The Phonetics of Luxury Cars (fõ net ’ iks)

by P. J . Evans, from a concept by Lee Claydon

Take a quick look sideways, at the person sitting next to you. In three minutes they’ll be smiling. Why?

One of the best reasons for getting something new, something big and expensive and shiny, is so you can tell other people about it. Not come right out and say it: a little subtlety goes a long way when bragging on your possessions. Just to drop it into the conversation is the best way, wait until the moment is perfect before impact. Tease yourself.

“Jasmin? Oh, yeah, we’ve had a thing going fo a month or so. She works up in town, modelling, you know. Hadn’t I told you?”

Or: “I guess the Japanese CD players are pretty cool, but since I got mine I really swear by Bang and Olufsen. Oh, about two, two-and-a-half grand. I’m not too sure. My accountant took care of it, but the sound is crisp!”

Or even: “For real sashimi, there’s this little place in Tokyo, just off Ginza high street. What? Oh, last year, just pottering about, you know. Like you do.”

It’s important to remember, then, that first impressions really do last. It’s a cliché, but like most stereotypes it also happens to be true. Therefore, when your latest braggable goodie is a really luxury motor, take the advice of an old hand: go for the Bentley, and leave the Rolls Royce glittering in the showroom.

Ignore the relative merits of the vehicle in question: remember that the primary purpose of having bought a car like this is to tell people about how cool it is. The cars themselves just don’ enter into it. The important thing is the sound of the brag.

And the Rolls just can’t hack it. It starts off slow and soft; the ‘Ro’ is an even worse sound than ‘Ra’. Try saying it slowly, and ‘Ro’ sounds like your batteries are running down. It gets worse. The next vocal sound is ‘Lls’, followed by another ‘Ro’. The space that should appear in the middle is almost impossible to actually pronounce without sounding like you’re speaking to an idiot. What really comes out is ‘Arrollzroisss’. You can’t even start the word with ‘R’ because you need an in-breath to say it: you end up with ‘Aro’.

The phrase is frankly lousy: it starts with an inhalation, slows up over the vowell, softens in the middle without disappearing, then gears itself up again before finally trailing off in a sibilant ‘SSss’. It’s too long, telegraphing itself like an overlong joke.

The Car Spy, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The alternative is the Bentley, a far more impactful name. If someone tells you they’ve just bought a Bentley the sound is in your frontal lobes before you’ve heard it, already ricocheting off your jealousy centre and making your stomach hurt. The word alone can double you over.

It’s not only shorter: the first phonetic is ‘Be’, which can only be said with force. The lips compress, then squeeze the sound out like a pip from a squashed grape.

There’s a brief respite now with ‘En’, the lull before the storm. Because what arrives next is so typically British that no other country in the world could lay claim to it. ‘Tll’ can confound the most practiced linguist: an ill-prepared Oriental could physically explode trying. Remember, it’s not a ‘Bent-lee’, but a ‘Ben-tlee’. Even said gently, it’s a bullet.

The assault finally ends with ‘EEee’, a scream of pleasure echoing away into nothing, bouncing around like an orgasm in the woods. And all this has taken place in less than half a second. Try it.

See what I mean? As an added bonus, your Bentley will never submit itself to abbreviation. A Rolls Royce is a Roller and a Mercedes is a Merc, but a Bentley is only ever a Bentley.

The cars of little people, the Fords and the Volkswagens, they are cars to be driven. A Rolls Royce is there to be looked at. But a Bentley, ah, a Bentley. A Bentley is there to be said.

So think about it. And while you’re at it, take a look back at the person next to you. You’ve spent the last three minutes mouthing words like ‘Arroohh’, and ‘Tllee’ and ‘Be’.

That’s why they’re smiling!