Rules of Pronouncing Foreign names in English
October 8, 2021 9:18 PM   Subscribe

I'm an avid reader, obsessed with spelling accurately and ashamed about the ways English speakers lazily review foreign names. In the past I've seen for instance, the Vietnamese name Phuong as well as Phoung but don't know if they (cont)

are pronounced the same (Foon? Or Fəng? Fong?) I'm also perplexed by Consonant clusters in Polish or Ukrainian names that have a "Z" where a vowel should be like Grzegorz Brzęczyszczykiewicz. Ill pronounced that Grey'GORZ brezzies-SHE-Ka Wits.
Please tell me is there a rule associated with such letter pairings not common in English names? I'm most curious about non-latin speaking countries
posted by The_imp_inimpossible to Writing & Language (25 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
It will vary by language. Each has its own rules for pronunciation. In Vietnamese, there will also be tonal aspects that aren't rendered in an English alphabet (without diacritical marks).

This will be...different in languages that don't use the Roman alphabet, where the names are translated/rendered and may be done differently by different translators, but would be more likely to be intuitive for English speakers, as there aren't competing phonetic rules.
posted by DebetEsse at 9:38 PM on October 8, 2021

It depends. I mean, it can depend when the name was transliterated and by which system - if it was a system and not an Ellis Island equivalentt. Check out the three most common ways that Chinese has been romanized
posted by bashing rocks together at 10:02 PM on October 8, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: You're asking not how to pronounce these words "in English", but how a speaker of those languages would pronounce them, right? (Because the answer to how English speakers pronounce non-English words is "(a) differently depending on what dialect of English they speak, and (b) probably nothing at all like what a native speaker would ever come up with".)

Like the previous comments note, an alphabet is just a way of representing sounds with symbols, and since every language has different sounds, it also has its own rules or standards about how its sounds can be represented using the Latin alphabet. For example, English uses the letter "j" to represent a dch sound, German uses it to represent a y sound, Spanish uses it for the throat sound that English doesn't have and that German represents with a ch, etc. For languages that don't use the Latin alphabet itself, there are often multiple competing systems for how their sounds should be mapped onto Latin symbols. For example, Достоевский can be transcribed as Dostoevsky or Dostoyevsky, or less commonly Dostoyevskiy, Dostoevski, Dastayevsky, and a bunch of other possibilities.

To know how to pronounce the word without actually knowing the language, you need to know (a) the sounds of the language, and (b) what transcription system the transcriber was using. Often you can figure (b) out if you have some familiarity with the phonetic logic of the language (i.e. the way its sounds work).

Anyway, here's the system for Polish (which does use the Latin alphabet, so there's only one system). All the dz, rz, etc. combinations are just ways of representing specific sounds that don't have individual letters, like ch, sh, th, etc. in English.

There are websites (I don't have time to look them up right now) that have recordings of native speakers pronouncing words and names in their languages; wikipedia, Google translate, and others sometimes have audio recordings; and if you really want to get hardcore, you can learn the IPA (the International Phonetic Alphabet, which tries, if not entirely successfully, to represent every sound in every language) so you can read IPA transcriptions in dictionaries and encyclopedias. (For example, wikipedia transcribes Достоевский in IPA as dəstɐˈjefskʲɪj.)

Thank you for making the effort!
posted by trig at 10:42 PM on October 8, 2021 [18 favorites]

FYI, Brzęczyszczykiewicz is closer to "Bshechish-chickevich" in transliteration.

It's also worth noting that English is exceptional in not being written the way it's pronounced. Most languages I've seen, once you know what sound each letter and combo corresponds to (of course providing they're written properly, without diacritics plain skipped), you can read anything. I may be still bitter over the fact segue is pronounced segway...
posted by I claim sanctuary at 11:04 PM on October 8, 2021 [7 favorites]

Romanization of non-English words (especially names) is fraught.

There are no hard rules, and multiple different non-English names have the same anglicization, or the same name with different anglicizations.

Same thing happened with European emigrants into North America in the 19th and 20th centuries - if you aren't already familiar, look up Staten Island/ American immigration and their callousness about non-English European names. A lot of times, instead of even an attempt at approximation - the agent just gave the immigrant family a semi-random surname that was "close enough" to the agent's ear.

Even with French surnames - I've known multiple people who's ancestry is French, with a lineage to their ancestral name, but who go by Nuckles or Nickles or Molnux - sometimes even when it's still even spelled correctly as Molineaux (but often the spelling changed).

My surname is a (minor) posterchild for this. I'm HKer, ancestors were familiar with English, but weren't familiar with "special cases" and my surname is WEIRD. It's already weird in my mother language, the anglicization is just fucked. I have relatives who studied in Britain in the 60s and legally changed their surname because of the misunderstanding of special-case English spellings.

