Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Pronunciation of Names

In the note at the end of his 1935 epic fantasy novel Mistress of Mistresses, E. R. Eddison suggests: "Proper names the reader will no doubt pronounce as he chooses. But perhaps, to please me…" Give or take the odd gender-specific pronoun, I'd say the same about the names I use in my stories. It's really not a big deal if you don't pronounce them as I do, but if you're anything like me, you might be interested in how they're "supposed" to sound.

No, I'm not going to give a complete list of every name I've included in a story — that would be a very long article indeed — but I'll try to give an idea of what I understand by the letters I type. The first thing to bear in mind is — forget all about English. Well, unless I'm actually using English-style names, of course. English pronunciation is among the most idiosyncratic in the world, and in general it's better to think in terms of Greek or Latin for my letter values.

The second thing is that there are no silent letters. None. Not a single one, unless you count the h in combinations like th and sh. If a name ends in e, that e should be sounded, rather than modifying a previous vowel. Double letters are pronounced double. And, if a name starts with two consonants that don't go together in English, no wussing out (as we usually do with Greek-derived words, for instance). It's not rocket science. Little children all over the world have no problem learning to pronounce words that start with ks, tl, nd or mb.

The stress on a name is harder to generalise about. My names come from many different (theoretical) languages with different (theoretical) rules on stress. If in doubt, though, I tend to default to having the stress on the second-last if the last is a strong syllable (eg Renon = RE-non) or the third-last if the following syllables are weak (eg Caurien = COW-ree-en).

·         a — either as in cat or calm, never as in cake.
·         ai — as in aisle.
·         au — as pronounced in German, like the vowel in cow.
·         b — as in big.
·         bh — halfway between b and v. If that's too hard, pronounce it as v.
·         c — always as in cat, never as in ceiling (whatever follows it). *
·         ch — usually as in loch (in a proper Scottish accent). However, I'm a bit inconsistent with this, and occasionally at the start of a name it's as in church (eg Chenda from At An Uncertain Hour).
·         d — as in dog.
·         dh — like the th in this, as opposed to in think.
·         e — as in get, never as in cede.
·         ei — like the vowel in day.
·         eu — difficult to describe to everyone, as it's a sound Americans generally refuse to pronounce. As in French tu, or the way I'd pronounce few (fyoo) — not as in moon.
·         f — as in fish, never as in of.
·         g — as in get, never as in gin.
·         gh — sounds a bit like gargling.
·         h — always pronounced, wherever it occurs, unless it's part of th, sh etc.
·         i — either as in pin or like the vowel in been, never as in fine.
·         j — as in jam.
·         jh — like the middle consonant of treasure. This is pronounced exactly the same as zh — just an indulgence for variation.
·         k — as in kit. *
·         kh — same as the hard ch.
·         l — as in lid.
·         lh — like the Welsh ll. You can all pronounce that, can't you?
·         m — as in meet.
·         n — as in new.
·         ng — always without sounding the g. For my pronunciation, as in sing rather than finger, but not everyone differentiates these.
·         o — either as in cop or as in cope.
·         oi — as in boil.
·         ou — like the vowel in moon.
·         p — as in put.
·         ph — as in philosopher (both times).
·         q — similar to gh.
·         qu — as in quiet.
·         r — this is a difficult one. Different languages/accents pronounce r as anything from grating at the back of the throat to trilling, and it would depend on the character which is correct. I pronounce it from the front of the mouth but without a trill, but whatever's natural to you is OK. When it follows a vowel, it's sounded as well as modifying the vowel (ar as in car, er as in Ernest, ir as in fear, or as in form, ur as in cure).
·         rh — a more emphatic version of r (sorry, difficult to describe it).
·         s — as in sing, never as in rose.
·         sh — as in shout.
·         t — as in take (there are several different ways of pronouncing t as well — and d for that matter — use the one most natural to you).
·         th — as in think (see dh).
·         u — as in dispute, never as in dumb.
·         v — as in vague.
·         w — as in warrior.
·         x — as in axe. Always. Even at the start of a word.
·         y — as a vowel, like the indeterminate vowel represented by ə. If it starts a word, followed by a vowel, as in yellow.
·         z — as in zoo.
·         zh — the same as jh.
·         apostrophe — no, whatever you've been told, the apostrophe isn't just a decoration. When a non-grammatical apostrophe appears in my names, it represents the glottal stop, which can perhaps be best described as a cross between a gulp and a hesitation. It's not a standard sound in English (although it appears in some accents) but in many languages it's as much a letter as A or B. A good place to hear the glottal stop used is the TV show Stargate SG1, where several alien names, including the character Teal'c, have one in them when pronounced correctly.

* The keen-eyed among you may have noticed that c and k are identical. In fact, I arbitrarily use them to represent respectively the unaspirated and aspirated versions of the sounds. In many languages, aspiration is a vital distinction between sounds, but in English the two forms are used interchangeably. If you try pronouncing the words car and scar naturally (not easy when you're thinking about it) you'll probably find that the c in car is accompanied by a puff of air, whereas the c in scar isn't. That puff is aspiration. So c should be pronounced without aspiration and k with.

Or, if that's too complicated, just pronounce them both the same. Like Eddison said, as you choose.

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