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”.