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Hard to Pronounce Literary Names Redux: the Definitive Edition

By posted at 10:09 am on August 26, 2006 37

Thanks to some friendly advice from LanguageHat, and seeing competing pronunciations flying around in the comments of the previous pronunciation post, especially for that pesky Goethe, I decided to go to the library and to do a little more Internet research to try to get some definitive pronunciations for these names, specifically printed references where available.

At the library I took a look at Merriam-Webster’s Encyclopedia of Literature (EoL) – pronunciations aside, a very cool reference book – which was very helpful in giving me pronunciations for most of the names on our list. The problem is that the pronunciations are given using symbols that are not easily expressed in HTML, and thus are impossible to convey on this blog. Another problem is that the book was published in 1995, and thus leaves out some of the contemporary authors on this list.

However, with some further digging online, I was able to find some sources, including Merriam-Webster Online (M-W), which uses simplified, Internet friendly notation. You can refer to the M-W pronunciation guide for help if you need it. I also looked at the online version of the The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language: Fourth Edition (AH), whose pronunciations I’ve only linked to rather than copied because it uses images to convey pronunciation symbols, and I can’t easily replicate them here on the blog. Best of all, these two sources include audio pronunciations, as well. Very helpful. Finally I also looked at Pronouncing Dictionary of Proper Names (PD), some names from which somebody has posted here.

When none of those sufficed I used references from newspaper and magazine articles, hoping that their writers did the research and found out the correct pronunciations, ideally from the authors themselves.

  • J.M. Coetzee – kut-‘sE, -‘si& (audio via M-W)
  • Paul Theroux – both PD and EoL have it as thuh-ROO
  • Henry David Thoreau – th&-‘rO, tho-; ‘thor-(“)O, ‘th&r-(“)O (audio via M-W, via AH). The “Pronouncing Thoreau” sidebar on this NPR story goes into some further detail.
  • John Le Carre – l&-k&#228-‘rA (audio via M-W, via AH)
  • Dan Chaon – I’m going to stick with my friend Edan’s pronunciation – “Shawn” – since she had him as a teacher.
  • Pulitzer – ‘PULL it sir’ (see #19 in the Pulitzer FAQ, audio via M-W and via AH, which also offers the “PEW” pronunciation as an alternative.)
  • Donald Barthelme – There seems to be some disagreement on this one. AH has it with a “th” sound – see pronunciation and audio – while the EoL has it with a hard “t” sound. Not sure which is right.
  • Michael Chabon – “Pronounced, as he says, ‘Shea as in Stadium, Bon as in Jovi,'” according to this profile, though other news sources pronounce the last syllable ranging from “bun” to “bawn” to “bin
  • Thomas Pynchon – ‘pin-ch&n (audio via M-W, via AH)
  • Rainer Maria Rilke – ‘rI-n&r Maria ‘ril-k&, -kE (audio via M-W, via AH. AH does not offer the “long e” at the end as an alternative pronunciation, nor does EoL.)
  • Johann Wolfgang von Goethe – Unfortunately not much of a definitive answer here. M-W prefers saying it with more of an “r” sound ‘g&(r)-t& (audio), but offers ‘g[oe]-t& as an alternative. AH prefers the latter, note the the subtly different audio. EoL has both of those but it calls the “r” sound “Anglicized.” It also has a “long a” sound in the first syllable listed as Anglicized.
  • Ngugi wa Thiong’o – His first name is pronounced “Googy,” according to UC Irvine, where he teaches, while his last name is presumably pronounced phonetically.
  • Eoin Colfer – The Seattle PI and Guardian both say the first name is pronounced “Owen.” The last name is phonetic.
  • Seamus Heaney – ‘shA-m&s ‘hE-nE (audio via M-W, via AH)
  • Jorge Luis Borges – ‘bor-“hAs (audio via M-W, via AH)
  • Vladimir Nabokov – n&-‘bo-k&f (audio via M-W, via AH. Both AH and EoL offer alternative pronunciations with a stress on the first syllable.)
  • P.G. Wodehouse – ‘wud-“haus (audio via M-W, via AH)
  • Chuck Palahniuk – Lots of sources, including USA Today, say “Paula-nik.”
  • Michel HouellebecqLA Weekly and many other sources say “Wellbeck.”
  • Jeffrey Eugenides – “yu-GIN-e-dees” according to the Houston Chronicle.
  • Jack Kerouac – ‘ker-&-“wak (audio via M-W, via AH)
  • Colm Toibin – most sources, like the SF Chron have it as “toe-bean,” but the Boston Globe says “Column to-BEAN.”

