23

In my experience, it is not common practice for native English speakers in the United States to attempt to pronounce non-English sounds, such as gutturals or trills.

So say I meet a new colleague whose printed name I did not recognize. I will interact with this person on a daily basis for the foreseeable future. I ask the person how to pronounce the name, and the name has a sound which does not exist in English.

Where do I go from here? I am able to pronounce many non-English sounds, and I'm happy to do so (or at least try) for a person's name. But is there a straightforward and polite way of finding out whether I should? And when I say "should", I mean either

  • most people pronounce it with the non-English sound,

or

  • the person would prefer that it be pronounced with the non-English sound, even though most people don't.

Some ways I've thought of:

  • Asking how most people pronounce the name.
  • Asking how they prefer others pronounce their name.
  • Avoiding addressing the person by name until I hear how most others pronounce it.
  • Asking how they prefer I pronounce it if I have trouble pronouncing the non-English sounds.

There are some outcomes I would ideally like to avoid:

  • I wind up with an idiosyncratic pronunciation - one that is not correct (and not really close), and also not a standard alternative pronunciation.
  • I'm the only one who pronounces the name correctly, and the person doesn't care about how people pronounce their name.

Basically, this amounts to me not wanting to stick out at work. I've looked at other questions related to this (1, 2, 3), and they don't seem to quite address this specific issue.

For the specific interaction which prompted this question, the person's name had a guttural sound. I do not know whether this person is from the US or not. I don't remember exactly what I said, but I did follow up with something to the effect of "how do most people pronounce your name." Which I immediately felt was rude and/or presumptuous - from the person's perspective, that may not be relevant - they might want their name pronounced correctly, regardless of how most people say it. So that's why I'm asking.

*Apologies if the edits are making things confusing with existing answers, but I hadn't come up with some of the details until the answers helped me clarify the query in my own mind.

  • Do you have an example of this happening to you? Depending on who you are speaking to and where they're from, they might take offence or simply suggest an easier-to-pronounce alternative. – user8671 Jul 19 '18 at 15:04
  • @Kozaky Edited. Unfortunately I am not certain where this person is from. I'm also interested in a general strategy, if there is one. – Evan Jul 19 '18 at 15:09

12 Answers 12

49

I'm not sure I will be able to pronounce that correctly, but I would like to try my best. Would you be willing to help me try to get it right?

I've encountered this problem often, and I've never had anyone take offense to this approach. Most people are happy someone is taking the extra effort, but if they say something like "oh no, any way you pronounce it is fine with me," then just take them at their word.

A variation on this even works if you've known someone for a while.

I'm really afraid I've been butchering your name all along. Could you please try to teach me to say it correctly?

  • So essentially, you're suggesting that the best thing to do is give them the opportunity to inform you that most people pronounce it another way, and that's fine with them? That seems reasonable. – Evan Jul 19 '18 at 15:16
  • 37
    There are a lot of people who are not particularly bothered by people mispronouncing their name (or who have gotten used to it) but who still appreciate someone taking the special effort to get it right. It's usually more the thought that counts than whether your attempt is actually successful or not. – Chris Sunami Jul 19 '18 at 15:19
12

When I worked with patients in a hospital I encountered this situation nearly every day. My scripted lead-in to this became:

Hello, [Mr./Ms.]… I'm sorry, I'm sure I'm going to get this wrong, [best effort at pronouncing the name]?

This always prompted the person I was speaking with to approve of my pronunciation, right or wrong ("Yes, that's right!" or "That's fine") or to offer a correction. Then you have the correct (or at least an acceptable) pronunciation of the name, and have softened any mistakes you may have made in your initial effort.

  • Thanks. I like this answer for transient acquaintances, but not for a long-term colleague. I've clarified the question to reflect the situation is for a long-term acquaintance. An outcome I would like to avoid is where I wind up with an idiosyncratic pronunciation - one that is not correct (and not really close), and also not a standard alternative pronunciation. – Evan Jul 19 '18 at 17:22
8

What I typically do if I'm uncertain how to pronounce a name when I call someone on the phone, is to say the name with a tone of voice indicating my unfamiliarity with the pronunciation followed by an apology if I'm not pronouncing it properly.

This gives them the option to correct your pronunciation or give you an alternative. If they recognize your struggle, they might acknowledge that it's a common problem and that there's nothing your can do about it in the short term due to cultural differences.