See also, Jean Nguyen (John Wayne), a situation popularized by 'Cryptonomicon.'
posted by porpoise at 11:07 PM on October 8, 2021 [4 favorites]

If this is a practical thing, just ask.

However, I've had so many people not be able to pronounce my actual surname that I've 1) assured them that pronouncing it as a close (in spelling) Irish/ English equivalent is ok, 2) have them go overboard and try to pronounce it (badly) in the Mandarin way (which is kind of offensive to me, but I let it slide), or 3) people just avoid having to try to say my surname.

My go-to thing now, when people ask, is that I don't really care, that I grew up with people calling me by my Irish/ English pronunciation of the cognate of the transliteration and that's ok now.

My sister married and had a kid with someone with a Scots-English surname; the kid has the father's surname, father's family's traditional name as a middle, and the Irish/ English similar-enough-to-the-anglicized-Cantonese surname as a first name.

edit: SORRY, in my previous post, it should be "Ellis Island," not "Staten"
posted by porpoise at 11:17 PM on October 8, 2021 [1 favorite]

It's a total derail, but my genealogist friend would glare at me if I didn't point out that immigrants' names weren't changed at Ellis Island.

Pedant tag doesn't close.
posted by DebetEsse at 11:28 PM on October 8, 2021 [18 favorites]

One of my minor hobbies is learning other languages' phonology. It takes work, and there are always subtleties you won't know about without actually knowing the language (like accents!), but you can learn a fair bit off Wikipedia, Forvo, and other online resources. It helps to be a little obsessive (which you say you are!), and it really really helps to be able to read IPA so you aren't at the mercy of everyone's different way of attempting to transliterate sounds that don't exist in English into English.

It also helps to have a Linguistics 101–level knowledge of phonetics and phonology so you can understand what the descriptions of IPA sounds are telling you to do with your tongue (actually doing it may still be a challenge), what the differences are between sounds that sound exactly the hell alike if you're not used to the distinction, and what kinds of patterns are common across languages (such as voicing and devoicing sounds in particular positions). You still have to work on one language at a time, but gradually you get some intuition for things that might happen in other languages, just as your intuition for English tells you when the -s ending for a plural sounds like "z" and when it sounds like "s" and when it sounds like "iz". This intuition, to me, is the key to actually remembering the rules I've learned.

As I claim sanctuary says, many languages have a more regular correspondence between spelling and pronunciation than English, but don't count on things to be too simple. Each letter/digraph in German makes an extremely predictable sound, but the stress can be harder to predict (is it KAFFee or KaffEE?). French has lots of silent letters but then, sometimes, a letter that looks like it should be silent isn't. (Possibly because of what the next word in the sentence is.) Proper names in any language may not follow the rules that most words follow. Even pinyin, which was designed for transliteration, has quirks (not all -an syllables rhyme, sometimes the -uo sound is written as just -o, etc. etc.). Be prepared for every language to have its own weirdness, but that's part of the fun!

GZHEH-gosh bzhen-chih-shchih-KYEH-veech.
posted by aws17576 at 12:03 AM on October 9, 2021 [5 favorites]

Thank you for caring.
BUT, my name cannot be pronounced by anyone who grew up speaking English or any other language than my own. I still don't quite understand why my parents thought it would be a good idea to combine their surname which is hard to say with my first name which is impossible to say, when they knew I was going to grow up in several countries and study in more. I blame them alone, not the people who butcher my name in various interesting ways.
posted by mumimor at 12:40 AM on October 9, 2021 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: I am more so looking for ways to mnemonic my language skills and help myself learn to pronouncd proper names that don't follow American English language laws. The hints and tips you all have given me is a great start.
posted by The_imp_inimpossible at 1:11 AM on October 9, 2021

I think everyone has explained Polish adequately -- the sibilant sequences are just single sounds, and sometimes there are single-letter equivalents (letters with diacritical marks) for the same sounds. For example, ż sounds the same as rz. However, this is not just variant typography as with the German ß / ss -- mixing up these representations is a spelling error.

On a tangent -- I agree that if you want to know how you should pronounce the name of a specific person that you have met, you should ask them for their preference instead of guessing.

I have a Polish first name which has equivalents in other Euro languages and isn't hard to pronounce for other Euro language speakers, but intuitive pronunciations in different languages are different -- because different languages pronounce vowels differently, some roll the R and some do not, etc..

While I am very fussy about spelling, and get annoyed when someone misspells my name or surname (especially if they can see it in the email address field; JFC, you had one job), I consider all pronunciations to be equally valid (as long as you get more or less the right letters in there in more or less the right order). I think of these as variations of my name in different spoken languages. I absolutely do not want all my English-speaking friends to start rolling the R and pronouncing both Ns and so on -- it would be weird and distracting. I don't want people to treat my name as a foreign loan word that doesn't "fit" into their language.