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37 Responses to “Hard to Pronounce Literary Names Redux: the Definitive Edition”

  1. Anonymous
    at 4:13 pm on August 28, 2006

    Hate to be pedantic ( well, actually, I don't) but it's Houellebecq. It's because of that e that it's pronounced well…, otherwise it would be hool…

  2. Max
    at 5:13 pm on August 28, 2006

    After all that trouble, I'm felled by a lousy spelling error… Thanks for pointing it out. I've fixed it.

  3. Seth Christenfeld
    at 8:38 pm on March 6, 2007

    How about Dai Sijie? First name's pretty obvious, but I can't figure out the last.

  4. Anonymous
    at 9:51 am on July 3, 2007

    And Chinua Achebe?

  5. Anonymous
    at 3:59 pm on September 17, 2007

    Just a quick correction on Ngugi wa Thiong'o, in case anyone is trying to use this page as a resource.

    nGOOgi wa te ONG go. There's actually an audio version available here:

  6. Anonymous
    at 3:43 pm on October 24, 2007

    Is it Edward AL-bee or ALL-bee?

  7. Anonymous
    at 5:14 pm on October 30, 2007

    hi. i'm a bit embarrassed to ask this coz i'm not as intellectual as all the other bloggers posting comments on your page but my friend and i have been debating on how to properly pronounce the name Johann if given for a guy's name. one says it with a yo-han and the other says it with a jo-han. which is the correct one?

  8. Martin
    at 9:56 am on January 5, 2008

    I wouldn't bet on Anonymous ever coming back to see this reply after two months, but Johann in German is pronounced "yo-han."

  9. Günter
    at 1:06 am on January 6, 2008

    Andre Dubus always tripped me up when I first became a fan. Duh-byoose.

  10. Aaron Fai
    at 3:40 pm on January 8, 2008

    One of my thesis advisors at UCLA once told me as a child Donald Barthelme spent the night at his house. He couldn't remember the circumstances or tell me how his father had known DB, but he did remember that his name was definitely pronounced "BAR-tuhl-mee" with a hard T. This particular professor is not hard of memory, well under the age of 50, and exercises regularly.

  11. Anonymous
    at 4:03 am on April 15, 2008

    I remember embarrassing myself once when I pronounced Albert Camus (Kam-oo) as Albert Kam-ah-s, infront of a group of philosophy buffs. Oh how my face turned red when I found out…

  12. Maegan
    at 5:59 pm on April 18, 2008

    Does anyone know how to pronounce Paule Marshall's name? She was born Valenza Pauline Burke. I'm not sure if Paule is short for Pauline and should be Paul-lay, simply Paul. Any ideas?

  13. ovejanegra
    at 11:23 am on June 22, 2008

    The BBC Pronunciation Blog has been moved to this page –

    It's very helpful! I know how to pronounce Tsvangirai now. :D

  14. Thomas
    at 7:20 pm on July 12, 2008

    Did the late Americanized intellectual historian George Mosse pronounce his name MOSS or the Germanic MOSS-UH? (And the first name?)

    I went to a slightly snobby undergrad university and although most people gave Walter Benjamin's name an English first name pronunciation but did the vaguely Germanic Ben-yuh-meen for the last. I am returning to grad school and wondering what the current thing is?

