I will take you seriously when you learn how to pronounce foreign names

Because I go on a lot of long walks at all times of the day, I regularly download podcasts to provide me with stimulating intellectual company during these walks – as nobody seems to wish to join me in person. I listen to podcasts about politics, philosophy, economics, history, literature and the like. Some of them are in German, some of them are in English, from both sides of the Atlantic and some from the Pacific.

“I doubt that somebody who cannot pronounce my easy one-syllable name will understand my writings.”

Especially in English language podcasts about philosophy, it happens quite often that in the middle of what might well be a good thought, I get completely thrown off course by the speaker totally butchering a French or a German name. When that happens, I can’t take them seriously any longer. How can it be that a professor of philosophy claims to be an authority on Immanuel Kant or René Descartes, which I would think involves years of studying these thinkers’ works, and never once bothered to ask a German or French speaker how to correctly pronounce the name of their subject of study?

A few examples:

  • Immanuel Kant is not pronounced like an American “can’t”.
  • René Descartes is not pronounced “day-cart”, especially not with a strong emphasis on the first syllable, as if there was also a “week-cart” from which he needs to be distinguished.
  • Please do not pronounce Johann Gottlieb Fichte as “fickte”. It means something completely different in German. Something which you would never want to say in public, if at all.

I am sure my readers will come up with more examples, possibly also from other languages.

To the English speakers, let me explain my outrage at these mispronunciations:

(1) It is not even mainly about cultural or linguistic imperialism, although you may have noticed that all German speakers (at least if they dare to go on radio or TV or hold a lecture at a university) have no trouble at all to pronounce David Hume, Adam Smith or John Rawls in exactly the same way as a native speaker of English would do.

(2) My criticism centres rather on your intellectual laziness. If you can’t be bothered to look up the pronunciation in a dictionary, listen to it in a source in the original language or simply ask somebody who knows, then I simply cannot take your approach to research and science seriously at all. You make yourself sound like a sloppy reader, thinker and speaker.

About Andreas Moser

Travelling the world and writing about it. I have degrees in law and philosophy, but I'd much rather be a writer, a spy or a hobo.
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27 Responses to I will take you seriously when you learn how to pronounce foreign names

  1. Socrates says:

    I am learning my German pronunciation from Tom Astor records. My vocabulary is mainly gleaned from Die Ärzte albums and my grammar from Rammstein YouTube videos.

    According to one of my more sympathetic correspondence I sound “like a Schwule Pole, with a dash of Swabian thug when you attempt to role your r’s”.

    Now try “Can you tell me the way to the Eisteddfod at Ysbyty Ystwyth? I’m on my way to meet my friend Glyndwr ap Gwynmawr” :)

  2. melahart says:

    I understand your reasoning but you have to also understand how weird an English speaker feels pronouncing the word “Kant” as it is meant to be pronounced. You have to make a little bit of leeway for “cultural” differences.

    • Do you mean because of “cunt”? I never thought of that. There is still a difference in the pronunciation of these two words, although it is admittedly a smaller one.
      If somebody is troubled by that, then they would have to say “Immanuel Kant” and would thus avoid all confusion.

  3. John Erickson says:

    I’m not sure I’d fully agree with your statement about Germans on TV saying English names without butchering the pronunciation. Some of the “talking heads” on Deutsche Welle TV have massacred a number of British and American names on camera. Then again, the version we get here in the States seems to be the “dumping ground” where new talent auditions and old talent goes to die. Pity – there are a few glimpses of excellent presenters, especially Monika Jones with her faint yet delightful clipped accent.
    Then again, maybe I have no right to complain. After all, mine is the country that has produced Fox News (which rarely is “fair and balanced” – their motto) and the Southern accent, some examples of which even stymie most Americans! (I find myself hitting the “on-screen caption” button far more on the Columbus Ohio news than I do during ANYTHING on BBC America! :D )
    By the by, I hope this is a return to normalcy. Though many folks are still without power, two weeks after some major storms passed through our area, they finally have reconnected power to the wi-fi towers that provide my Internet access. At least until Sunday, when a major storm front is due. Perhaps the blessing of my absence will continue after all….. ;)

    • Could you give a few examples of English names being butchered? Because I am really surprised to hear that. Even in the German language news on TV (I prefer “Tagesschau” on ARD), they try everything to pronounce all foreign names correctly.