Also, if someone is an Nth generation immigrant to a country which speaks a different language, all bets are off. There are lots of people with Polish surnames in the US, and I can tell you how I would pronounce their surnames, but I couldn't begin to guess how they do it. Knowing what the pronunciation is "supposed" to be is a detriment to guessing. And everyone is the boss of their own name, so what they want is the most important thing.
posted by confluency at 1:55 AM on October 9, 2021 [10 favorites]

It’s a bit of a de-rail: but I think this is a question that is probably occupying the minds of those who design text to speech systems. My current sat-nav uses a British English voice. She pronounces English street and place names nearly perfectly, French place names terribly, and Scottish names with a mixture of success and spectacular failure. The question: is it wise to improve her performance further with hinting? To do so might make Scots and French speaking Brits a bit happier - but that would be at the price of alienating those who would get confused by the proper native pronunciation (and it would spoil the fun). Real life speakers face the same dilemma in trying to be both correct and clear.
posted by rongorongo at 1:57 AM on October 9, 2021 [2 favorites]

AFAIK, the only Vietnamese surnames you need to worry about are Ng (wu) and Nguyen (when)

I could be wrong, of course. :)

FWIW, Mandarin Chinese had several romanization systems. Yale, Wade-Giles, and Pinyin, IIRC. They sort of make sense when you understand what sound in the original language are they trying to emulate in English and standardize such, but it wasn't always successful. So I am used to my name being pronounced wrong, and I picked my American name a long time ago, and I don't expect you to pronounce my name correctly unless you can read Chinese and know my name in Chinese.

But thank you for trying.
posted by kschang at 2:42 AM on October 9, 2021 [3 favorites]

Swedish has some combinations that are unpredictable for English speakers. SJ and SK primarily.
Then of course that there is no W sound, W is pronounced as V and listed together in alphabetical order. Also the letters Å, Ä and Ö, pronounced oh, eh and uh (not really, but you know).

SJ is pronounced as an aspirated whuh, as is SK and SKJ if before slender vowels (ieöä) but there is a legit variant pronunciation that is just SH that you can get away with. Initial K before slender vowels is also pronounced the same way. Terminal G, or before slender vowels is like a y as is J.

Let’s try with some famous Swedish names so you can compare.
Ingrid Bergman (baryman)
Joel Kinneman (yo-el shinneman)
Björn Borg (byurn bory)
Malin Åkerman (oh-ker-man)
Dag Hammarskjöld (ham-ar-whuld)
Alexander Skarsgård (skarsh-gord) - trick cos its a broad vowel ya see!

Some of this may not be bang on right but right enough.
posted by Iteki at 3:48 AM on October 9, 2021 [1 favorite]

I really want to emphasize this part of confluence's post:

"There are lots of people with Polish surnames in the US, and I can tell you how I would pronounce their surnames, but I couldn't begin to guess how they do it. ... And everyone is the boss of their own name, so what they want is the most important thing."

I'm in exactly this group: my last name is Polish, nobody I've ever met in my family speaks the language, and we certainly say it "wrong" according to people who do know the language. But it's my own name, so by definition the way I say it is the correct one. It's neat if you know how to say it the "real" way, but if you want to get my attention or you want to respect me as a person, you say it my way, and you'll only learn that by asking me.
posted by february at 5:58 AM on October 9, 2021 [6 favorites]

I often find listening to audiobooks useful for how to pronounce names. Though of course not all narrators are going to be correct.

If you go to Libro or Audible's sites, you can listen to (usually) 5 mins of a book for free and often hear some of the names pronounced.

If Edoardo Ballerini is to be believed, Karl Ove Knausgaard is pronounced KarlOH-Vay ka-KNOWZE-gore.

Ingrid Bergman (baryman)

I'm sorry, are you saying Bergman is pronounced "berry man"?

A Japanese once told me Kurosawa is properly pronounced ka-ROW-sa-wa and I've met Martin Scorsese and was told to pronounce it Scor-sez-ee, not Scor-say-zee.
posted by dobbs at 5:59 AM on October 9, 2021

Also, if someone is an Nth generation immigrant to a country which speaks a different language, all bets are off.

Seconded. WEB DuBois said it duh-boyz. Around here, where there's a large community of Polish extraction, I haven't found any rules about whether a family pronounces their -owski as owski like cow-ski, ovskee, offskee, evskee, efskee, awskee, or ehskee.
posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 6:09 AM on October 9, 2021 [1 favorite]

Another Polish name pronunciation trick is that the “si” combo is pronounced “sh” (and so is ś) and “ci” is pronounced “ch” (as is ć). So the name “Basia” a common diminutive for Barbara, comes close to rhyming with “Tasha.” I would also describe the “sz” and “cz” combos as coming closest to “sh” and “ch” for an a English speaker, but there’s a difference that I can hear but, in my experience, people who did not grow up speaking Polish can’t. I also seem to remember my mom telling me that the emphasis is always in the next-to-last syllable in Polish.