    Tom [email protected] (let me know at that address also if you don't mind — I tend to forget where I post things)

  15. Anonymous
    at 4:35 am on July 16, 2008

    Anyone know how to pronounce Des Esseintes, the name of the main character in 'Against Nature' or 'Against the Grain' by Huysmans?

  16. Thomas
    at 9:59 am on July 16, 2008

    I don't know the Huysmans work but a standard French pronunciation would be close to dez-es-sent or des-es-sant. There are exceptions but usually you do pronounce the S before a vowel (unlike the way we say Des Moines, Iowa.)
    Now, how do you pronounce Huysman?

    By the way, I finally asked (by e-mail) the chairman of the history department where Mosse last worked before his death and he said Mosse used an Americanized "Mossy".amkunstwerk

  17. A Journey Round My Skull
    at 2:20 pm on August 1, 2008

    I may be repeating others, but here are my contributions:

    Huysmans is apparently "H'WEES'maan." At least I somehow feel comfortable saying it that way.

    Cioran is TCHAW-rahn (according to the Times obit), but I will never feel comfortable pronouncing his name.

    Walser is Valser, and I pronounce his book "Jakob von Gunten" as "YAH-cub von GOO-tin" — please correct me in the comments if I'm wrong because this is my favorite novel!

    I picked up "Ben-ya-MEAN" as an underground but still use the "W" in "Walter."

    I always pronounce Bataille "Buh-TIE" and Blanchot "BLAN-show," hopefully correctly.

    I hear Musil is M'EEOO-zil.

    I've heard "ZAY-bald" for W.G.Sebald (from people who know German). Presumably I don't have to pronounce the "W" and "G" in anything other than my annoying Philly ACK-sent.

  18. Jorn
    at 2:36 am on October 2, 2008

    Pynchon puts the accent on the last syllable, see especially his voicework for The Simpsons.

  19. Yes I Do Weddings
    at 10:55 pm on January 27, 2010

    pronunciation for Louis de Bernières please?

    ~ Anita Revel
    (pronounced Re-VELL to rhyme with bell) ;-)))

  20. Bryan
    at 1:34 pm on February 3, 2010

    If we don’t mind diving into genre, China Mieville might be a good addition to the list? Wikipedia has a pronunciation in IPA, but I’m not sure what its source was.

  21. Library News and Literary Links « Nicole, Worcester
    at 11:28 am on February 8, 2010

    […] Hard-to-pronounce literary names; here are authors saying their own names; also, I’d been second-guessing how I say ’Coleridge’, and I’m glad to see that at least one other person justifies my pronunciation. […]

  22. Nancy
    at 11:51 am on April 7, 2010

    How do you pronounce Albert Szent-Gyoergyi?

  23. Things Like Other Things « Odd Lots
    at 6:50 pm on April 16, 2010

    […] Things Like Other Things by bcs on April 16, 2010 Michael Schaub has linked to a BuzzFeed post that reproduces a page (48, it seems) from something called the Panorama Book Review (Was that a thing?), which shows how to pronounce a few difficult to parse literary names. Which reminded me of one of my favorite features over at The Millions: Hard to Pronounce Literary Names. […]

  24. put the well in houellebecq « a sisyphean task
    at 8:03 am on May 25, 2010

    […] I’ve written a few examples below, but for an exhaustive list with links to audio clips, see this article from The […]

  25. George Beard
    at 10:47 pm on January 15, 2011

    Does anyone know how to pronounce, R. G. Vliet, author of Scorpio Rising?

  26. grumblekitty
    at 1:02 am on April 5, 2011

    I am so glad someone else wants to know how to pronounce China Mieville’s name. That was my first thought when I saw the headline. I even speak french, but those sounds don’t want to come out right for me!

