Mueller, Mueller, Mueller?

Why isn't Robert Mueller's last name pronounced like "Bueller" of "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" fame? Is there a correct pronunciation?

I've been pronouncing it like Bueller for nearly 2 years. I've heard some people on TV pronounce it like I do, but most pronounce it "Muller."

closed as primarily opinion-based by Jason Bassford, JJJ, Canis Lupus, Chappo, K J May 2 at 16:28

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  • 8
    Simplest answer - because proper names are not pronounced according to spelling rules. They are individual property, like signatures. – John Lawler May 1 at 20:46
  • 2
    But I worked with a guy named Bob Mueller who did pronounce it like Ferris does. It’s hard for me to pronounce Robert’s name correctly. – Jim May 1 at 20:58
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    Different people use different pronunciations. There is no universal standard. The only authority on how a particular person's name is pronounced is the individual themself. If my name were John and I pronounced it Betty, that's how my name would be pronounced. (Not that anybody would ever get it right.) – Jason Bassford May 1 at 21:52
  • How do you pronounce "Louisville" (the city)? How do you pronounce "Cairo" (the city). – Hot Licks May 1 at 22:23
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    Bill Mueller, formerly of the Boston Red Sox, pronounced his name "Miller"; a friend of mine from grade school pronounced it like Bueller; the former special counsel Robert Mueller pronounces it a third way. Incidentally, of the three, the former Red Sox player is probably closest to the original German! – Robusto May 1 at 22:51

The simple answer is that in English, the pronunciation of a name has no definite connection to the name's spelling or etymology.

Nevertheless, here's some background information that may make the variation that you mention less surprising.

  • In Standard German, "ue" represents the sounds /yː/ and /ʏ/. The usual spelling is "ü"; "ue" is used instead of "ü" in contexts where it is not possible to write "ü", and also in other contexts in the names of certain individuals. The surname Müller (as well as the variant spelling Mueller) is pronounced with /mʏl/ in Standard German.

  • The sounds /yː/ and /ʏ/ can correspond to other sounds like /iː/ or /ɪ/ in regional varieties of German. The English cognate of Müller/Mueller is "Miller" (with /mɪl), and I've heard that pronunciation used as well for the name "Mueller".

  • In English, the sequence "ue" is uncommon in word-internal position. In word-final position, when "ue" represents a vowel sound, it is usually the sound /(j)u(ː)/ (as in cue, hue, sue, due, flue, blue, true, rue), which is somewhat similar to German /yː/. So the use of the pronunciation /bjuːlr̩/ "byooler" for Bueller may be partly due to influence from the spelling.

  • There is also variation in the English pronunciation of "oe" and "eu" in names from German.

  • German vowels don't map straightforwardly onto English ones. Many American English speakers find that German /ʏ/ sounds most similar to English /ʊ/ as in bull or put, but German /ʏ/ can also be perceived as /ʌ/ as in gull or cut (p. 32, "Cross-Language Perception of German Vowels by Speakers of American English", by Lore Katharina Gerti Schultheiss, 2008; summarizing the results of Strange, Bohn, Nishi & Trent (2005) "Contextual Variation in the Acoustic and Perceptual Similarity of North German and American English Vowels").

    Recent studies like these might have limited applicability to the question of how Robert Mueller's name came to be pronounced /ˈmʌlr̩/, as Wikipedia indicates that Mueller's name comes from his ancestor August C. E. Müller who immigrated to the U.S. in 1855.

There is no consensus on a single definition of "correct pronunciation". For names, a common view is that the "correct pronunciation" is whatever pronunciation the bearer of the name uses (although in practical terms this is not a very clear-cut criterion).

  • 1
    Especially true in the US, where often immigrants’ names were simplified or the spelling was changed or unknown when they were processed on Ellis Island. – ColleenV May 1 at 20:47
  • Some families in England have names from Norman French, but almost invariably they are not pronounced in the French way. I met a guy whose surname was Le Vaillant but he made me say "le valiant". A person's name is pronounced how they want it to be pronounced. – Michael Harvey May 1 at 21:52
  • There are relatives of my wife's father with three different last names, even though they are all had the exact same last name before they immigrated to the US. – Hot Licks May 1 at 23:40

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