Hard to Pronounce Literary Names Redux: the Definitive Edition

August 26, 2006 | 3 books mentioned 37 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-‘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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created and edits The Millions. He is co-editor of the collection of essays The Late American Novel: Writers on the Future of Books, called "funny, poignant, relentlessly thought-provoking" by The Atlantic. He and his family live in New Jersey. If you'd like to correspond, please don't hesitate to email.

37 comments:

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

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

  4. 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?

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

  6. 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.

  7. 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…

  8. 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?

  9. 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)

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

  11. 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

  12. 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.

  13. 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.

  14. 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!

  15. 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.

  16. Anonymous:
    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.

  17. 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.

  18. 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.

  19. 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.

  20. 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!

    Josh

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