      The only confusion about an important American name seems to concern the first name of Barack Obama. Most (including me) pronounce it like the last name of Ehud Barak or like the Hebrew word for “lightning” (ברק). Others pronounce it like in “barracks”.

  4. We English speakers have no dep trust in our ability to prounce anything even in our own language, which is why we undermine what rule it has. Then butchers other peoples languages, but I am foreign enough that I wish people would at least make an /effort/ to say my name. Most non-Lankans make decent approximation, but English speakers have a hard time getting past the syllable count.

    On the other hand, when speaking German, I pronounce “Adrian” phonetically, but my German friends insist on saying something like “Äydrien”.

    All that says, “Hegel” does totaly rhyme with “bagel”. Well not totally, but close enough.

    And Kant is a special case.

    • I commend you for pronouncing “Adrian” phonetically! That’s how it should be when it is a German name. This “Äydrien” pronunciation (very accurate phonetic spelling!) is used by those who want to sound more international/English/American.
      Let them read the story of Adrian Leverkühn in Thomas Mann’s “Doktor Faustus” and see if they notice that the German pronunciation sounds much more natural in a German surrounding.

  5. milos says:

    You have a point. Yet I’ll take you only seriously if you pronounce the names of the writer Hans Christian Anderson and the philospher Søren Kierkegaard correctly.

    [audio src="http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/e/ed/Da-Hans_Christian_Andersen.ogg" /]
    [audio src="http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/6/6a/DA-S%C3%B8ren_Kierkegaard.ogg" /]

  6. John Erickson says:

    Well, right in the middle of writing you a serious response, I just remembered a reason to disagree with you – or perhaps the ultimate proof of your concept. If you DON’T use Anglicised pronunciations, that old Monty Python song goes all wrong: “Immanuel Kant was a real pissant who was very rarely stable … and Renes Descartes was a drunken fart/’I drink, therefore I am’.”
    Like I said, either the ultimate disagreement for your point, or the ultimate proof….. :D
    p.s. BEAR-rack O-buhma is the usual DW pronunciation. I’m trying to think of others off the top of my roasted skull, but I think my brain melted down a couple hours ago. 107 degrees with 48 percent humidity will steam the sense out of ANY of God’s creatures! (Go ahead, say it – “Even the lowliest like me”. ;)

  7. Jevon Jaconi says:

    I enjoyed reading this post while sipping Merlot (mur-lot) and listening to Chopin (chop-pin). :).

  8. Hugelgupf says:

    I don’t usually like it when English (in my case, American) people butcher any other language; but I still take them seriously. The every day American simply does not necessarily have to know how to pronounce names or places in Spanish, French and/or German – why would they? They may and should learn it just for the sake of cultural respect, but I take them just as seriously when they don’t.
    Now you’re referring to a case in which I have to agree with you: Scientists and researches who talk about and refer to names and places of other languages which are important for their research or their respective field(s) should _definitely_ know how to pronounce them! Or in other words, to put it in general: Where the cultural respect requires it, people should know how to pronounce certain names in other languages – this does not only include scientists, researches, professors, but also politicians and other people of “global” character.

    Regarding Germans speaking English on German TV: I always laugh at commercials that make the word “love” sound like “laugh”. Sorry, but there are too many people who just can’t pronounce it properly.

  9. Martin Murray says:

    Two points, having come rather late to this topic.

    Firstly, talking about pronunciation in a text based medium is difficult. Is there only one American pronunciation of “can’t”, for example? A northern English pronunciation of “bagel” (admittedly a word a Northerner wouldn’t use very often) is rather closer to a German pronunciation of “Hegel” than might be a southern English or American pronunciation, so the rhyme between Hegel and bagel is not so far-fetched.

