Covid-19: should we say omicron variant or "omicrone" ?

“Could you remind your reporters that omicron is a Greek letter and therefore there is no reason to pronounce it” omicrone “, in Anglo-Saxon !! ??”. For a few days, French radio and television newsrooms are crumbling under protest messages of their listeners, who reproach them for not saying “omicron”, à la française. A criticism in this case unfounded.

A word to start on the choice of this name. In the early days of the pandemic, the new variants were designated by the place where they had been discovered: we have successively mentioned the British, Indian or South African variants. Until last May, when the World Health Organization (WHO) decided to give them a name less stigmatizing for the countries concerned by drawing from the Greek alphabet. The Alpha, Beta, Gamma and Delta variants then appeared, respecting the alphabetical order. Knowing that the penultimate variant was called Mu (twelfth letter of the alphabet), the next one, it is arithmetic, should have been called Nu (thirteenth letter). But the WHO refused to do so, explaining that “Nu” seemed too close to English. new and therefore risked causing confusion. The fourteenth letter, Xi, was in turn the object of a veto: according to the WHO, it indeed corresponds to a very widespread name in the world, which could have been considered offensive by those concerned – to begin with by Chinese leader Xi Jinping, pointed out the bad tongues. In any case, this is how we went directly from the twelfth to the fifteenth letter: our famous omicron.

It remains to be seen how to utter this funny word that literally means “little o” (as in a microscope or microwave). Specialists in ancient languages ​​have no doubts about the subject. “In the same way that epsilon is pronounced ‘epsilone’, this letter is pronounced ‘omicron’ in ancient Greek,” says Corinne Savariau, who teaches the languages ​​of antiquity at Le Mans. Contrary to many people’s beliefs, this is not an English-speaking approach. And all the less so because with the Oxford accent, one would end up with something like “o-mai-cwone” instead. Rest assured: omicrone would therefore rather mark a joyful return to grace of the classical humanities!

However, is the debate closed? Not sure, because another question immediately arises: in the event of borrowing a foreign word, must the original pronunciation imperatively be respected in French? “For centuries, the general trend was francization, replies linguist Bernard Cerquiglini.” Wagon “, for example, is not pronounced” ouagonne “but” vagon “. riding-coat, it has been completely transformed to become our frock coat. “This secular movement has, however, weakened over time, with a marked inflection since World War II, which saw the rise of American influence. “modern”, a part of the French “elites” have endeavored to show ostensibly that they have mastered English – or at least to make people believe it. look, feeling, designer, casting and others live, passed as is in our national idiom.

The most optimistic see it as a welcome sign of some kind of openness to other cultures. Others, more lucid, note that this propensity does not concern all languages. It is true that almost no one pronounces guerrilla Where camarilla in the Spanish. Likewise, while in Italian the tonic accent is on the penultimate syllable, we do not say spaboattti, but spaghettitti, by wrongly insisting on the last syllable. As for the French terms from regional languages, they too are shamelessly Parisianized. The very Gascon “magret”, which should be pronounced “magrette”, was thus faded into a pale “magrè”. Sharing the convictions of the philosopher Régis Debray, they therefore analyze the exception reserved for the only English language as an additional sign of the Americanization of France.

Finally, let us note the existence of words that accept several pronunciations: Bulgarian yogurt, which has become yoghurt and yoghurt, or even pineapple, a term that came from South America via Spain, which gives both “ananaSSE” and “ananA”. Two examples that remind us of this sometimes forgotten truth: the “correct” pronunciation is the one that usage ends up imposing, so only the future will tell whether French speakers will opt for “omicronne” or “omicron” …

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