For example, the French version of the name "Alexander" is "Alexandre", but this gives a lot of trouble to English speakers. When I introduce myself, it is common for them to repeat "Alex-Andre" or "Alexandra", which is nowhere near the pronunciation, but none of the English speakers seems to notice the difference. While I myself prefer to be referred to as "Alex", I offer the shorthand, which most of them accept. Some of my friends, despite months of hearing my French friends say my name properly, still don't pick-up on the nuances between both versions.

It's a reality you have to live with, same reason Japanese pronounce "L" and "R" the same way. Their language does not have that sound and it is something they might not even pick up on. Acknowledging you may not have the right pronunciation will go a long way and people usually appreciate that you think it matters.

4

It can certainly be mortifying to learn you've been blithely mispronouncing someone's name—especially after an extended period! It's even more awkward if you then discover you can't articulate sounds in their native name, and will just have to conciously continue to mispronounce it in some respect.

So, as you've recognized, it's best to be mindful of the issue and work on it from the start of the relationship. How you can do this smoothly depends on the context and personal histories and cultures of both you and the person whose name you're trying to pronounce.

As a linguist by training, I've always had an interest in this—I like to try to pronounce "difficult" names as correctly as possible, and find the rules different languages have about use of names fascinating.

Still, navigating this situation requires diplomacy and tact as much—if not more—than linguistics. Here's what I'd keep in mind:

Your acquaintance's relationship to native English speakers in general

People with names like you describe will generally fall into one of two groups:

  1. Those who have experience dealing with native English speakers, and are well aware of the difficulty.

    These fall into two subgroups:

    a. Those who are understanding, patient, and generous about mispronunciation of their names, or:

    b. Those who are not — perhaps because

    • They have come across enough native English speakers who can pronounce their names (maybe from travel to other parts of the anglophone world where familiarity with the sounds is greater) that they think anyone else should be able to as well;

    • They think that you could pronounce the name but are essentially being more-or-less consciously xenophobic by "refusing" to pronounce it (particularly if you're American);

    • Their own language doesn't make distinctions in the same way English does, so they don't notice anything wrong about your pronunciation, even though it obviously sounds "wrong" to other native English speakers;

      or even,

    • They're just not cooperative in nature.

OR

  1. Those who are new to dealing with native English speakers — for instance, this is their first trip to an anglophone country, and they have previously only spoken English with speakers of their own native language.

The priority your acquaintance puts on pronunciation of their name

People with the same native name and language can differ in how much they care, and about what.

  • Some would like each person to do their best at pronouncing their native name, and will coach and correct you, expecting you to get better at pronouncing it as you get to know them better.
  • Some put a higher premium on everyone in the group using the same pronunciation, since it can feel odd for different members of a group to all call someone by slightly different names.
  • Some prioritize smoothing out social awkwardness, and will do whatever's necessary to avoid that awkwardness — whether that's selecting an adopted English nickname, or letting each person pronounce it however they happen to.

Your linguistic abilities

In your question you mention what perhaps seems the most obvious and vexing issue in pronouncing an unfamiliar language's names — sounds that don't exist in English. And indeed, this can be a problem. If you can't trill, you won't be able to pronounce a name with a trill, no matter how much you want to. Unfamiliar vowel sounds, clicks, or glottal and pharyngeal sounds will all be very difficult to get right.

But while obvious, "weird sounds" aren't the only, or even the most common, issue native English speakers have with "difficult" names. Also possible:

  • Sound density and flow: in English we can cluster consonants together, we can put vowels next to one another, we can start or end words with either single consonants, consonant clusters, or with vowels. Many languages are far stricter about this, and a secondary effect of this is that words (and names) tend to get longer, because less possibilities are available for each syllable.
  • Stress: in English, we prefer certain stress patterns to go with certain combinations of vowels and consonants, and there are some vowel sounds we pronounce only stressed, or only unstressed. Other languages do not follow these same patterns, and we may not even be able to hear the difference unless our attention is drawn to it.
  • Syllabification: in English, we break syllables in a certain way, and we usually don't even realize we're doing it. Have you noticed how often apostrophes appear in science fiction names? A bug-eyed villain named "K'Onyak" just sounds alien — and not at all like a certain expensive French brandy! — just by forcing syllabification into an unexpected place. (Stress and syllabification can really matter. Consider the English: I went into the dark room vs. I went into the darkroom. The only difference is in stress and syllable breaks, but we can definitely hear the difference between a dimly-lit enclosed space and a photographic developing lab!)

The bad thing about all three of these is that you must be conscious of them or you may not even be aware you're badly mispronouncing a name, even after mastering all the "weird sounds".

