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Is there any convention as to how proper nouns with origins outside English should be pronounced? I have heard claims to the effect that "a proper noun can be pronounced however you wish"; is that correct?

I work in an international environment, and it is rather common for me to have colleagues with foreign names. Actually, I'm not a native English speaker either. I go by the rule: "pronounce as it would be pronounced in its original context or language".

A few examples:

  1. The letter J is pronounced very differently in English, Spanish, or Dutch. For example my Spanish friends use ja ja to denote laughing in instant messages; the Dutch pronounce ij like the vowel sound in hay (e.g. [rij] http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/rij).

  2. The vowel sound represented by oe in English is pronounced as in toe, but it is often used to approximate the German ӧ sound (e.g. Schrӧdinger). In Dutch, this same combination of letters represents a vowel sound similar to the English word loop.

  3. Sometimes it is not even possible to accurately represent a sound in English, instead it is replaced by some approximation. As examples you could consider many of the Hindi or Bengali names (or names from any other Indian languages for that matter).

I found this question earlier, but I think it does not answer my question as it seems to address how English names are to be pronounced by non-native English speakers.

Edit: To clarify some of the doubts expressed in the comments; I am primarily interested in personal names although a more generic guideline would be helpful. I'm an aspiring Physicist, and I often encounter standardised terminology with non-English origins.

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The fact is that people pronounce their names however they wish regardless of how it "ought" to be pronounced in any language. For example the football player Brett Favre pronounces his name as [fɑːrv](Farve) and not [ˈfɑːˌvrə] (Fahvreh) as would be in french- why? because that's they he wants it. –  Jim Jun 2 '12 at 22:34
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It's not however you (the speaker) wishes, it's however the owner of the name wishes it to be pronounced. –  Jim Jun 2 '12 at 22:44
    
Are you asking about proper nouns in general or personal names in particular? Paris and Berlin are two proper nouns I can think of where the name is the same in English (unlike München) but pronunciation is markedly different. –  Andrew Leach Jun 2 '12 at 22:44
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s/alphabet/letter/. Even if there were a convention for pronouncing proper names properly, would anybody ever bother going to it? :) –  tchrist Jun 2 '12 at 23:02
    
@tchrist depends on where they hold it. –  cornbread ninja 麵包忍者 Jun 2 '12 at 23:09

3 Answers 3

up vote 3 down vote accepted

It's not entirely clear what you are interested in.

With personal names (first and last name/surname), you pronounce it the way that person does. That's why you have to listen carefully when they introduce themselves. There's a lot of variation there. For example, I've met women whose name is TAmara (on the 1st syllable) and whose name is taMAra (on the 2nd syllable).

As for other proper nouns, such as place names and what not, there are dictionaries for that. The general rule is to try to get as close as possible to the original (foreign) pronunciation, applying rules of English phonetics.

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As I mentioned above in a comment just now, I'm mostly interested in pronunciation of personal names. However a more general guideline would be nice. As I understand from your answer, my original guideline: "pronounce as it would be pronounced in its original context or language", is preferred. I guess that would also be proper etiquette when personal names are concerned. –  suvayu Jun 3 '12 at 11:11

There is no convention - or rather, there are multiple conventions: partly national, partly social, partly personal.

Some people try to render the sounds of the original language, others are unaware of the phonology of any other language and make no attempt to render a name as non-English.

And in some social contexts, it would be regarded as pretentious to try to render the foreign sounds.

My personal bugbear is BBC announcers who appear to be unaware of the possibility of making a distinction between '-a', '-r' and '-er', and '-ah' (so for example the two names of Muqtada al Sadr are often perfect rhymes, and Tahrir Square comes out homophonous with the phrase "to rear"). The BBC are usually very careful about how their announcers pronounce foreign names, so these particular examples irk me.

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I don’t think you’ll ever get a non-rhotic speaker to say a syllable-final r properly, even when they’re speaking a name from a language where they should be spoken. R-dropping is a really hard habit to break; even the great Hugh Laurie says he stays clear of words like murder when he puts on an American accent. But I know what you mean: it’s like listening to Pontius Pilate or Jonathan Ross announce the news sometimes. –  tchrist Jun 2 '12 at 23:42
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I would totally pay to hear Pontius Pilate read the news. I might go as high as thirty pieces of silver. –  MT_Head Jun 3 '12 at 4:55
    
After the film of The Fellowship of the Ring came out, I remember a satirical radio programme (probably The Now Show) mocking Ian McKellen's pronunciation of "Mordor" - distinctly rhotic, although Gandalf's speech was normally non-rhotic. –  Colin Fine Jun 3 '12 at 22:34

If you are concerned about individuals' names, the convention is to try to pronounce it as closely to their desired pronunciation. That is the most polite.

Of course, the person with the name can't force non-native speakers to have the same phonology. Usually some give and take is necessary and if the speaker's native phonology just doesn't allow an acceptable sound (or only provides a jarring sound or an unfortunate taboo occurrence to the name-holder) the name-holder may just choose a compromise sound (or even an entirely new name).

For names of famous people (or places), there is some attempt at getting as close as possible but often convention trumps that, even when the sounds of the name-holder are realizable in the speaker's language.

For example, 'Einstein' is pronounced 'eye - en - st-eye-n' in American English, even though the original German 'eye-n - sh-t - eye-n' (pardon the American spelled-out pronunciation) is perfectly doable in English.

Orthography tends to outweigh the original language pronunciation only because the written version is more likely to be seen well before a pronunciation is heard, and only the effort of scholarship or community for understanding the orthography of multiple other languages would help with individual names.

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