. Using myself as a test case and with the head start given, I was able to come up with the following list of classical authors (excluding writers in the Christian tradition): Virgil, Cicero, Livy, Josephus, Ovid, Caesar, Claudius, Homer, Aristophanes, Sappho, Euripides, Sophocles, Euclid, Ptolemy (who I wasn't 100% sure wrote any surviving works), Plato, Aristotle and Plotinus. (17)

    I thought of but was unable to remember the names of: Hesiod, Herodotus, Thucydides, Suetonius, Marcus Aurelius, Pliny the Elder and (not entirely within the bounds of the exercise) Jordanes. (7)

    I forgot, although I really should have remembered: Aeschylus (I forgot there was a third Greek tragedian), Horace, Juvenal, Tacitus, Seneca and Quintillian. (6)

    I also got Plutarch mixed up with Petrarch.

    There are a number of others I might recognize the names of but that I wouldn't be able to identify. Cassius Dio might be among those. But yeah, the classics to me are about 30 names, 90% of which I've only heard of, never read. And if anything I'd expect that's well above average.

  38. George Amis said,

    December 4, 2014 @ 8:31 pm

    @J. W. Brewer: Alas, I'm afraid you're right. I'm 77, and had what might be described as a semi-classical education. "Classics" for me is far more than 30 names, and I've read at least some of a lot of them. GH is doing pretty well, I'd say, all things considered, but one wonders how many names a 19 old college would recognize. Not many, I'd guess.

  39. George Amis said,

    December 4, 2014 @ 9:53 pm

    I meant, of course, a 19 year old college student, not a 19 old college.

  40. RobertL said,

    December 5, 2014 @ 5:28 am

    Of course, Ronnie James Dio is famous for introducing the "Devil's Horns" hand gesture to heavy metal. He got it from his Italian nonna. So at least one of his contributions will live on.

  41. Captain Bringdown said,

    December 8, 2014 @ 3:34 pm

    One of my favorite internet handles I've seen is "Dr. Ronnie James, D.O."

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