Laotian Pronunciation:

In a few weeks, I'll be teaching the Sophophone case in my criminal law class, and I'd like to know how the defendant's name (Sanexay Sophophone) is pronounced.

Some have speculated that it's Greek, but I rather doubt it, despite the existence of the Greek elements "soph-" and "-phone." Sanexay isn't a Greek name, and this isn't a very Greek-looking face. (Yes, it's hard to conclusively tell ethnicity from a face, but it does seem probative, at least in this instance.) My sense is that the name comes from Laos, but I'm not positive.

Can anyone tell me how such a name would be pronounced by those who speak the language from which the name derives? I realize that the normal English pronunciation need not track the original, but I'm still curious about it. Thanks!

If the name is Lao (and the name and its owner both look Lao to me), it would be pronounced something like "san-a-shay soap-a-pony".

Wouldn't "sophophone" mean "intelligent sounding" in Greek?
1.24.2007 6:42pm
Eugene Volokh (www):
Malvolio: Many thanks! It sounds like you're confident of the Lao pronunciation, yes? I wanted to pass this along to some fellow criminal law professors, and they might want to know the source of my source's knowledge.
1.24.2007 6:59pm
BruceM (mail) (www):
Well, Hank Hill's Laotian neighbor on "King of the Hill" is named Kahn Souphanousinphone which is somewhat similar. His name is always pronounced "soop-uh-noose'-uh-fawn" (not counting any time Boomhauer might have said it, heh). Based on that, I'd say Sophophone would be pronounced "soop'-uh-fawn" and as for the first name, I'd agree "san-a-shay" is likely right (it's certainly how I'd butcher it).
1.24.2007 7:24pm
Dan Simon (mail) (www):
Actually, it's pronounced, "Throat-Warbler Mangrove".
1.24.2007 7:50pm
Eugene - I am pretty confident in Thai, which is pretty close to Lao.

Thai has a standard transliteration called "Royal Thai General System of Transcription", under which "ph" is always pronounced as an aspirated "p". There isn't a standard Lao transliteration, so RTGS is usually used. The X in Lao (which doesn't occur in Thai transcription) is pronounced something like "sh" or "tz". The same sound in the name of the capital is spelled "ti" (Vientiane), I guess by analogy with "action".

I will send an email to my father (who is visiting northern Laos right now) and ask him to ask a local for a more authoritative pronunciation.
1.24.2007 8:10pm
Ivan Wolfe (mail):
I speak Lao (though I'm not a linguistic expert on the language). Your accent will likely be odd (and you may get the tones all wrong, since there are a few different ways to spell that name in Lao script), but basically Malvolio is right.

One note: The "x" (or "ti") will be pronounced like something halfway between "ch" and a "j" (I think the "x" transliteration is due to analogy with the Greek letter "chi"), so try and say something halfway between "san-a-chay" and "san-a-jay") . There's also the problem of regional pronunciation, as someone from Luang Prabang will pronounce it somewhat differently than someone from Vientiane. But I ramble.

Unfortunately, there is no standard Lao transliteration for names, and I've seen my share of Laotion-Americans with silent "e"s on their last name, so it is possible the last name is pronounced "so-po-pone" or even "soap-pone" - (silent e - therefore, long o on the last syllable).

But go with Malvolio's pronunciation - that's the closest you'll get without actually asking the man himself or someone who knows him personally.

Since all I do is lurk, not being a legal type, it's actually interesting to post on a topic I know a little about.

Back to lurking.
1.24.2007 8:38pm
Eugene Volokh (www):
Cool! Thanks to everyone. One last question: Where are the accents?
1.24.2007 10:03pm
Hattio (mail):
So, do you have a link to the case? What's it about?
1.24.2007 10:09pm
Ivan Wolfe (mail):
Accented syllables aren't very important in Lao as it is still a very monosyllabic language (most polysyllabic words are combinations of smaller words or borrowed words). So, as a non-Lao speaker (especially since you aren't going to get the tones right at all), you can get away with not accenting any of the syllables, or only giving a slight accent to the first syllable in each name.

