Friday, January 22, 2010

How will they pronounce it?

You can never really know.

You craft your world with care. You name your characters and locations, and usually you hear the sounds of the words in your head. Maybe you become highly attached to a name, as a particular character grows into it. You've given it a careful spelling, of course, to represent as closely as possible that perfect name that resonates in your head.

Then, say it gets published. Someone walks up to tell you how much they liked the character, and they get it wrong. Badly wrong, so wrong you can hardly recognize what they say.

I suggest that you appreciate the person greatly. After all, they went to the trouble of reading your story, telling you how great you are, and liking your character so much.

You don't have to imitate their pronunciation of the name, necessarily, but don't try to correct them. It's not their fault. English spelling wasn't designed to indicate spelling unequivocally, and fantasy names often use European or other foreign sound systems anyway.

Blame it on the limitations of orthography, not on the person. We don't write in IPA - and if we did, nobody could read it.

I won't blame you if it gives your gut a twinge to hear a name pronounced differently. When I wrote my first novel (still in revisions, because I've learned a lot since then), I created a character and named her Catin. Can you guess how I pronounced it? Well, I got together with friends and discovered they were rhyming the name with the word "satin." I went "aigh!" I asked them for help. I said, "How the heck can I spell this so it will sound like....?" We tried. Since then it's been spelled Catín - but fortunately I've also adopted a new attitude of curiosity rather than prescriptivism.

I'll be looking forward to hearing what you think it sounds like.


  1. Interesting point. When I write, I do try to think about names to make them easy to pronounce; not sure that I succeed. Not being being linguistically sophisticated, especially as far as phonology, I tend to assume and choose rather simple phonologies--I know about glottal stops and some basic click sounds and the difference between dental and retroflex sounds, but it seems like an awful lot to try to put on a reader, especially your typical American reader.

    Your solution to Catin is a good one. But one question--why "c"? How is the reader to know a hard or soft c? It's possible to pronounce "Catin" exactly as "satin."

  2. I suppose I was relying on a phonological rule common to English, French and Spanish, which makes people assume a hard "c" whenever "c" is followed by a vowel other than "i" or "e."

  3. Ah, excellent point. It seemed intuitively correct, but I couldn't put my finger on the reason. As I said, I am not very well versed in phonology... I admit, I myself tend to shirk from "c" when creating names, for this reason.

  4. This is one of my greatest bugbears, and not only in genre fiction. Although, of course, alien and fantasy names are often more strange.

    For example, in Clarke's "Against the Fall of Night," the other populated country is called Lys. To this day I'm not sure how that is pronounced.
    (Years later, in an essay, IIRC he implied it is pronounced "lies.")

    Just tonight I finished reading George R Stewart's classic 1941 novel "Storm." My copy is a later edition. The author makes a specific point of reminding people he intended the eponymous storm Maria to be pronounced "with emphasis on the second syllable, as in rye."
    (The name soon reappeared in a song, from the musical "Paint Your Wagon.")

    One of the funniest instances I've ever seen is from Fritz Lieber's long series of "Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser" tales. Out of the blue, in a later story, the Mouser is walking along when he turns to Fafhrd and asks him, "So, how *do* you pronounce your name, anyway?" Which allows his barbarian buddy to explain.

  5. Indeed, I remember the character of Hermione in Harry Potter explaining how her name is pronounced, maybe in book 3 or so. One good justification for this is the fact that it's a real name - so just in case readers run into someone with that name, they'll be more likely to get it right.

    The one that bugs me is words that seem unpronounceable, or which are very difficult to pronounce, so that I have to stop and sound them out in order to keep going - that, or just recognize their shape and forget all about trying to say them.

  6. I don't think I'm going to get hung up on how other people will say my characters' names. I'm too used to that with my own. Jaleh is not exactly a common name in America. (It's Persian, and no, I'm not.) I've heard all sorts of strange pronunciations, enough that when someone looks at it and says it correctly on the first try, I want to shake their hand with glee. Trust me, I've considered picking a nickname but never found one that felt like it fit. Guess I've gotten used to mine, mispronunciations and all.

    I remember when my sister was working on a story for high school. She used the name "Jhon." Her teacher marked it wrong, saying that "John" is spelled J-O-H-N. For one thing, if it's a fictional character, nobody has the right to insist that a name is spelled only one correct way. And two, my sister never intended the name to be pronounced as "John" anyway. She told me the name was "J'hon" as two syllables.

    Naming is often tricky, but the right one will just feel right, even if few people can say it correctly.

  7. I'd say your character's name "kay-TEEN"

    One thing that I've done is write a whole bunch of different variants of the same name down and ask a selection of folks to say them outloud. I picked the one that was most consistently pronounced close to what was in my head.

  8. I'd be happy enough if people could pronounce my surname correctly, even though it's a monosyllable and "rhymes with 'fun.'"

  9. Jaleh,

    Interesting point you have, about real names. (I always say your name [dzha-lay] approximately in my head, but I'd love to be corrected. Your example of your friend reminds me how difficult jokes or nuanced comments are to make in a learning situation, where any kind of deviation from the standard is likely to be judged a mistake rather than a point of cleverness.

    Mary, great to see you! I like your polling approach; maybe I should try it.

  10. Your character's name looks like "ka-TEEN" to me, Juliette, if "KAT-in" isn't right. It's funny how many people use a < c > for languages not descended from European ones. They should use < s > and < k > and that'll give it an exotic look while making it easier to pronounce.

    Another funny mis-pronunciation is Germanic names spelled with a < j >, like < Bjorne >. Italian can be amusing, too.

  11. Thanks for visiting, atsiko! Good observation about the "c" in Catín - I'm actually using it deliberately because the novel in question has names that derive from several different language families (in a very extensive backstory), and the source language for this one uses "c" while others don't.

    I'm always mildly amused at the confusion between the German and Italian pronunciations for the combination "sch" - is it "sh" or "sk"? Americans tend to vote for "sh," German style, leading to errors in the pronunciation of "bruschetta" and "maraschino"...

  12. Those Americans... :) Of course, speaking a Germanic language, it only makes sense. It's also funny when English speakers get mixed up over < ci > and < ce >. English speakers in general aren't much for learning what they're stealing from other languages. Like < tsunami > being /sunami/ instead of using the proper affricate.

    On the < c >: so many people do that without even thinking about it. Like Tolkein's < Celeborn >, which I would normally assume was "SEL-e-BORN" or some such.

    I really glad I stumbled back across your blog, since I love language and linguistics so much.