Hard to Pronounce Literary Names

August 22, 2006 | 3 books mentioned 93 3 min read

Update 3: Thanks to some friendly advice, and seeing competing pronunciations flying around in the comments, 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. So here is a new updated post on Hard to Pronounce Literary Names

Ask the Internet any question you want, and usually you’ll be able to learn the answer, but for some reason it’s not very good at helping people find out how to pronounce words and names. I’ve noticed, looking at my visitor logs, that people show up here again and again trying to find how to pronounce a handful of difficult literary names. Sadly they’ve found no answers here… until now. So on to the pronunciations.

  • J.M. Coetzee – the Nobel Laureate’s name is pronounced “cut-ZEE-uh” according to this Slate article and a number of other news items.
  • Paul Theroux – This well-known travel writer’s name “is pronounced ‘Thor-ew,'” says the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, “not like the dude from Walden Pond” (which would be Henry David Thoreau, whose name, according to the “Pronouncing Thoreau” sidebar to this NPR story is frequently mispronounced; it is supposed to sound like “thorough.”)
  • Spy novelist John Le Carre is pronounced “luh KAR-AY” or “luh kahr-AY,” according to this site, which lists pronunciations found in the Pronouncing Dictionary of Proper Names (who knew that such a book existed?). Incidentally, Le Carre is actually the pseudonym of David John Moore Cornwell.
  • Contemporary novelist and short story author Dan Chaon is pronounced “Shawn.” So says my friend Edan, who was a student of his at Oberlin.
  • Pulitzer, as in the prize and newspaper magnate Joseph Pulitzer – Number 19 in the Pulitzer FAQ: “The correct pronunciation is ‘PULL it sir.'”

If anybody else has other ideas for hard to pronounce literary names, leave them in the comments and we’ll add them to the list. Meanwhile, here’s a bonus link. The BBC has launched a pronunciation blog (via LanguageHat).

Update: Some great suggestions are rolling in from the comments. Kyle’s got some classic problem names:

  • Donald Barthelme = “Bartle-may” not “Bar-THELM” as I had originally heard. Michael Silverblatt solved that one for me.
  • Michael Chabon = “SHAY-bun” not “Sha-BON” like my friend has said.
  • Thomas Pynchon = “PIN-chawn” not “PIN-shin” or “PIN-chin” etc. etc.

…and for kicks here are two German oldies that need some respect…

  • Rainer Maria Rilke = “RILL-kuh” not “RILL-kee”
  • and Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe = “GOO-tuh” not “GARE-tuh” like we smarmy Americans like to think it is. I have heard it as “GO-thee” and all kinds of botched up ways, but yesterday I asked a German woman who is a Lit. major and she straightened it out. Apparently, here in the states we overemphasize the umlaut to an R when it isn’t as harsh as that. [Bud contends that you don’t “ignore the r sound altogether in Goethe.” In Chicago, there is a Goethe Street in the Old Town neighborhood, which the locals apparently pronounce Go-EE-the, though I could never figure out if they were just pulling my leg. –Max]

Laurie adds Ngugi Wa’Thiong’O, the Kenyan author whose latest book Wizard of the Crow just came out and Eoin Colfer, neither of whose names I know how to pronounce. Any help? She also suggests Seamus Heaney, Nobel laureate, which The Traveller tells us is pronounced SHAY-mus HEE-knee.

Update 2: Some debate about Seamus Heaney in the comments, but this NY Times article seems to confirm it: “SHAY-muss HEE-nee”. Kyle, meanwhile, informs us that Eoin Colfer is pronounced “Owen”. My favorite unpronounceable book title, by the way, is James McCourt’s Mawrdew Czgowchwz, pronounced “Mar-dew Gorgeous”.

created The Millions and is its publisher. He and his family live in New Jersey.

