Orthographic notes from Harry Potter

If you’re reading Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince and a reader of this blog, you may have noticed something curious in the opening pages of the book. The first chapter, “The Other Minister”, more-or-less brings the reader back up to speed on the major events during and since the previous installment, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, by way of the Minister of Magic updating the Prime Minister of Muggles on the goings-on in the magic world. The Prime Minister at times slightly mishears or misunderstands some words spoken by the Minister of Magic, but the way these are represented orthographically is odd.

On p. 7, there’s a brief flashback to an earlier visit by the Minister of Magic, Cornelius Fudge.

Before the Prime Minister could ask why he was dripping all over the Axminster, Fudge had started ranting about a prison the Prime Minister had never heard of, a man named “Serious” Black, something that sounded like “Hogwarts,” and a boy called Harry Potter, none of which made the remotest sense to the Prime Minister.

The prison-never-heard-of is, of course, “Azkaban”, and the quotes around “Hogwarts” are odd since that’s exactly how the school name is spelled. The quotes around “Serious” is what I find curious: the real name is “Serius” “Sirius”, but there’s never been any indication that this should be pronounced in any way differently from “Serious” — like many people and place names in the Harry Potter books, it’s supposed to sound like the word that it is a slight misspelling of.

Update, July 31

Readers Gunnar Hrafn Hrafnbjargarson and Martin Marks both wrote to point out my struck-out mistake above — the misspelling of Sirius as Serius. As Martin explains:

The name is actually “Sirius”, not “Serius” as it says in the post. Because he can turn into a dog, he’s named for the dog-star, i.e. alpha Canis Majoris. (Don’t ask how his parents knew what sort of animal he would eventually learn to turn into before he was born.)

One could say the same about many Harry Potter characters … Lupin, for example, or Slytherin, or Snape, or …

Martin also points out a relevant passage I had neglected to quote myself, which really makes the point I intended to make with this post (pace Geoff Nathan’s comment further below):

I noticed the same thing, reading that. I can understand the PM hearing “Sirius” as “Serious”, because they’re homophones, but what really bothered me was when the PM asks about “Serious Black” and Fudge replied “What? Oh, you mean ‘Sirius Black’.” Certainly in the movie the name was pronounced to be totally homophonous with “serious”. That’s also the only way I’ve ever heard anyone pronounce the name of the star, or could even imagine it pronounced, for that matter. Very odd, that. I can only assume she wasn’t planning to read it aloud.


Second update, Aug. 3

Two other readers, C. Callosum and Tim May, write to challenge Martin’s claim above (and my explicit acceptance of it) that Sirius and serious are “totally homophonous”. C. Callosum writes:

For me, “Sirius” has a lax /ɪ/ sound, while “serious” has a tense /i/.

While I don’t (think I) make this distinction in my own (casual) speech — both have lax /ɪ/ for me — I know that only “serious” sounds right with tense /i/, and I’m pretty sure that Tim May is not mistaken in his claim that these words are consistently distinguished in R.P., which is (presumably) what Rowling speaks.

Even given all this, I still find it unconvincing that Fudge would be confused, even momentarily, by the P.M.’s mispronunciation of “Sirius” as “serious” — the distinction between the two vowels is just not significant enough, it seems to me, especially given that the P.M. was asking about “Serious Black”. Certainly these two words together can only be interpreted by someone like Fudge as referring to Harry Potter’s godfather.

But just to clear one last thing up: I should have checked my copy of the book again before copying Martin’s apparent quotation from it, because the relevant passage goes a little bit differently than what I have copied from Martin’s message above. For those of you with a copy of (the American edition of) the book, it starts in the middle of p. 11. The P.M. speaks first (note the “er” for American “uh” here).

“Is Serious Black with — er — He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named?”
“Black? Black?” said Fudge distractedly, turning his bowler rapidly in his fingers. “Sirius Black, you mean? Merlin’s beard, no. […]”

OK, maybe that’s not so curious to merit posting on phonoloblog, but two pages later, another example really made me wonder who was proof-reading this book. This time, the word is not an obvious play on a regular English word.

Less than a year later a harassed-looking Fudge had appeared out of thin air in the cabinet room to inform the Prime Minister that there had been a spot of bother at the Kwidditch (or that was what it sounded like) World Cup […]

The actual word is spelled “Quidditch” — but how different is that, sounds-like-wise, from what “Kwidditch” is? Is the unconventional “kw” spelling supposed to indicate an unconventional sound or something?

I won’t go any further than these opening pages; some of you may not have read the book yet. But one other thing I’ve noticed is something that has puzzled me throughout the series: the American editions of the books follow American spelling conventions (color instead of colour, center instead of centre, etc.), but only for actual words. J.K. Rowling uses British spelling conventions for sounds-like spelling, and these remain in the American editions. (Particularly striking is the use of r in the way described here, as in ter for a reduced to in Hagrid’s speech.) Why is that?