The good thing about these three, though, is that unlike those trills and pops, you can get these right with just a little practice. For example, many North American English speakers have difficulty with subcontinental Indian names that seem very long and complicated, but it's generally just because it's a lot to take in at once and we're not used to it. Get the person's name in writing, and practice it alone until you figure out the rhythm, and you'll find "Nathavarthi Paramparil" isn't really a "difficult" name at all—you just needed the time to assimilate it.

The other English speakers around you

You may not speak their language, but you may speak another second language that has sounds closer to the ones in their name. If so, you may be able to produce a closer approximation than most native English speakers.

But even if you speak their own langage well, you shouldn't assume they want you to address them using native pronunciation. It can sound pretentious to others, causing social discomfort, and may result in the other English speakers in your group trying to match your performance, butchering their name in new ways every time it's spoken. Your acquaintance may wish you'd stuck with the "wrong" version!

For instance: the Russian name Олег (Oleg) is natively pronounced almost identically to the English name "Alec". If you know this, you may be tempted to call him that. And who knows, that might delight him!

But since Oleg is also an Anglicized name that sounds nothing like "Alec", it could also result in others being confused— Who's 'Alec?' Isn't that Oleg? Have I been getting his name wrong all this time? Or should I pull that person aside and correct them, so they stop calling him Alec? — and Oleg may be aware of this sort of confusion and prefer it not happen, even at the cost of everyone "mispronouncing" his name.

Another possibility to consider: many languages have different pronunciations of names depending on how they're used. Some have strict politeness rules, and in their native language calling them by exactly what's written on their passport—even "correctly" pronounced—would be a faux pas.

Some languages have what's known as a "vocative" form, meaning that their name sounds different when you speak directly to them from when they are referred to in the third person. Imagine something like: Olyegu, would you like some water? Yes? Mary, would you please pass the water to Alec? That could be perfectly pronounced as it would be in their language, but in English it still may come across as odd, since our names don't change their sound based on usage.

How you respond

That background wasn't just a long digression — knowing what variety is possible in names, how people interact with regards to "foreign-sounding" names, and what you're capable of learning to say and what is impossible are the fundamentals you need to know so you can know what it is—and what it isn't—reasonable to ask and to expect.

You don't need to worry too much about case "1.a" above — people with experience, understanding and generosity. They'll help you and appreciate when you express interest in pronouncing their name as correctly as possible. Whether it's by coaching you, giving you an "easy" nickname to use, or giving forebearance to many varied butcherings of their name, they'll help you without too much trouble.

People in case "2" above — people new to being around native English speakers — will probably still be feeling things out and won't necessarily know either what it's reasonable to expect from native English speakers, nor what their priorities are. I'd be very explicit that I want to take as much time as they'd like (but no more!) to practice their name with them.

Also, explaining what the difficulty is—a particular sound, the length of the name, an unusual stress pattern, a consonant cluster that isn't possible in English—rather than just giving them the vague sense that their name is "difficult" — will help in setting expectations. Telling them you'd like to see their name written down, or that you'll need to practice for the next time you meet them, or that there's a particular sound that you know you'll never be able to produce — these are useful to them as much as they are to you.

Perhaps the person will choose a nickname or a slight alteration when they learn some sound is hard for native English tongues. Or they'll have business cards at the ready, even at social events, so people can see the name written down and practice it later. But in the meantime, they can enter their name into your phone, or you can ask if you can take a quick video of them saying their own name so you can practice on your own time.

But the one impulse I've heard that I'd firmly steer you away from: don't suggest a new (nick)name for someone that's easier for you to pronounce. And definitely don't make up a nickname on your own initiative and start calling them by it. That is extremely rude! If they want help finding an acceptable alternative name, they will ask. A person's name is, quite literally, their identity, and you have no right to alter it without permission.

But that brings us to the difficult case, "1.b" above: those who know their name is "hard", but for whatever reason, refuse to help you reach an acceptable middle ground. In this case, you can only try your best, but if by the third or fourth meeting, you still haven't got it and still aren't getting any assistance, you'll just have to shrug and accept that you're going to continue to mispronounce their name, and they're going to continue not to like it—to do otherwise is just going to upset you and/or reward passive-aggressiveness.

Thankfully, in my experience, such people aren't ones you want to spend a lot of time addressing directly anyway!

2

If a person visits another culture where a different language is spoken, often the person has themselves chosen a succinct replacement for the foreign culture which is easy to speak out. In most cases the person will give you then the adjusted name.

"Bruce Lee" e.g. had the native name 李振藩.

If the person has not interacted and chosen a name so far, you simply ask for the name and try to respell it. By trial and error you will normally find a pronounciation both people could live with and will be used by the visitor for all further interactions.