93 comments:

  1. Barthelme = "Bartle-may" not "Bar-THELM" as I had originally heard. Michael Silverblatt solved that one for me.
    Chabon = "SHAY-bun" not "Sha-BON" like my friend has said.
    Ummm…oh..
    Pynchon = "PIN-chawn" not "PIN-shin" or "PIN-chin" etc. etc.
    …and for kicks here are two German oldies that need some respect…
    Rilke = "RILL-kuh" not "RILL-kee"
    and
    Goethe = "GOO-tuh" not "GARE-tuh" like we smarmy Americans like to think it is. I have heard it as "GO-thee" and all kinds of botched up ways, but yesterday I asked a German woman who is a Lit. major and she straightened it out. Apparently, here in the states we overemphasize the umlaut to an R when it isn't as harsh as that. So I am told. Anyway. Those are a few. If I think of more I will post them.

    Kyle Winkler.

  2. Ngugi Wa'Thiong'O, Kenyan author whose latest book "Wizard of the Crow" just came out this month.

    Seamus Heaney, nobel laureate.

    Eoin Colfer, children's author.

  3. The "G" in W.G. Sebald stands for Georg (no e). I think that's pronounced something like Gayorg (hard Es). What thinks ye, Mr. Max?

    Also, don't think you ignore the r sound altogether in Goethe

  4. I agree on Ngugi Wa'Thiong'o – I am afraid to even say his name out loud.

    Seamus Heaney is pronounced SHAY-mus HEE-knee.

  5. Eoin = "Owen"
    And I have always heard Heaney pronounced
    "HAY-nee" even by many Irish people, when I visited.
    I can't help with the African name, although I will try to find someone who can.
    And that's interesting about that Chicago street name…

    Kyle

  6. This was a fun excuse to Google curious sources such as the BBC Pronunciation Unit blog. More Chicago lore: Buildings in the Carl Sandburg Village condo complex are named for James, Faulkner, Alcott, Cummings and other authors. Tell the cabbie, "Clark and GO-thee."

  7. Bud: I think I'll just stick with "WG" so as not to worry about such things.

    Steve: I always wondered about that Carl Sandburg Village but never knew that the buildings are named after literary greats… Perhaps I can do a little research and put together a post on the place.

  8. I guess I should pitch in a bit as well.

    Isn't Rainer Maria Rilke's first name pronounced oddly as well: RYE-ner, not RAY-ner?

  9. "
    Goethe = "GOO-tuh" not "GARE-tuh" like we smarmy Americans like to think it is. I have heard it as "GO-thee" and all kinds of botched up ways, but yesterday I asked a German woman who is a Lit. major and she straightened it out. Apparently, here in the states we overemphasize the umlaut to an R when it isn't as harsh as that. So I am told. Anyway. Those are a few. If I think of more I will post them."

    This isn't really correct. You don't pronounce it GOO, like sticky stuff, tuh.
    It is a more gutteral sound, but if you need to simplify the pronunciation "GUH-tuh" would be closer than "GOO-tuh"

  10. Vladimir Nabokov: Vla-DEEM-eer Nuh-BOCK-off. Not NAB-uh-kov, like in The Police's "Don't Stand So Close To Me."

  11. Also, P.G. Wodehouse is WOOD-house. It doesn't rhyme with Patrick Swayze's greatest accomplishment, Roadhouse.

  12. how do you say Cervantes? and whats the correct way to say Don Quixote?

    is it Don 'KEE-OH-TEE' or 'QUICKS-OTT'

    theres a word in English, Quixotic, which is pronounced 'QUICKS-OTIC'

  13. I saw Ngugi wa Thiong'o last week at the Edinburgh Book Festival – I'm not much good at phonetic spelling but his name seems to be pronounced un-goo-gee wah thee-ong-go (hard 'g'in Ngugi, and actually a cross between 'in' and 'un' for the first syllable).
    He was a great speaker – terribly articulate in English but a terribly thick accent; I'm quite sure, unfortunately, that I missed some parts of his talk.