And while we’re on the edition-difference topic: in case you were curious, here‘s a pretty lame explanation for why they named the first book Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone in the US as opposed to the original British title Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. I wonder how they handled that for the different editions of the movie … certainly they didn’t overdub one of them … did they?

8 thoughts on “Orthographic notes from Harry Potter

  1. Daniel C. Hall

    Well, what the quotation marks suggest to me (quite effectively) is simply that these words don’t have any meaning to the P.M., and that the P.M. is merely guessing at their spellings. The reader knows which guesses are correct, but the P.M. does not, and the quotation marks reflect the P.M.’s point of view, not ours.

  2. Sharon Rose

    Hagrid speaks an ‘r-ful’ dialect, probably West Country (Devon, Somerset) so ‘ter’ is the spelling and pronounciation with final [r] of reduced ‘to’ and not an indication of a rounded/central vowel as in the linked post.
    It’s there to give the flavo(u)r of Hagrid’s dialect. That’s my guess, unless you’ve noticed it with characters that speak r-less dialects, too.

  3. Eric Bakovic

    Daniel, I like your more positive consideration of the sounds-like spellings, but I’m not as sure as you are that this is what was intended. Why would it be relevant for us to know how the P.M. thinks these words/names might be spelled? Still, it’s clearly a more charitable interpretation and quite probably right …

    Sharon, I am also inclined to share your hypothesis about Hagrid’s orthographic rs but ter pops up before consonants as well as vowels (e.g., ter dinner on p. 402 of the Half-Blood Prince). Is this common in the relevant dialects? (I find myself wanting to re-watch the movies now to see if Hagrid speaks r-fully there.)

    Also, there are several other instances of purely orthographic r spoken by people other than Hagrid. Everyone stammers by saying er — which I assume is just like American uh, not an actual r-colored vowel — and on p. 312 of the Half-Blood Prince, Peeves says (emphasis added): “Potty lurves Loony! Potty luuuuurves Looooooony!” — again, I assume ur here as a substitute for o in loves indicates something other than r-coloring; it’s supposed to represent a mocking tone of voice, which is at least perceived to be accomplished by slightly adjusting the quality of the vowel.

  4. Geoffrey S. Nathan

    I think what’s going on here is what sociolinguists call ‘eye dialect’. You write a word ‘phonetically’, representing the absolutely standard pronunciation (the classic example is ‘sez’), but conveying that the speaker speaks an ignorant, nonstandard dialect. By writing ‘kwidditch’ Rowland is conveying (I’m sure not consciously) that the speaker is unfamiliar with the word. It’s not a phonological thing at all, but a sociolinguistic one, based on the mismatch between sound and spelling in English and the sociological message conveyed by the inability to spell correctly.

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  6. Emily Moore

    As Rowling is not a linguist, it is unsurprising that small details such as orthography would escape her notice, and that of her editors. However, I don’t think these are mistakes or oversights. The PM has a mental transcription of these magical, foreign words, and their inaccuracy highlights the PM’s mundane, non-magical attitude.
    The “serious”/”Sirius” homophone is possibly the outcome of a device I’ve encountered before – in pun-filled junior fiction. Sometimes a magical or “superior” character can perceive the written spellings of spoken words, so that spoken homophonous puns are reinforced. Fudge can tell how the PM spells the word he speaks, because Fudge is magical, and therefore superior to the PM.

  7. Chris Waigl

    I think you may be overinterpreting from the phonologist’s perspective what is going on in the scene between Fudge and the PM.

    For me, the PM’s use of “Serious Black” shows that he is able and willing to recall a conversation that happened two years earlier, but that none the less he is hopelessly behind times and ignorant about the wizarding world. He might be enunciating the name rather carefully, as if it was some bizarre title.

    Black is, however, the last person Fudge has on his mind. He has known for a year that he is innocent, and has just lost his post, though the PM and the reader won’t know this for another three pages. He is flustered and out of his depth, and only the PM’s mentioning Black makes him dredge up this “little detail” of the entire mess he is in.

    The slight difference in pronunciation (and I imagine, intonation) between “Sirius Black” said as a simple name and “Serious Black” said as a not-totally-understood way to refer to someone the PM thinks is probably the greatest threat to the part of Britain he is responsible for (known muggle-killer etc.) might come into Fudge’s blustering. But the PM bringing up Black at all comes out of left field for him.

  8. Auto Parts for Brains

    Let us consider the situation the characters are obviously in. First of all, though the two speaks English, the PM obviously has no idea what Fudge was saying. It was to him a new language all in all. That may be hard for us to imagine, but we should bear in mind that the Prime minister did not have the advantage of having any of the Wizarding world explained to him. It is but common that since the words were first heard, the hearer will try to understand it by digesting it in the context of words already know to him.

    Though, it is hard to truly figure out what Rowling intends, clearly she just wants to show us the chasm between the two worlds (the wizarding and muggle world), much as Mr. Weasley exhibits fascination to many of the usual things muggles are used to.

    As for the differences in the British and American editions, that is indeed a thing that Harry Poter fans will brood about.

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