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A crowd's guide to pronunciation

The Monitor's language columnist stumbles upon, a website that aims to tell visitors how to say any word in the world like a native.

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I no longer remember quite why, but a few weeks ago I had a professional need to know how to pronounce the name of Auguste Kerckhoffs.

He was a 19th-century Dutch linguist and cryptographer, long active in Paris, by the way. I hadn't heard of him either. But with just a few keystrokes I had arrived at a Web page that gave me just what I needed. I had only to click on a "play" button, and I could hear the name as pronounced by an authentic contemporary European, if not exactly a 19th-century Dutchman.

I had discovered the site, which purports to be "the largest pronunciation guide in the world."

The idea is pretty simple, and so is the interface: You enter a word or name in a search box, and if it's in Forvo's database, you're taken to a page where you can click a play button and hear "your" word spoken aloud.

The speaker of each word is identified by a "handle" or user name, by country of residence, and as male or female. Keep clicking and you can often find more precise geographic locations for speakers – down to street level in one case I found – as well as biographical notes that, in this age of personal mobility, help explain people's accents.

Registered users at the site can request pronunciations of words, record their own pronunciations of words already listed, and vote other speakers' renderings of a given word up or down to maintain quality.

Forvo, based in San Sebastián, Spain, has been online since 2008 and claims more than 85,000 users. It has listings in 258 languages, from Abkhazian to Zulu, although the main Western languages, plus Arabic and Persian (Farsi), dominate the Top 10.


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