Hard to Pronounce Literary Names

By posted at 4:56 am on August 22, 2006 93

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”.

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93 Responses to “Hard to Pronounce Literary Names”

  1. Rood
    at 9:07 am on December 28, 2009

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

  2. Yes I Do Weddings
    at 10:53 pm on January 27, 2010

    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


  3. How to Pronounce Unpronounceable Author Names – The Blogs at HowStuffWorks
    at 5:49 pm on February 2, 2010

    […] search also led me to a handy list of author name pronunciations from The Millions. Who wrote Choke and Fight Club, among other titles? Chuck Paula-nik. How about the Russian genius […]

  4. mahala
    at 6:38 pm on March 23, 2010

    my name is Mahala and it is hard to pronounce my name to people.:D

  5. Ben
    at 2:27 pm on March 24, 2010

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

  6. Lana
    at 2:42 am on August 19, 2010

    Any one knows how to pronounce – Rabineau? I have a meeting tomorrow, can turn embarrassing :o(

  7. Eusebius
    at 7:22 am on August 20, 2010

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

  8. Eusebius
    at 7:23 am on August 20, 2010

    Rabineau = RA-bin-oh (French).

  9. Thad Waites
    at 6:39 am on August 22, 2010

    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.

  10. Eleanor Henderson
    at 5:55 am on September 17, 2010

    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).

  11. Literary Names and How to Pronunce Them - World Literature Forum
    at 6:43 pm on October 1, 2010

    […] who has had similar experiences might help. Using two websites and some youtube for many of these: The Millions : Hard to Pronounce Literary Names Pegasus Book Exchange: A Pronunciation Guide to Some Difficult Authors' Names Thomas Pynchon — […]

  12. Judson
    at 12:10 pm on October 15, 2010

    Here’s how I say Ngugi’s:

    IN-goo-gee WAH-tee-ahn-goh

  13. chicagoan
    at 3:38 pm on April 4, 2011

    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.

  14. How Do You Pronounce That Writer’s Name? « BIG OTHER
    at 11:38 am on April 29, 2011

    […] Update: This much better post answers many of my questions, as well as several I didn’t think to ask. (And it too was updated—again, to better effect—here.) […]

  15. How Do You Pronounce That Writer’s Name? « BIG OTHER
    at 8:28 am on April 30, 2011

    […] Update 1: This much better post answers many of my questions, as well as several I didn’t think to ask. (And it too was updated—again, to better effect—here.) […]

  16. Fred
    at 6:15 pm on June 6, 2011

    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.

  17. Michelle Barthelme
    at 10:09 pm on July 2, 2011

    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 .

  18. Ahab
    at 7:02 pm on July 12, 2011

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

  19. K
    at 5:03 pm on July 19, 2011

    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’?

  20. V.
    at 3:19 am on August 31, 2011

    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.

  21. This Dude
    at 10:27 pm on October 26, 2011

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

  22. dellitt
    at 4:23 pm on February 15, 2012

    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?

  23. Me
    at 8:13 pm on March 13, 2012

    EOIN COLFER — Eoin is pronounced like the English Owen or the Irish Eoghan.

  24. Charlee
    at 4:48 pm on April 3, 2012

    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.

  25. Jane
    at 8:18 am on June 12, 2012

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

    at 10:12 am on October 24, 2012

    Eoin is pronounce as Owen. :)

    at 10:14 am on October 24, 2012

    Picoult isPi-coe. :)

  28. Peter
    at 6:18 am on December 1, 2012

    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.

  29. Kyle
    at 9:16 pm on December 23, 2012

    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?

  30. John
    at 9:40 pm on December 23, 2012

    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.

  31. KC
    at 8:29 pm on January 5, 2013

    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.

  32. JE
    at 10:09 pm on January 24, 2013

    What about Anaïs Nin?

  33. ben
    at 11:22 pm on January 24, 2013

    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.

  34. Anonymous
    at 10:22 am on February 3, 2013

    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”!

  35. Thea Temple
    at 6:03 pm on April 10, 2013

    It is, in fact, Shay-mus HEE-Knee. He knew my late husband and introduced himself to me with that pronunciation.

  36. Barf Al Muhay
    at 5:20 pm on May 14, 2013

    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:

  37. Paula
    at 12:09 am on June 2, 2013

    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.

  38. Anonymous
    at 2:25 am on March 31, 2014

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

  39. Allie
    at 7:26 am on March 31, 2014

    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.

  40. Linda
    at 3:50 am on June 5, 2014

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

    Great post!

  41. Eleanor
    at 5:19 am on March 27, 2015

    Eoin Colfer’s name is pronounced ‘Owen’ Colfer

  42. paul morgan
    at 12:29 am on April 1, 2015

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

  43. Don
    at 3:25 pm on April 27, 2015

    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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