I want to learn to pronounce names without looking like an idiot. This includes having the ability to look at a name and discern its nationality, or looking at the pronunciation of a word (like as shown in the symbols at the beginning of most wikipedia pages, for example here) and getting something out of it. How would I do that? Thanks!

Note: This may be somewhat of a beginner question, so I guess it could fall into the general question of "how does one learn linguistics?"

  • So a quick fix seems to be to read this page and memorize all pronunciations: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Help:IPA_for_English#Key. I recall that the kids in spelling bees had an amazing capability to figure this stuff out, so I was wondering if perhaps there was such a general mechanism in the field of linguistics.
    – jsmith
    Commented May 14, 2015 at 14:13
  • Another link of potential use: myspellit.com
    – jsmith
    Commented May 14, 2015 at 14:33
  • 1
    The "general mechanism" in linguistics for English proper name spelling is to flounder like everybody else. The pronunciation of proper names is controlled by the person who owns them, not by rule. Someone named Smythe might pronounce it /smɪθ/, smayθ/, /smɪð/, /smayð/, /smɪθi/, or /smayði/, for instance. One asks 'How do you spell your name?' if one has only heard it, and 'How do you pronounce your name?' if one has only read it.
    – jlawler
    Commented May 14, 2015 at 15:58
  • @jlawler A minor correction on your IPA notation: Where you said /ay/, I think you probably mean /aj/ (or /aɪ̯/).
    – Zgialor
    Commented May 16, 2015 at 2:21
  • The American English phonemic notation of Kenyon and Knott uses /ay/, /oy/, and /aw/ for the diphthongs in by, boy,, and bough. Other systems are of course possible, particularly for non-American dialects.
    – jlawler
    Commented May 16, 2015 at 3:19

1 Answer 1


We all look like idiots when it comes to pronouncing names. One way you can tell whether someone is a native of the area is how they pronounce "Puyallup". Sometimes, the same spelling has multiple pronunciations depending on the referent, for example Lima Ohio (lɑjmə) and Lima Peru (lijmə). There can also be relatively free variation in pronunciation, for example Yakima can be [ˈjækəmɑ:] or [ˈjækəmə] though I think the former is prevalent amongst locals -- [jəˈkajmə] is clearly wrong, although possible. Personal names pose the same problem, to the point that "Levine" can be pronounced [ləvˈijn] or [ləvˈajn], depending on which person you're talking about. The name "Nguyen" is pronounced a lot of different ways; usually not the way it is pronounced in Vietnamese, but some brave souls persist. You can make some guesses, e.g. that an Asian with the name "Ngo" pronounces it [ŋo] and an African with the same spelling pronounces it [ŋgo], but it might also be pronounced [ŋo]. Guessing nationality is even harder (is "Lee" Korean, Chinese, Malaysian? Or even not Asian?), or impossible if you mean "what is their citizenship?".

Which is why I always ask the speaker, when introducing a person I don't know, how to pronounce their name.

  • In Japanese these can be seen more clearly. A Chinese character has many pronunciations so the same name in Kanji can have multiple common readings and some other less common ones and even strange parent-invented names that no one can imagine, as the family registration only records the name in Kanji, not its pronunciation. You have no way to know what's correct at first unless you ask that person. For example the name 源 can be Minamoto, Gen, Hajime, Minato, Atsushi, Genji, Sachie, Sachiko, Sachimi, Hajimu, Minamotono, Moto, Motoshi... edrdg.org/cgi-bin/wwwjdic/wwwjdic?1E Commented Oct 28, 2015 at 7:14

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