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My copy of Watership Down has many asterisks in the text to direct the reader to footnotes. Some of these footnotes are definitions of Lapine words:

*Nearly all warrens have an Owsla, or a group of strong or clever rabbits — second-year or older — surrounding the Chief Rabbit and his doe and exercising authority. Owslas vary...
Quote from Chapter 1: The Notice Board

I can understand why this footnote is important. It defines a term that the reader would be unfamiliar with, but which the characters would have no reason to explain. That term is important to understand the book. Therefore the temporary distraction from the main text at least serves a purpose to the story. The kind of footnotes I'm confused by are the ones that just have pronunciation guidelines:

[about the mythic rabbit hero El-ahrairah] *The stresses are the same as in the phrase, "Never say die."
Quote from Chapter 5: In the Woods

[about the warren Efrafa] *The first syllable is stressed and not the second, as in the word "Majesty."
Quote from Chapter 27: "You Can't Imagine It Unless You've Been There"

[about a character's name] *Thethuthinnang: "Movement of Leaves." The first and last syllables are stressed as in the phrase "Once in a way."
Quote from Chapter 35: Groping

(I'm sure there are more; these are the ones I found by randomly flipping through the book.) Why is it so important that when I pronounce these words in my head, I have the correct stresses? If I use the "wrong" stresses for these names, does it detract from the story? The footnotes, as they are not part of the main text, pull me out of the story a bit. Given that, why would simple pronunciation guides be put in the footnotes?

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  • What is "Lapine" (besides a particular surname)? In French there is lapine (lowercase "L") (doe (female rabbit). – Peter Mortensen Dec 29 '20 at 17:27
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The book originated as stories that the author told to his daughters to while away long travelling hours. Being an oral tale, Adams would know the pronunciations he used and it is likely that he included the information for the sake of helping the reader hear the words as he originally intended.

While he did not specifically address this question in his AMA in Reddit seven years ago, he did say this:

Lapine just occurred really. The point was that as the story was told, certain things that hadn't got a word for them came up, so a word had to be invented to cover them, to mean what they meant. Owsla is a good example.

And, as I have quoted previously

the key thing to note is that Watership Down was not initially intended to be a published novel. The story came about spontaneously as I told it to my children. It was never meant to be scrutinised as thoroughly as it has been.

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English is one of the languages where stress is very important to pronunciation. This is in contrast to many other languages where stress is either not an important feature of the language at all (e.g. French and Arabic don't really have well-defined stresses) or is always in the same place in each word (e.g. always on the first syllable in Hungarian, always on the penultimate syllable in Polish).

In languages like English and Russian, changing the stress in a word can greatly change its pronunciation. Consider the words "photograph", "photography", "photographic": they're all forms of the same root word, but the pronunciations are wildly different, purely because of differing stress positions: PHOtograph, phoTOGraphy, photoGRAPHic. I'm told that fluent Russian speakers can make a pretty good guess at where stresses will be even without being told beforehand, so that most dictionaries don't bother to indicate it although dictionaries for beginners do. But in English, even a native speaker may need to be told where the stress is when learning a new word. Like many things in the crazy English language, it's not predictable from the spelling.

Given the above, if you want to know the "correct" or intended way of pronouncing words like El-ahrairah, Efrafa, or Thethuthinnang, knowing where the stress is makes a lot of difference. And in a written medium such as a novel, you need to be told the stress locations explicitly. Try to sound out in your head EFrafa, efRAfa, efraFA. They sound very different indeed. As for El-ahrairah and Thethuthinnang ... well, even as a connoisseur of fantasy novels with their weird and wacky names, I count myself lucky that I first consumed Watership Down as an audiobook. Why Adams chose to use such difficult names for some of his characters would be a whole other question.

Speaking of fantasy novels, the practice of putting pronunciation guides for certain names is hardly restricted to Watership Down. It's a common thing in many fantasy series nowadays to include pronunciation guides: usually in endnotes or an appendix, but footnotes aren't unheard of.1 There are even some relevant TV Tropes pages (obligatory warning: clicking these links may send you down a rabbit hole2 of interlinked pages): No Pronunciation Guide (the situation where a pronunciation guide isn't included is noteworthy enough to merit its own trope page!) and perhaps AcCENT upon the Wrong SylLABle (emphasising the importance of placing stresses).

For some readers, they really want to know how to pronounce these new words, stresses and all. Presumably Adams included footnotes for the benefit of those readers. If you don't care, skip them, and you can still appreciate the story while pronouncing the names "wrong", although you might come a cropper if you try to discuss it verbally with other fans. If the slight fourth-wall-breaking ruins your immersion ... well, there's some of that in the main text of the story too, Adams slightly breaking character to explain to human readers some of the details of Lapine culture, like when El-ahrairah is mentioned for the first time.

1 If you want to see in-character usage of footnotes, which don't detract from the story or spoil your immersion at all, I highly recommend Jonathan Stroud's Bartimaeus series.

2 Pun unintended this time.

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  • 1
    We’re pronunciation guides in fantasy novels a thing prior to Watership Down? – Spagirl Dec 28 '20 at 20:28
  • @Spagirl I'm not sure. That could be a separate history-of-literature question, perhaps, although it might end up being answered by some obscure 17th-century story which included pronunciation notes, rather than popular fantasy novels :-) – Rand al'Thor Dec 28 '20 at 20:35
  • @Spagirl TIL that Richard Adams also wrote fantasy, including with another invented language like Lapine. Somehow I doubt he was the first to include a pronunciation guide though. Going through the stories mentioned in this SFF thread might bear fruit; Tolkien didn't include pronunciation guides AFAICR, but maybe some of his contemporaries or predecessors did. – Rand al'Thor Dec 28 '20 at 20:52
  • @Spagirl: This TVTropes page says that Kipling "included a pronunciation guide, 'How to Say the Names in This Book', in All the Mowgli Stories (1933)." So if you count that as fantasy, Watership Down was at least the second fantasy book to do it. – Peter Shor Dec 28 '20 at 22:10
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    @PeterShor That’s interesting. Though of course a significant proportion of those names were from existing languages and he didn’t IIRC invent a language for the book. kiplingsociety.co.uk/rg_junglebook_names.htm – Spagirl Dec 28 '20 at 22:40

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