  27. Eleonora
    at 12:52 am on April 14, 2011

    How do you pronounce the name of Chinese philosopher Tehyi Hsieh? Thankyou

  28. How Do You Pronounce That Writer’s Name? « BIG OTHER
    at 11:37 am on April 29, 2011

    […] This much better post answers many of my questions, as well as several I didn’t think to ask. (And it too was […]

  29. L.Viada
    at 6:00 pm on October 3, 2011

    Borges has no long-A sound. It’s Bor’ hess – with a short e as in let. The long vowels of English have no counterparts in Spanish except long e which corresponds roughly to the Spanish i as in lindo – leen’ doh. So, Quesadilla is not Kay sah dee yah, it’s keh sah dee’ yah – impress your latino friends.

  30. Ian
    at 8:01 pm on March 8, 2012

    My dad knew Don Barthelme, and he pronounces it with a “th” sound.

  31. Jake Austen
    at 1:07 pm on June 11, 2012

    It is ok to pronounce Albert Camus’ last name as “Kah-mahs”, or “Ca-moose”.
    Anyone who says otherwise is ignorant and I will slap them down in any knowledge or IQ test in existence.
    They are mediocre pieces of rubbish who try to bolster themselves culturally by learning the original pronounciation of a few words or names, but have no more knowledge than that.
    People who correct you on Camus’ last name will generally be cultural backwater. Try it out. Be a prick and mispronounce his name in front of an a-hole on purpose and if he corrects you, say something like: “Ah, you must be someone of learning and refinement, someone who must also know about art history, literature, the humanities and the sciences. Let’s talk about them now since I want to learn and you seem to imply by such a refined correction that you are knowledgeable. I cannot wait to be enlightened”.
    Or, say something similar but less of a mouthful.
    People who correct Camus’ pronounciation also eat with chopsticks but don’t know of the conventions of the Japanese woodcuts that influenced Van Gogh.
    Just ignorant rubbish. Sad, really.
    Sorry, but it really irritates me to hear of mediocre ignorant people hanging onto one correct pronounciation as if it makes them cultured. Useless.

  32. Mijaed
    at 3:54 am on September 4, 2012

    how to say
    Vladimir Nabokov

  33. Cherries and Clay » Blog Archive » Michael Chabon Hits Town
    at 2:39 pm on September 15, 2012

    […] and incidentally, it’s pronounced “SHAY-bon.” I spent many years callin’ the guy Michael “sha-BONE!” You can follow […]

  34. StevenD
    at 6:29 am on November 15, 2012

    Contrary to the version given above (which as how I was pronouncing it before hand) the actual pronunciation of Huysmans is ‘OUS-mans’ with a completely silent H.

    This is according to a friend of mine who is fluent in French.

  35. Ondine
    at 3:01 pm on August 3, 2013

    ok, I am bilingual in French and English, and in English, Huysmans is pronounced something like “weess-MAWSS.” That’s the closest I can get.

  36. Ann Vliet
    at 5:04 pm on March 4, 2015

    Just ran across your query about how to pronounce R. G. Vliet’s name. Since I’m his widow let me reassure you that his mother pronounced it 5 different ways and that hardly anyone gets it right. The name is Dutch, was Van Vliet, so that Van Fleet was the correct pronunciation. Dropping the Van made it difficult to believe, but the voiced F (v) is the accepted Americanized way, hence the one-syllable, long e, Vleet. Most people try to insert a vowel between the V and L or use a French pronunciation or variants thereof–absolutely wrong. Vleet. is your best bet, but you probably know that by now.

  37. Joshua Vliet
    at 8:21 am on January 23, 2017

    Hi Ann,

    Russel was my great uncle and everyone in my family tells me how much we would have gotten along / how I remind them of him. I am the son of John Vliet, who is the son of my estranged grandfather, Ron. If by some chance you get this I would love to email you sometime about his career as a writer / know some other things about him. His writing has always resonated with me in a very odd, spiritual like way, as if him and I have some strange, esoteric sort of characteristics in common somehow. I am also intrigued by your explanation of how to pronounce Vliet- as I have been raised to pronounce it “Vuh-leet,” whereas you are saying the most accurate pronunciation is “Fleet”? Very interested in anything you have to say about any of this as I have long been curious of my Dutch origins, the otherside of my family lineage being Finnish. Cheers!


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