Now there are some languages which are so dissimilar and inscrutable to other cultures, e.g. Navajo or Khoisan to most other cultures that a speakable replacement is a problem. It is also possible that the mispronounciation hurts the ears of the visitor so hard or is too similar to a not-so-nice word in their own language that they themselves ask for a replacement. Congratulations: You may be the person's name-birther for the culture.

  • Often names are interrelated and each language has an acceptable substitute: Instead "Henry" there is Heinrich (German), Henri (French), Henrik (Danish), Endrikis (Lithuanian), Jendrik (slav).
  • If this does not work, ask if the name has a meaning, most have one. My name Thorsten e.g. means "stone of Thor (God of Thunder)", so words for "stone","rock", "thunder" or "lightning" are obvious candidates.
  • Otherwise, trial and error. You can give a list of names which are common and the visitor picks one which sounds for him best and can be spoken by him.
2

I had a Dutch colleague once, and to me it was impossible to pronounce his name correctly without damaging parts of the speech apparatus (name started with "Sch" and that Dutch sound is impossible). He was completely aware that only Dutch people could get his name right. He used to joke "I give everyone five years to learn how to pronounce my name", but fifty years wouldn't have helped and he knew that.

It's just a fact that after the age of ten or so, it is really, really hard to learn new sounds. If someone's name has sounds that you haven't learned early in life, then there is nothing you can do to pronounce the name correctly.

(And there was a guy from Hungary that I worked with whose last name frightened everyone. When I say frightened, I mean it. You didn't even try to speak it. Someone had once managed to type his name right, and everyone copied/pasted the name in emails. Everyone called him Mr. L. )

But now consider this: Anyone coming from a foreign country with a different language knows the locals will have problems. My own name is "harmless". No English person gets it right just reading the name. When told how to speak it, they manage a good approximation. Nobody gets it 100% right, and most cannot even hear the difference. You just live with it. And many people don't want to stick out. They want to be known for who they are and what they do, not for being "the person with the strange name".

The best thing is to just ask "How do you pronounce your name". And if you can't do it, then you may ask "I can't do that, how would you like me to pronounce your name".

1

I actually run into this issue somewhat regularly myself (I work for a company with a lot of international customers). I usually do one of four things depending on the situation:

  1. If I know for certain how the name is supposed to be prononuced in their native language, I use the closest approximation I can. Usually, this ends up being close enough that they don't care..

  2. If I know where they are from, know what the predominant language is there, and understand the pronunciation rules for that language, I try to get the closest approximation I can based on that. Simmilarly to the first case, I find that this is usually close enough to not matter.

  3. Failing both of those, If I know what language family the name is from, I'll attempt to pronounce it with reasonably basic rules for that language family. In most cases, this ends up working out well enough for names from European languages I don't know that there isn't an issue, though for African and Asian languages it's often a laughably bad attempt.

  4. Failing all the above, I politely explain that I'm not sure how to pronounce their name. Usually, people won't take much (if any) offense at this.

In the event that they do take offense, I apologize, explain politely that I'm not very good at names with whatever part I mispronouncex (assuming I know what I pronounced wrong), and ask if there is some alternative simpler pronunciation that would be acceptable to them.

There are a couple of caveats to my approach though:

  • Part of the reason this works for me is that I have significant background in comparative linguistics. As a result of this, I know the pronunciation rules for over two dozen European languages and almost a dozen non-European languages, so for most of the common languages, the first option ends up being what I try, and it's close enough to correct that it's not an issue.

  • I took both Latin and Spanish for a couple of years, and have also studied Esperanto. As a result, most if the time, my pronunciation attempts have a decidedly italic accent to them, which for some reason people don't seem to mind as much as an otherwise identical pronunciation with an English accent.

  • I can't pronounce click consonants correctly no matter how much I try, so if I know there's a click consonant in the name, I just skip to apologizing and explain that I know I won't pronounce it right.

1

I'm from England, my name is "Mark". Fairly simple as far as names go.

With certain groups of friends from India and from Eastern Europe, this gets mispronounced (to my ear), sounding like "Mike" or "Merk" or "Mark-s".

For me, it isn't a problem and I'd be surprised if I'm not butchering their names considerably worse than they are doing to mine.

For "difficult" names in a multi-national group of people, we normally shorten them (e.g. for 30-letter Indian names) or use a nickname / localised name (e.g. for Chinese names).

If someone's name is so strange to everyone that they all repeatedly butcher it massively when they try to say it, that person will rather quickly prefer to be addressed by a nickname or "localised pronounciation" of their name, I'd expect.