    Secondly, you need to be aware that people have accents in their ears. This means that they cannot distinguish sounds which a speaker considers totally different. A classic example is the Japanese perception of “l” and “r”. To a Western speaker, these are quite distinct. To a Japanese, they sound almost identical, because their letter “r” is actually a sound intermediate between a Western “l” and “r”. So when they say “Rome”, using their “r” sound, we think they are saying “Lome”. But when they say “loam” using the same sound, we think they are saying “Rome”.

    So when a,native English speaker says “fickte”, it’s because that’s how he thinks the German name “Fichte” is pronounced. That is what he has heard, because the German “ch” sound isn’t one of the sounds he can recognise. You have to be a Professor Higgins, a phoneticist not a philosopher, to know the difference.

  10. Pingback: The Paradox of the Categorical Imperative | The Happy Hermit

  11. Kavita Joshi says:

    I am listening to Alan Watts and he is really goid…now your post will make me think when he will take se one’s name

  12. Antonius says:

    Well I guess that ruins any authority you, or damn well anyone, might hope to have on Lao Tzu, Brihaspati, Hwadam Seo Gyeong-deok, Mowlana Jalal ad-Din Balkhi, …..
    Part of comprehension involves translating things read/heard into something meaningful for the learner. For many native English speakers a German “ch” or “ö” makes not sense. I don’t understand your dilemma, unless you’re just making a purist complaint. I guess if you’ve heard a poorly-rendered name mentioned a dozen times in a podcast it might stark to irk people who are prone to be irked.
    Another commenter up there mentioned Chopin. Depending on whether you consider his Polish upbringing, or his later life as French national, one could reasonably argue for two distinct (though to my ear very similar) “proper” pronunciations of his name. By the way, very nearly 0% of everyone I’ve met in my life can pronounce my name correctly. But I can still respect them :-)

  13. NC says:

    I’d be far more worried if an academic misrepresented say, Kant’s ideas than if he or she mispronounced his name. It’s a very trivial thing to get concerned about, and is certainly not indicative of ‘intellectual laziness’, as there’s nothing remotely intellectual about looking up a pronunciation. I’d suggest you focus more on the substance of the lectures/arguments you listen to in future, and maybe you’ll find this won’t bother you so much.

    • NC says:

      Given the complexity of the ideas the academics are discussing, the correct pronunciation of a name really doesnt seem like it’s top of the list of importance.

    • Its like propa speling. It just reali disturbs u when you r trying to unerstand sumthink.

    • NC says:

      In other words, if the main thing you take from a lecture is that the academic mispronounced a name, you probably weren’t engaging at all with the content.

    • NC says:

      Apologies; I posted those comments unthinkingly. I think I agree.

  14. Gaeleigh says:

    Any attempt to pronounce a name in its native tongue by an American sounds kind of douchey. Unless the said American actually speaks the language in question. Otherwise it’s best to go with the English convention of the name.

    • Lance says:

      Agreed. Although the American way of pronouncing Descartes or ‘rendezvous’ troubles me deeply, I do not in my right mind attempt to teach them the ‘right’ pronunciation

  15. mikeb says:

    I landed on this article because I was curious about the pronunciation of “Kant” after hearing that the name sounded like an offensive word in English (I’m from the USA).

    After reading, I was still curious about how these names should sound. So I listened to several recordings on “forvo-dot-com” of these names – recordings presumably made by native Germans (or French in the case of Descartes), and I found the following:

    “Kant” sounds much more like “can’t” than “cunt”. Very close to something like “kahnt”.

    “Descartes” sounds almost exactly like “day-cart”, however as you mentioned, the emphasis should be more on the second syllable. And the second syllable isn’t quite the same as “cart”, but it’s pretty close.

    And “Hegel” does rhyme with “bagel” – at least how I’ve always heard “bagel”.

    I suppose it’s possible that the people who made the recordings are forvo are incorrect.

  16. Your mom says:

    You ‘sound’ like such a fucking cunt. A whinny poor little bitch. Obsessing about the mundane to mask your lack of proper education. Perhaps your parents should have named you a less faggot name. Then you would not be so hurt when someone mistook you for a girl. And bye the bye. English educated philosophers have an alternate pronunciation of most names. A little hidden gem to discern the uneducated and foreign less thans from the proper intelligence. Nice online diary. Andrea. Bitch.

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