  14. don quixote is pronounced: don kee-HO-tay

    maud, i've heard ngugi's pronounced similarly: en-goo-gee wa-thyon-go

  15. OO ELL BEK, but it'll sound like "WEL BEK" to most English speakers because the "OO ELL" is pronounced so quickly.

    (The H is silent, and "ou" in French is like English "oo".)

  16. Michael Critchon–I was told is pronounced CRY ton.

    Great info! Thanks!

    Lynne AKA The Wicked Witch of Publishing

  17. I'm a librarian… the most mispronounced author name I hear is Annie Proulx.

    Proulx, according to my French friends is a very very very old spelling. The "l" and the "x" are both silent. You pronounce it PROO (rhymes with "new".

    Don Quixote in SPANISH is pronounced Don Kee-HOH'-teh. The "Don" rhymes with "Tone." I think the other pronunciations derived from French people mis-pronouncing the name. Americans needn't be too ashamed of how we mispronounce foreign words. Have you heard the BBC reporters say "Nicaragua"? Ha! It's a hoot. They say "Nick-uh-RAG-yoo-ah." It is properly pronounced more like "Nee-ka-ra'-wa."

  18. Don Quixote: above poster (hephaestion) is correct. And yes, quixotic is derived from his name, pronounced quiks-OD-ik, as Spanish already has its own "quijotesco" (kee-ho-TES-ko).

    Cervantes: ser-VAN-tes. ser has soft "r", almost like "sed", van not like the vehicle, like "yawn", and tes as in "test", omitting the last "t".

  19. The guy got Nabokov's first name right, but in interviews he has said the "bok" rhymes with "smoke" and the "ov" rhymes with "of." He also said once the "bok" rhymes with "gawk," which I think is only correct if you're thinking of a British pronunciation of the word (which I think would then rhyme with "smoke" only with more of a curl in it, making the pronunciation more Russian-sounding, if that makes sense).
    I would transcribe it something like–Nuh-bowk-of.

  20. concerning matthew kneale, author of ENGLISH PASSENGERS. Is the correct pronunciation neil oder neilè, which I seem to remember to have picked up somewhere. Thanks

  21. DON QUIXOTE…. In the period in which the story was written the 'X' would have been pronounced like 'SH'. So, actually, you would say "kee-sho-tee". Modern Spanish is where "kee-ho-tee" comes from and "kwiks-ott" is pretty laughable (although it has been used for ages).

  22. Actually, the suggestions are almost right, except that the "ng" in Thiong'o should be a soft "ng" like in "sing". "Ngugi" should be pronounced with just an "n" sound, not an "un", before the "goo gee". If you can't manage that, then start with the "ng" in "sing" and go from there to the hard g sound. Also, my understanding is that in Gikuyu his name would have short vowels where there are ~ marks, such that u would rhyme with "good", etc., but the long-vowel pronounciation is so common in the States I'm sure he's used to it.

  23. I have lived in Old Town in Chicago for 13 years and everyone I know pronounces Goethe as Guer-tuh, which may be the smarmy American way, however I have never heard it botched to the point of Go-EE-the.

  24. I am new, I stumbled upon this site by chance when I was researching the proper pronunciation of various literary names. I am not sure if it has already been noted or not, but I also found a site called http://www.howjsay.com. It is a website that has a collection of over 2,000 English words (including authors, and commonly used phrases). All you do is type in the author name(i.e.; Albert Camus) and the pronunciation is given. (I read that the pronunciation is researched from a collection of various dictionaries, and other sources). I hope this helps.. or at least you find the site interesting. :) thanks.

  25. John Proulx, Jazz Singer & Pianist is always mispronounced. It is pronounced "Proo" Like "Shoe". Some people have called him John Prowl like the "Owl" This is incorrect. Thank you

  26. Bless you!! I love this site. Annie Proulx is one of my favorite authors, but I'm always afraid to say her name out loud. (I have been saying it correctly- thanks to my junior high school French.)