0

I try to start with introducing myself and then saying "How do you (want/like/prefer) to be (addressed/called)?" before even attempting the name. This gives them lots of options, they can say their given name, or another part of their name, or they can give a nickname, or they might prefer a more formal address. And then you can follow up with questions about how to pronounce it, and I find that since you've left the door open about what they would like to be called most people are more comfortable here either correcting pronunciation if it matters to them, or telling you directly that it is good enough/doesn't matter.

I also try to do this for everyone, even if I don't already know if they have a difficult name. If you come across as an entirely routine question, then it seems to make people more comfortable that you're not judging their name.

(Source: I went by a nickname for a long time and had to go around saying "My driver's license name is Foo but please call me Bar..." whenever someone asked "What's your name?")

0

My two cents: One thing to consider (that is touched upon in many other answers here) is that the person in question may not want to be called by the pronunciation of their name in its original language, and would prefer an Anglicization. I would imagine this is more common for first-generation folk like myself.

In my case, I introduce myself using the local translation (i.e. American English) of my name, and typically it doesn't go past that. Sometimes, closer acquaintances or friends will ask me "how my name is really pronounced." I typically will demonstrate such, but mention that I prefer the "American" pronunciation. Occasionally people who pronounce my name incorrectly (both from its native language and my preferred "translation") will apologize and try and correct after hearing someone else pronounce my name the way I prefer it, but I just re-assure them it's not a big deal and I don't really care.

0

It all might depend entirely on how "well-travelled" they are & you are.

The more people travel, the more opportunity they have of seeing just how difficult it is for others to pronounce their name, or them to pronounce others'.

After a few years of working internationally, you just get used to the various alternatives you are presented with & they don't bother you, or any other seasoned traveller. I travelled 15 years for work - Europe & SE Asia.

So - just ask how they pronounce it. Assume you won't be able to pronounce it like a native & assume they will already know that & not be upset about it.
Try to [gently, don't overkill it] mimic their accent as you say it. It will feel odd to you, but may help. Some people can do this well & some can't. The worst is to never even try... but then ask them if that is close, or if you should anglicise it to be more acceptable.

Let them be the judge. Try not to anticipate their response, let them lead.

Sometimes all it needs is one 'slow pronunciation' from them - they may be perfectly aware of which parts may be difficult for your particular accent & may already know how to 'teach' you, or give you some mnemonic to aid you..

Just for amusement value, a scattering of names from various nationalities & the tortured yet perfectly acceptable pronunciations they receive...
For reference, I'm British.

Lee: Amuses Japanese people, of whom I know a considerable number. They can't quite say it, they're perfectly aware that can't quite say it; they think it ought to be a Chinese name, even though you're obviously caucasian. Attempting to force a correct 'L' sound is rarely going to work. Of all the people I know, 2 can do it; one was schooled in the US, the other has lived in the UK for 25 years.

Graham: Invariably pronounced graaaarm once you've got past that the 'h' is silent. Forget trying to teach anyone it should be pronounced gray-am, that's not going to happen. [My friend Seit calls me this - my 'revenge' is to also be completely incapable of pronouncing his name correctly either, though I've been trying for 10 years.]

Seit: Turkish name; for English natives, you're going to have to learn that it's somewhere between say-it & sigh-it. However, the exact amount of 'somewhere between' is likely to escape you forever & you will pronounce it slightly differently every time.

Somogyi: A very common Hungarian name. My partner has completely given up on anyone English getting anywhere close to shom-og-yi & calls herself sum-oh-ji, because people can manage that.

0

Depending on whether the person seems to prefer something approaching the native sounds of their name, It should be pointed out that many of the "impossible" non-English sounds CAN BE learned, though you have to be willing to work at it. When I learned a middle-Eastern language which contains a number of guttural consonants, I was presented with that problem and after a lot of practice with my instructor, who happened to be a linguist, I achieved what he considered an acceptable level of speech.

Now I struggle with the choice of making a name or something else sound "right" to the native speaker or "right" to other English speaker -- and asking the person which they prefer is essential.

Example: One of my student's name was Is'haq which I initially pronounced as Ishak, which it most certainly was not. (to my defense, he had written it in English without the apostrophe -- or without a space -- as ishaq.) I had learned that a Q sound was not a K sound, but I had not learned that S'H was not SH but he didn't expect me to mess that up.

Another example where Syllabification is important: Any native English speaker can hear the difference between "the white house" and "the Whitehouse" but just try to explain it.

My name is Bruce, but when I was in Japan, somebody asked me my name. They tried very hard

to make the "impossible" English R sound. I wish I had read this discussion before that incident and had pre-planned a better alternative for them.

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