Of course, an actual Lao linguist might tell you different. But I just perused all my Lao dictionaries and none of them discuss rules for accented syllables (that I could find), and as I think on how Lao sounds to me, accented syllables aren't really there since they tend to throw the tone off (for example, one of the first rules of Lao pronunciation I learned was to avoid raising your voice at the end of the sentence to emphasize the point or indicate a query, since that would raise the tone).
1.24.2007 10:43pm
John Burgess (mail) (www):
Ivan &Malvolio have it right. As a tonal language, the meaning of each word will be determined by the tones with which it is pronounced. Changing the tone changes the meaning of the word. Attempts to accent a word will necessarily shift the tone and thus change the meaning.

When I taught English in Thailand some 40 years ago, I had to help my students understand that English applies the tones (i.e. accents) to sentences rather than words. Shifting the accent in a sentence shifts the meaning.

The classic example was "She's a light house keeper". Trying accenting each word and follow the changes....
1.24.2007 10:50pm
Wasn't it you, Eugene, who called Daubert's lawyer to ask him how that name was pronounced? Some conspirator. (Turns out, it's like Dilbert, not that foo-foo French way.)
1.24.2007 10:54pm
SB (www):
Soap-a-pony? We really should be using a more meaningful pronounciation key here, lest we run into ESPN's problem.
1.24.2007 11:08pm
BruceM (mail) (www):
Here in Texas there are two things you never say in court: "Daubear" (you say "Daaah-burt") or "Vwah deer" (you say "vore die-uhr"). If you screw that up, your client will be excuted.
1.24.2007 11:28pm
Bill Poser (mail) (www):

We really should be using a more meaningful pronounciation key here, lest we run into ESPN's problem.

May I suggest the use of the International Phonetic Alphabet, which exists for precisely this purpose?
1.25.2007 1:29am
Spartacus (www):
Okay, next question: How is Sanexay's co-conspirators' name, Somphone Sysoumphone, pronounced? See

State v. Sophophone

for the case.
1.25.2007 8:45am
If you want to get your students in the mood, you can play this cd in the background. Great stuff.
1.25.2007 8:57am
Why not just make it simpler for everyone through substitution? When we covered this case in the fall, my prof. merely substituted Saxophone and Sousaphone as the names. It helped the students he called on and provided a lighter moment in class.
1.25.2007 9:47am
Michael Palin:

Actually, it's pronounced, "Throat-Warbler Mangrove".

Dan, You're a very silly man, and I'm not going to read any more of your comments.
1.25.2007 10:19am
Just read the case. One item in the caption struck me as noteworthy, and possibly worth mentioning in class:

Ralph J. DeZago, of Herington, argued the cause and was on the brief for appellant. Sanexay Sophophone, appellant, supplemental brief pro se.

No appearance by appellee.

{Emphasis mine.) Did the state of Kansas (the appellee) want to lose on this issue? Were the district attorneys sneaking around behind the legislature's back?

Or was it a matter of overconfidence, thinking that the conviction would be upheld even without active prosecutorial participation in the appeal? (That seems unlikely.)

(Peripheral issue, I know, and perhaps I should have let the thread die rather than threadjack it, but I did find it interesting.)
1.25.2007 10:30am
Anna Johnson (mail):
Hey folks,
I just stumbled over your site whilst looking for something totally different, and I hope I'll be able to help. I live in Laos (or Lao, as the people both Lao and foreign say here) and I am regularly required to write Lao names down into English (teacher - writing registers etc)AND I speak Lao. Based on this - I'd go for the following pronunciations:
san/ rhymes with ban
sai/ rhymes with hi
so/ like in sock
po/ like in pot
pone/ rhymes with bone


som/ rhymes with pom-pom
pone/ rhymes with bone
sai/ rhymes wiht hi
sum/ like in somewhere
pone/ rhymes with bone

Although obviously, it depends on your own accent.
Hope this helps.
1.25.2007 11:13am
Ivan Wolfe (mail):
I hereby defer all Lao questions to Anna Johnson. She's got the chops.
1.25.2007 12:45pm
Stephen A. Druzak (mail):
Because there are numerous romanization systems for Lao, it would be necessary to see the name in Lao script to really get it right. The "x" reflects French romanization - the sound is "s"; for example the town of Pakse is spelled Pakxe on French-based maps, Sekong appears as Xekong, etc.. The length of time one pronouces vowels (long or short), aspiration of consonants, and the tone used - low, mid, high falling, etc., affect the meaning: Are you saying dog, horse, or come? Near,far, chicken,or egg? Evil, tiger, or trust? Order, hate, elephant, or construct? A language with wonderful opportunities for embarassing errors...
1.27.2007 2:16pm