  27. I have been trying to find out how to pronounce robert L Cvornyek’s name and also Elliot Cuff and also Prince Vuyani Ntintili. If any one can help me out thak you. I dont have an e mail of my own but i would appreciate it if some one would call me back at 1-240-603-9284 with the pronounciation of these words please and th ank you.

  28. According to my African Literature professor, whose “The River Between” we just read and knows him personally and speaks Kikuyu/Gikuyu, Ngugi wa Thiang’o is pronounced, “NYOO-gee (hard g) wah TEE-ongo”.

  29. It’s not “GOO-tuh”, and I’m not saying your German lit professor was wrong, I’m saying you misheard some subtleties or you did not correctly phonetically spell it out. Pronouncing the German “oe” or umlaut is very hard for some Americans. There is still an ‘R’ there it just gets kind of swallowed by the preceding noise, we just don’t recognize it, and trying to explain how it’s not GOO is kind of difficult, check out Wikipedia’s entry for Goethe and click the “listen” function to the right of his name.

  30. Answering my own question:
    According to a 1997 interview with Robert Crais in the Baltimore Sun, his name is pronounced like “face.”

  31. How do I pronounce Louis de Bernières? I get Louis = Loo-ey, but the surname?

    I need it for a wedding I’m doing on Saturday – the couple has chosen a reading from Captain Corelli’s Mandolin

    Thanks
    Anita

  32. I’d love to kow the correct pronunciation of Don DeLillo’s last name. Is it actually “duh-LIL-lo” as I’ve heard?

  33. Goethe: ‘GOO-tuh’ is completely wrong. Anonymous 25 August 2006 is right. The Germans pronounce him ‘GER-tuh’.

  34. If you live on the Westbank in New Orleans and happen to live on Socrates Street, the pronunciation there is So-Crats. See the wonderful book, “Frenchmen, Desire, Good Children”- these are all street names.

  35. Thanks for this valuable list. To tweak one of the additions: Chabon is actually “SHAY-bon” not “SHAY-bun” (he’s helpfully described it as Shay as in Shea Stadium, Bon as in Bon Jovi).

  36. Yeah, I can confirm that in Chicago I’ve never once heard Goethe pronounced anything than “Gerta.”

    To the people arguing that “No, it’s GER-tuh” “No, it’s GOO-tuh” – I’m pretty sure it’s neither. The umlaut is a sound that most americans don’t know how to pronounce, so it more like something in between the two. So American though of us to only be able to think of it in American terms.

  37. It is frustrating when authors like Paul Theroux mispronounce their own last name… Thor-EW?

    Maybe he should visit French Canada (Quebec) and see how the 99% of the Theroux’s there (some of whom are probably related to him) PROPERLY pronounce it.

    I swear that some authors just like to be difficult.

  38. The pronunciation for the last name Barthelme is exactly how it is spelled .
    Barth-el -me. Nothing fancy as you can see it is my last name and people try to make it sound more glorious than it is .

  39. Merriam Webster lists the pronunciation of Mr. Pynchon’s name as “\ˈpin-chən\.” I’m inclined to trust Merriam rather than themillions.com, barring any further evidence.

  40. I once had an embarrassing experience pronouncing ‘Goethe’ as ‘Go-ETH’ in front of my English class – in my defence I’d never said it out loud before..and it sounded fine in my head! So to avoid this in the future – does anyone know the definitive pronunciation of ‘Chinua Achebe’?

  41. Quick note about Don Quixote. The use of ‘kwicks ote’, though harsh to our ears, was the pronunciation used when the story appeared in England. It’s incorrect in light of Spanish, but for anyone reading the English translation who wants to speak of the text in its initial, serial form, ‘kwicks ote’ is the way to go. A holdover from this is in the word quixotic.

  42. What about Jodi Picoult? I’ve heard “pi-COLT,” and “pee-COO,”
    but I think it’s “pi-COE.”

  43. So now I need to know. How is Mahala pronounced? I found this in my genealogy and thought it was either ‘muh hall uh’ or ‘muh hay la’ but wasn’t quite sure. And is Mahalia Jackson’s name pronounced the same or different?

