• Geoffrey Dean

Not So “Bass-ic”: Saying “violoncello”

At the end of a colorfully inaccurate cello-history sketch, a Detroit newspaper item from 1896 includes this instructive passage :

This is the first place I’ve come across “sello” as an acceptable Anglicized pronunciation of the latter part of the instrument’s name. Otherwise the pronunciation instructions seem straightforward enough: say it “just as it is spelled.” What could go wrong?

The interlocutors of yesteryear would certainly have had more experience voicing “violoncello” in its five-syllable entirety than the various English-speaking “pronouncers” of today’s Internet. Even so, I was bewildered by the variety of interpretations I found via google recently.

The dominant British version, from what I heard on the websites of the Cambridge (UK version), Merriam-Webster, and Longman dictionaries, seems to ignore the world’s original meaning of “little violone.” This pronunciation substitutes “violin” for “violon” to get the pronunciation “violin-cello,” with more emphasis on the first syllable and a long “I” sound. A generic word pronouncer tool in the google search results has the same audio pronunciation. However, “violone” is pronounced by the same speaker as “vee oh LOW ne.” Noting the conflict and vying for “vee,” I searched on.

The audio pronunciation of violoncello at dictionary.com proved satisfactory in the VEE department, but even the phonetic pronunciation key there shows uhs instead of ohs in the second and third syllables: “vee-uh-luhn-chel-oh.” Their violone is “vee-uh-loh-ney.” A YouTube pronunciation video says “vee a lawn CHEL o.” The Collins Dictionary audio pronouncer agrees, but for violone says “vee o LO ne.” The Cambridge dictionary’s US pronunciation is “vee uh lehn CHEL o”); violone was not available for comparison.

After retreating to the ear balm of the original Italian with the help of google translate, where the Italian speaker lovingly elongates the “chel” (though I later realized that this was the "slowed down" sounding out of the word), I regrettably clicked on google translate’s english version audio: “vay o lawn chel o.” Now desperate for diversion, I looked up violoncello in the 1828 edition of Webster’s Dictionary:

“VIOLONCEL'LO, noun A stringed instrument of music; a base viol of four strings,

or a little base violin with long large strings, giving sounds an octave lower than the

base violin.”

Webster’s puzzling definition raises a different pronunciation issue. He addresses it in his entry on bass: In music, the base; the deepest or gravest part of a tune. This word is thus written in imitation of the Italian basso, which is the Eng. base, low; yet with the pronunciation of base and plural bases, a gross error that ought to be corrected; as the word used in pronunciation is the English word base.” Webster seems to be elaborating on thoughts found in an early edition of Dr. Johnson’s dictionary, for there the "musical" entry on base (def. 6) points out that it “is more frequently written bass, thought the comparative baser seems to require base.” While Johnson’s base definitions emphasize various types of “lowness,” Webster’s are oriented more toward base as “basis” or foundation, and his definition of fundamental (“pertaining to the foundation or basis”) includes a musical example.

Dr. Johnson’s 1755 definition of violoncello is shockingly succinct: “A stringed instrument of musick.” His definition of violin is equally laconic. Going back to Webster 1828, I confirmed that the violin also has four strings and is played with a bow, and that Webster considered the violin “one of the most perfect and powerful instruments that has been invented.” If he considered the violoncello another of these “most perfect” instruments, Webster leaves this unsaid.

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