Hard to Pronounce Literary Names Redux: the Definitive Edition

August 26, 2006 | 3 books mentioned 38 3 min read

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-‘see, -‘see-uh (audio via M-W)
  • Paul Theroux – both PD and EoL have it as thuh-ROO
  • Henry David Thoreau – thaw-‘roh (audio via M-W, via AH). The “Pronouncing Thoreau” sidebar on this NPR story goes into some further detail.
  • John Le Carre – luh-ka-ray (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-chuhn (audio via M-W, via AH)
  • Rainer Maria Rilke – ‘ry-nur Maria ‘ril-kuh, -kee (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 ‘ge(r)-tuh (audio), but offers ‘g[oe]-tuh 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 – ‘shay-mus ‘hee-nee (audio via M-W, via AH)
  • Jorge Luis Borges – ‘bor-“hays (audio via M-W, via AH)
  • Vladimir Nabokov – nuh-‘bo-kuff (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-uh-“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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