Why are American names of German origin pronounced differently than they would be in German? For example:

  • "Kreutz" sounds like "krites", not "kroyts" (same deal with Anheuser-Busch)
  • "Boehner" sounds like "Bay-ner"
  • ...or Wagner that sounds like a dog wagging its tail! Americanized versions of names drove my German-born mother batty! – Kristina Lopez Sep 2 '15 at 21:17
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    We don't have the oe sound in English, so we have to use a different vowel. I've heard Girdle instead of Gödel /ɝ/, we have Bayner instead of Boehner /eɪ/, and I've heard Yorn instead of Joern /ɔ/, and Shroder instad of Schroeder /oʊ/. – Peter Shor Sep 2 '15 at 21:25
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    I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because proper nouns are not part of the lexicon and their pronunciation follows arbitrary (if any) patterns: they are a law unto themselves, their behaviour not overlapping to a useful degree with that of words in the lexicon. – Edwin Ashworth Sep 2 '15 at 21:46
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    Names are pronounced whichever way the person with the name prefers they be pronounced. Over time, as their bearers take English as a mother tongue, the pronunciation will naturally be anglicized. If you think Kreutz and Boehner are bad, ask a Korean some time about the Korean pronounciation of Choi or Paik. – choster Sep 2 '15 at 22:27
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    Germany has a lot of different dialects. How do you know that Anhizer and Krites aren't closer than Anhoyzer and Kroyts to the way that the original German immigrants with these names actually pronounced them? – Peter Shor Sep 2 '15 at 23:33

The German sounds do not exist in English

In some cases, the name is pronounced in German with a sound that does not exist in English. In standard German, "Boehner" or "Böhner" is pronounced /ˈbøːnɐ/, but the /øː/ sound isn't part of the standard inventory of English sounds. (I'm using the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) to transcribe sounds.)

This is awkward for English speakers, and generally names like this are made to conform with the English sound system by replacing the foreign sound with one that does occur in English. This isn't specific to words from German; surnames from other languages like Polish or Chinese are also subject to this process.

English speakers choose a replacement sound from English

The choice of which English sound to use to replace the foreign sound is somewhat complex, and linguists actually study this kind of thing.

The most obvious factor is phonetic similarity (how close the actual physical sounds are); but there can also be influence from the overall sound structures of the languages (which are abstract) and the frequency of the candidate English sounds. I think in many cases, the written representation of a word also has a large effect.

Phonetically, /øː/ is a front mid-height rounded vowel, so English vowels with similar phonetic features will work better as substitutes. The English "ay" sound (IPA /eɪ/) is front and mid-height (but not rounded) so it shares 2 features. The English "oh" sound (IPA /oʊ/) is mid-height and rounded (but not front), so it also shares 2 features. The English "er" sound varies between dialects; in British English, it's a pure vowel sound /ɜː/. This is a somewhat different case; it doesn't really share that many specific features with German /øː/, but the features it has combine to create a sort of gestalt that is perceived as similar.

In writing, the use of "oe" may bias native English speakers to pronounce these names with the /oʊ/ sound of "toe."

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