I have one of those names with a Polish letter combos that’s the diminutive of another name that has even more of them. I say my name differently (and, I guess, you could say incorrectly) when I’m speaking English because I find that using the correct pronunciation leads American English speakers to hear it and then pronounce it in a way that is really unpleasant to my ears. And I try to avoid saying my legal name ever because of a lifetime of people then forcing me to listen to them butcher it, over and over again, while asking (or sometimes asserting) that they got it right when they can’t hear the difference between “rz” and “ź” and refuse to admit defeat.

I’m just grateful that I was a girl because I would have been named Grzegorz and I shudder at the thought of having to listen to Americans try to say that.
posted by capsizing at 6:30 AM on October 9, 2021 [3 favorites]

Scottish names bring some challenges. It varies by family how Menzies is pronounced: traditionally, it's pretty close to "Mingus" with a soft g, but there are about as many Menzies in Scotland and elsewhere who are "Menzeez". But I've never (yet) heard a Mackenzie who was a McKenny/McKinna. Similarly, 'quh' is pretty much /w/ (not long before Burns, you might see "what" printed as "quhat" in Scottish books), except that Colquhoun is more /kə-HOON/ than Cowan.

Written Scots has a whole bunch of typography influencing orthography and majority/colonial cultural erasure.
posted by scruss at 8:18 AM on October 9, 2021 [1 favorite]

FWIW, people would be very pleasantly surprised if you do manage to say their name right. I remember I was doing a mock interview in a Zoom workshop on one of those career webinars last year, and the guy I paired up with blurted out "wow, you got it almost right!" I guess he was expecting another butchering of his surname. :D
posted by kschang at 11:43 AM on October 9, 2021 [1 favorite]

You might find some guidance in Anthony Burgess' excellent book A Mouthful of Air, where he devotes (if my memory serves me well) a chapter to the tricky business of carrying proper names of authors into other languages when the same phonemes are not necessarily used. He shows how his name is rendered on the covers of Japanese translations of his own works (roughly as An-so-ni Ba-zi-ye-su) and how Russian speakers know the author of The Sun Also Rises and A Farewell to Arms to be Yernyest Gemingvay.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 1:16 PM on October 9, 2021 [2 favorites]

From the perspective of a beginning Korean student, if you want to pronounce Korean names correctly you should learn to read Hangul, because romanization will always do you wrong.

For example, drawing from two of my favorite Kpop groups, there's a member of ONEUS whose name gets romanized as "Keonhee", and a member of Just B whose name gets romanized as "Geonu". Both have the same first syllable (건) which isn't pronounced "kee-oh", "kee-on", "gi-oh", "gee-oh", or "kon"/"gon", it's pronounced 건.

A couple of videos from American teacher of Korean Billy Go:
3 Reasons to Avoid Romanization for Korean
Billy Go's Beginner Korean Course | #2: Intro to 한글

From the second video: 독립문 can be romanized as "Dongnimmum", "Toklipmun", "Dog-Rib-Moon", and more.
posted by Lexica at 1:30 PM on October 9, 2021 [1 favorite]

I'm sorry, are you saying Bergman is pronounced "berry man"?

dobbs , well his name is mountain man… but yes and no, the e is pronounced almost more like an a, and the r and y sounds are combined, so not really berry, although I’ve seen people use berry as a suggested way of explaining the sound before.
Here’s “berg”, mountain, the first part of his surname.
posted by Iteki at 2:03 PM on October 10, 2021

so not really berry

You really can't assume that everyone pronounces berry the same way.

the only Vietnamese surnames you need to worry about are Ng (wu)

This is a great example of cross-cultural transmission and transliteration:
Even before it makes it to the meat grinder of name romanization, 吳 gets you to:
  • Mandarin Wu [wú]
  • Cantonese Ng [ŋ̍]
  • Vietnamese Ngô [ŋo˧]
  • Korean O [o̞]

posted by zamboni at 4:38 PM on October 10, 2021

In the past I've seen for instance, the Vietnamese name Phuong as well as Phoung but don't know if they are pronounced the same

For what it's worth, I don't think I've ever come across a 'Phoung' before, and that might be a typo. That said, the names Phuong and Phung may sound more different than you expect, and you basically just have to guess the pronunciation of a name if it is written without its diacritics. For example, there are a few variations of the name "Thuy", all of which depend on the tone.
posted by a very present absence at 7:59 PM on October 10, 2021

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