Monday, 10 May 2010


How do you pronounce the English female given name Naomi?
I’ve always said ˈneɪəmi. That is also what you will find in Daniel Jones, alongside a less common variant with an unreduced GOAT vowel in the second syllable, ˈneɪəʊmi (notation modernized). As with other -eɪə- sequences, there is also the possibility in RP of compression and smoothing to -eə-, giving ˈneəmi.
But I have become aware of two other possibilities. One has the stress on the penultimate instead of the antepenultimate, thus neɪˈəʊmi. I know two West Indian bearers of the name who use this stressing. It is the only form given in Webster’s Collegiate. To my surprise, I find that this is also what Young’s Concordance gives (1879): NA-O´-MI.
The other concerns variability in the final vowel. Kenyon & Knott’s Pronouncing Dictionary of American English gives (in their notation) ˈneəˌmaɪ, neˈomaɪ, -mɪ, -mə. Mangold & Cho’s Pronouncing and Phonetic Dictionary of Biblical Names (Saarbrücken 1994) lists four possibilities: ˈneɪəmɪ, neɪˈəʊmi, ˈneɪəʊmaɪ, neɪˈəʊmaɪ. But I have never heard -maɪ in Britain, still less -mə.

There is yet another possibility, which I have been vaguely aware of for some time and have now just heard from a returning officer in one of last week’s UK election results. It has a different first vowel: naɪˈəʊmi . I have no idea where this comes from. It can hardly be a spelling pronunciation. Could it be contamination from naïve naɪˈiːv? That seems far-fetched.

The name is of Hebrew origin, נָעֳמִי na’omi ‘pleasant’. In the Hebrew Bible Naomi was the mother-in-law of Ruth.
According to Wikipedia, the name also happens to go very happily into Japanese as 直美 naomi ‘honest beautiful’.


  1. I am most surprised by this.

    Here in Australia, the pronunciation you transcribe as neɪˈəʊmi is overwhelmingly the dominant pronunciation - in fact I've never heard any other. To the best of my knowledge, every single Naomi in the country pronounces her name with a stressed GOAT vowel.

    (Of course, for Australian phonetics I'd actually write næɪˈəʉmi.)

  2. I have always used naɪˈəʊmi, and had presumed ˈneɪəʊmi to be a (rare) personal choice; I was at school with a lot of girls called the former (Cornwall, 1980s and 90s) and none the latter.

  3. [naɪˈəʊmi]: looks like the more usual (American stress?) [neɪˈəʊmi] with a hypercorrect "European" [a], possibly with the [ɪ] as a more independent [j].

    That would go in a similar direction as the contamination from naive, which I don't find that far-fatched.

  4. The naɪˈəʊmi realization of the Hebrew name "Naomi" makes me think of "naive" too, and also of the painter's name "Raphael", in which the second a too may be realized aɪ...

    (as can be heard in "Desperate Housewives" : the gay couple's dog is called ˌrɑ:faɪˈel )

    Jérôme Poirrier

  5. Thinking again, the stress is probably also a matter of more conservative RP vs newer forms. John, do you say [ˈdaɪənə] or [ˈdaːnə], or rather [daˈjænə]?

  6. I almost always hear the versions with the stressed GOAT vowel, though I myself say ˈneɪəmɪ. I also have never heard the -maɪ or -mə versions.

    Skins, a UK television series with a teenage cast, had a character named Naomi and the pronunciations used were mainly naɪˈəʊmi (including by the actor portraying the character) and neɪˈəʊmi.

    As for the surprising aɪ, I would guess it's a modification of an underlying /a/ in front of another vowel in unfamiliar classically-derived names. Whereas traditionally these would be anglicized as eɪ, these days /a/ in foreign names are often imitated as ɑ. Since this is difficult in front of another vowel, it takes on a glide and becomes aɪ; alternatively, eɪ is lowered to aɪ under the influence of ɑ. You see this phenomenon at work in attempts at pronouncing unfamiliar classical names like Laërtes, or even in some singing pronunciations of Israel.

  7. Lipman: none of the above, if you mean Diana. That's daɪˈænə.

  8. That's what I meant by [daˈjænə], not sure why I wrote it like that. But anyway, interesting.

  9. I live in Hampshire, England, and have only ever heard the pronunciation [naɪ.ˈəʊ.miː] when people on the BBC are talking about Naomi Campbell.

    I can think of four girls I have known over the years with the name Naomi, and they (and me) have all pronounced their name [neɪ.ˈəʊ.miː].

