The pronunciation of names from history


Martin Ball has commented on my post about the pronunciation of Lewis Carroll’s ‘real’ family name – Dodgson. He raises a more general point that I think deserves a full post rather than simply a reply to his comment.

My position is fairly ambiguous -  a linguist with a professed ‘classical’ attitude of descriptivism, but having held a job for most of my career that necessitated taking a prescriptive view to some extent. I don’t think Martin’s example of Shakespeare is appropriate here – pronouncing the ‘r’ would go against current SBS phonology and the difference in the vowel sounds is also a result of the phonetic changes in certain phonemes, so that attempting to reproduce them would be unnatural to present-day speakers of SBS. Martin admits that we should, out of courtesy, pronounce the names of living people in the way in which they pronounce them themselves (always allowing for differences in dialect, and, I would add, in the case of foreign names, for differences in phonology and phonotactics), but doubts whether the same courtesy should apply to long-dead individuals. I think it would be a pity to lose the knowledge of these older pronunciations, from a scientific standpoint, and also, still using courtesy as a criterion, a shame to ignore the wishes of surviving family members. I’ve written before about Purcell, and recently, I attended a lecture during which the speaker said of Purcell “but we all pronounce him ‘Purcéll’ these days”. I protested that BBC Radio 3 certainly still calls him ‘Púrcell’, and I was unexpectedly backed up by a lady who said that ‘Purcell’ was her maiden name, and they always pronounced it with first syllable stress. Apart from Purcell and Dodgson, other names that have pronunciations now largely forgotten are Hazlitt /ˈheɪzlɪt/, Southey (whom  Byron rhymed with ‘mouthy’) /ˈsaʊði/, and the fictional names Casaubon (from ‘Middlemarch’) /kəˈsɔːbÉ™n/ and Jekyll, in the Robert Louis (and by the way the final ‘s’ should be pronounced!) Stevenson story /ˈdÊ’iːkÉ™l/, although in this case the real person Gertrude Jekyll is never, in my experience, subjected to the mispronunciation.

It’s understandable that the general public, who quite reasonably pronounce names as they see them, should be unaware of these quirks of spelling (or is it the pronunciation that is quirky?), but my view is that those whose business it is to use spoken language professionally should take advantage of all the  help they can, and the BBC’s Pronunciation Unit exists precisely for this purpose – as do the several good dictionaries that include pronunciation advice. I often wonder why Chambers Biographical Dictionary does not.


  1. If you’re not aware of a quirky sound-spelling relation, you won’t consult anything or anyone, especially when you’ve heard a name being pronounced in a particular way. And I don’t think that a professional speaker would check each and every place/proper name that pops up in her/his text. A friend of mine’s last name is spelled Deasy. I kept pronouncing the middle consonant as /z/. He never objected, but one day he told me his mother had preferred the pron with an /s/. What a surprise! The /z/ seemed so straightforward (and still does to me). However, it’s no problem because I call him John 🙂

  2. Petr – I have to admit to being in exactly the same situation myself. I grew up in the same street as someone whose name all the boys in our group (I hesitate to call it a ‘gang’), used the same pronunciation for (how about that for a final preposition?). It was only when I was over sixty that I discovered that he and his family used a different one. This is why I pointed out that in ‘the old days’, a producer would bring a script to the Pronunciation Unit for us to go through and find the pitfalls. I don’t know whether that still happens with in-house programmes, but as independent producers are probably (in some cases at least) unaware of the Pronunciation Unit, they will continue in their blissful ignorance, perpetuating the less favoured version of contentious names.

  3. Not quite the same, but similar, is the case of Dej Poomkacha, Thai mate of mine, whose first name in Thai is (ignoring tone) pronounced /de:t/ (the final stop unreleased). He spells it ‘Dej’ because in Thai the last letter would be pronounced, when syllable initial, pretty much like /dÊ’/. But with the limited range of possible final consonants in Thai, a final /-t/ can be spelled using more than a dozen different letters.
    So if you know your Thai spelling rules, you’re laughing. But Dej knows that precious few of those who see his name spelled in English are so informed. So he tells them that his name is /de:dÊ’/ and you can barely credit the contortions he goes into trying to say a final consonant that for him doesn’t exist and certainly doesn’t come easy. I’ve told him not to bother, but he says he wants to make things easy for foreigners, what the Thais call ‘kreng jai’.
    Of course, this doesn’t stop Thai football commentators from pronouncing the name of Stoke City’s manager as ‘Mark Huge’. Just to show they can manage a final affricate, you see.

  4. Graham, I apologise for mentioning that the ambiguity of your wording ‘the fictional names Casaubon (from ‘Middlemarch’) /kəˈsɔːbən/ and…(etc)’ may lead some of your less wary readers to presume that you meant that George Eliot had invented the name itself rather than simply given it to a character who was a divine, as were two famous seventeenth-century Swiss-French bearers of the name, father and son, who came to reside in England. Hence the name’s complete anglicisation.

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