  44. How do you pronounce John Lescroart’s last name. We work in a public library and we want to pronounce author’s names correctly.

    We really enjoy this site.

  45. I’ve heard that “Mainwaring” (as in the Barbara Pym character) is pronounced “Mannering.”

  46. I’m bilingual, English/German. Goethe is tricky for Americans especially. “Gerta” or “Girtuh” are close, but don’t pronounce the “r” sound! Like in British “posh” English, the word “girl” sounds more like “gull” , but lengthened and very slightly nasalised.

  47. Great discussion! Please forgive a non-author related question, but I’ve seen many Dutch names that begin with ” ‘t “. Anyone have any idea how to pronounce this?

  48. I see the name Alcott at the top of the list. In Concord, Massachusetts, where she lived, Louisa May Alcott’s surname is pronounced AWL-cut, not AL-cot, like the tennis player’s.

  49. The g’s in Borges’ name are phlegm-ish. Just FYI. Not pure “H” sounds. Closer to a Dutch g but not quite so “cough up a hairball” as that. All due respect to Dutch speakers (I’m a huge BLØF fan).

    Fun stuff. I struggle with the names of some of my favorite authors all the time.

  50. English uses the diaeresis mark (the double dot) in words such as naïve to tell you that the vowels do not form a dipthong but are to be pronounced separately. I think it’s the same with Anaïs. My guess is a-NAY-is.
    Mostly the mark is dropped now; e.g. it used to be commonly used for daïs, and Zoë, and so on.

  51. The Chicago street is & always has been pronounced “Go-thee”!
    A few people did say “Go-Ee-Thee”, but they were a rarity.
    What’s totally absurd is the automated voice on buses here says “Gare-ta” with the next stop being Burton, both sound similar.
    The only reason the bus is “Gare-ta”, is that the previous head of the Chicago Transit Authority was of German descent & demanded that pronunciation.
    But no one here says that, just as we pronounce “Buena St.” as “Bew-enn-a”!

  52. C. Max McGee and Michelle Barthelme:

    I would never presume to tell anyone how to pronounce his or her name. However, I will say that Michael Silverblatt doesn’t pronounce it Bartle-may OR Barth-el-may. He pronounces it Barth-el-mee. Check out his interview with Dave Eggers here, minute 7:07. And as he says, Donald Barthelme was his friend and mentor, so he’d probably know:
    http://www.kcrw.com/etc/programs/bw/bw050210dave_eggers

  53. Thor-ew for “Thereux”? I know it’s still an Americanized pronunciation, but where are they getting the “o”? Plus, in French names, syllables do not end in consonants. I don’t know if there’s meant to be an accent there, but if there is, in French it would be tay-roo; if not; teh-roo. The Americanized version would be the-roo, (soft th) not tho-roo.

  54. How do you pronounce David Baldacci?
    I’ve heard both Baldachee as well as Baldakee and I don’t which is right.

  55. Where are you getting an “o” sound in Thereux? In French it would be Théreux, which sounds like tay-RUH (where the “uh” sound is like the u in “put.” The Americanized version would be more like thuh- (th sound as in “thistle) ruh (same “u” as in”put” or thuh-ROO. Not tho-roo.

  56. The childrens’ author Rick Riordan. The surname is pronounced Ryer-dan and not Rhee-or-dan as I once thought.

    Great post!

  57. Henry David Theroux. Kinfolk and followers near Walden Pond say THOR-oh. Most Americans say Tha-ROH.

  58. Ngugi Wa Thiong’o’s name is pronounced NGOO-gee (the NG is the same as it is in anger, and the second part is the same as ghee) WAH Thee-ong-oh (the TH as it is in ‘this’, and the ng is a soft one, as in bang).

    There is no “IN” as suggested by Judson. I should know, I’m Kenyan

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