    I assumed [naɪ.ˈəʊ.miː] was a rare variant of the much more common [neɪ.ˈəʊ.miː], and have never heard anyone use any of the other pronunciations you describe.

    Here is another example of the BBC recommending a pronunciation I've never heard in real life (I've always pronounced it to rhyme with "cough", but the BBC doesn't recommend this pronunciation...)

  10. Sorry, the link I posted doesn't seem to be working.
    Try typing "how to pronounce van gogh bbc" into Google and it should be the first result that comes up (BBC Magazine Monitor).

  11. I remembered you had referred to this before, and it seems you took up Jérôme Poirrier's communication about naɪˈəʊmi on Thursday, 5 March 2009:
    Canaan and Sinai
    Apropos of naïve (yesterday’s blog), Jérôme Poirrier writes:

    I am under the impression that a lot of people make the ɑː to aɪ change also in a word like Naomi (as naɪˈəʊmi).

    You had dealt with naïve by adducing ˈɪzraɪel as evidence of "a tendency to change ɑː to aɪ before a following front vowel (a position from which it is usually shielded by a linking or intrusive r)". Jérôme's mention of naɪˈəʊmi (which you now say you have been vaguely aware of for some time, though I am sure it has only been of impeccably descriptive interest to you – I regret to say it has been a bane to me for a very considerable time) is already evidence that this doesn't happen only before front vowels. And I wouldn't even exclude the possibility of a linking or intrusive r in some of these cases: A Mancunian assures me he has regularly heard mə'rɑːliə for Mahalia.

    In the Canaan and Sinai of the title of this entry you identify the j in ˈkeɪnjən and the i in ˈsaɪniaɪ as the results of reduction of the original weak eɪ to i, and perhaps further to j or zero. (You ask "Who would believe that Sinai used to rhyme with tiny?" I do, as I remember aged clerics using that pronunciation, and thinking it was already exclusively parsonical. But as well as ˈsaɪniaɪ, I was also hearing ˈsaɪniɪ, ˈsaɪnɪɪ etc from relatively young people. I'm sure this wasn't a neo-Latinate pronunciation of the final -i, but a reduction of the weak aɪ of the traditional pronunciation similar to that reduction of the original weak eɪ. I never heard anything like ˈsaɪniɪ or ˈsaɪnji, so I disagree with you about both of these cases involving reduction of the original weak eɪ to i, and perhaps further to j or zero. I think Sinai must rather have involved compression of the forms such as ˈsaɪnɪɪ, ˈsaɪnɪi that I mentioned above.)

    As far as I can make out the qamatz of סִינָי was considered to be long with respect to pataḥ, which I take to mean it would have been Sīnāy. The Latin Sinai must have been interpreted as having final -ī. But the Septuagint has Σινα (later Σινᾶ). Anyone know the logic of that?

    Jérôme makes another point about Naomi:
    "The corpus of such words in everyday vocabulary is extremely low; but more data should be gathered by listening to the way anglophone media pronounce chains of vowels in Hawaiian and Polynesian proper names..."

    And Japanese, for example. In a recent blog entry you mentioned karaoke. Extraordinarily enough the only dictionary I found which holds out for [ˌkɑːrəˈəʊkɪ] is Collins, which is usually pretty permissive. Other dictionaries, even American ones, give precedence to [ˌkɑːriˈoʊkɪ] etc. I haven't found any which give [ˌkɑːraɪˈəʊkɪ] etc., but I have heard it in various forms. I took them to be stabs at a more authentic rendition of the Japanese vowel sequence, giving more evidence of this "linking or intrusive i". So contamination from naïve naɪˈiːv doesn't seem so far-fetched to me as it does to you.

    But what do you expect from returning officers? The one who sacked Portillo pronounced one of his names ekˈzeɪviə.

  12. This is really off-topic, but:

    - No such thing as a short vs a long vowels in (massoretical) Biblical Hebrew, that's a mediaeval invention, trying to make sense of contradictory traditions. Massoretically, the context form is /sinaj/, the pausal /sinɑj/. Anyway, once it's Greek or Latin and we know the length there, it doesn't play a role for English.

    - In all forms of Hebrew, it's a diphthong, not /a/ and a separate vocalic /i/ There are several forms in Arabic, mainly /si:na:/. Not sure about the Syriac form right now.

  13. In Italy it's usually pronounced as in Japanese, even when referring to the Naomi in the picture.

  14. Lipman,
    >Anyway, once it's Greek or Latin and we know the length there, it doesn't play a role for English<

    Well DO we know the length in Greek or Latin? I meant if the eɪ of ˈsaɪneɪaɪ reflected that (and we don't have to believe Σινᾶ), then that length might in turn reflect the quantity of qamatz. Perhaps the mediaeval invention was the sort of invention in the Invention of the Cross, except that what it found in the contradictory traditions was not spurious!

    I did try to make it clear that I didn't think the yodh was a a separate vocalic /i/ either, by writing it y. And this too might provide evidence for the functionality or at least the phoneticality of length in Biblical Hebrew: the effect of [j] after a long vowel might have been such as to leave it out in Greek rather than write it ᾷ or something, where we know the iota subscriptum got lost in pronunciation, and would probably already have had undesirable morpho-syntactic implications for the indeclinable Σινᾶ. If qamatz wasn't long they could have written αι.

  15. BTW When I said "The Latin Sinai must have been interpreted as having final -ī" I didn't mean to suggest that interpretation was anything but perverse.

  16. What, been interpreted as having final -ī? We are talking about the aɪ of ˈsaɪneɪaɪ, aren't we? It does appear to have been so interpreted, doesn't it? I asked in the previous post "DO we know the length in Greek or Latin?" (You hadn't missed that, I hope.) It's a bit hard to believe it was a long final i in the Vulgate, isn't it? And if it had been before that, in spite of its not being a long or short final anything in Σινᾶ, it would be a bit hard to believe that was based on a ḥiriq in there somewhere to fortify the yodh!

  17. @John Wells
    I didn't subscribe to Lipman's apology for being off-topic with Canaan and Sinai, as in my post of 15.37 today I was considering the pros and cons of your treatment of them in connection with this same question about Naomi in your blog entry for Thursday, 5 March 2009.

  18. BTW, John, as long as we're talking about "linking or intrusive i", what do you think of the "linking or intrusive ʋ" which I have to report from BBC Breakfast yesterday? Tim Walker, who often appears on the programme, and consistently has for both w and r the ʋ that the Dickensian (and, we learn from Kevin Tang, Mezzofantian) Cockneys may have had for w and v, so that he calls himself Tim Ralker, yesterday talked of being ˌʤʊʋiˈaɪd.

  19. Sorry, didn't hear Tim Walker, and don't understand the reference to Mezzofanti.
    This post was about "Naomi"!

  20. I'm from America and I've only heard Naomi pronounced neɪˈəʊmi over here. I've never heard any of the other possibilities.

  21. Well I guess I should have transcribed it neɪˈoʊmi, but you all knew what I meant.

  22. Some times I think English is very tough language to speak here is example for this, I found difficulty to pronounce this name. Pronunciation makes lot difference in term of meaning!

  23. Lipman
    Might as well be hung for a sheep as for a Lamb.

    In all forms of Hebrew, it's a diphthong, not /a/ and a separate vocalic /i/". There are several forms in Arabic, mainly /si:na:/.

    So why do I get zero hits for סִינָיְ with shva naḥ?

    And the main Arabic form you give, /si:na:/, does reflect the Egyptian spelling سينا, and may look like the Greek Σῑνᾶ, but the standard spelling سيناء‎ sīnā'a shows the modern way of handling the glottal stop which Greek couldn't have handled, and also puts the accent in the right place for the Greek form, and when I vowel that, I still get 9,200 hits for سِينَاءَ, lit. /si:na:ʔa/.

    Is it at all conceivable that the final yodh of סִינָי /sijnaj/ could have been some form of yodh parallel to either of the forms of its correlate ya in Arabic called yāʾ hamza and ʾalif maqṣūra, representing repectively this glottal stop or /a:/, and that this yodh might have been misinterpreted even before the Latin -i was? Though I suppose the Septuagint Σινᾶ may have been based on some cognate Semitic name.

  24. In 1808 in North Carolina,a pregnant young woman called Naomi Wise was killed by her lover Jonathan Lewis.. A song was composed and must have been circulated in written form, since it turns up with different tunes to the same text.

    Two extremely fine versions were recorded commercially in the 1920's, both shortening the name to ˈəʊmi. One record label used the spelling Naomi, the other Ommie.

    If you want to chase up the versions, they were by Clarence Ashley and by Grayson and Whitter, The song has been recorded more recently by Doc Watson and Bob Dylan -- I'm not sure of their pronunciations or spellings.

  25. It only matters with the speaking of the proper pronounciation. Only character matters. It doesn't have to do with the spelling.