Proper names are an important part of a pronunciation dictionary. Although most of them are not covered in general dictionaries, they are part of every NS’s knowledge of the language and therefore deserve to be properly documented as part of our on-going description of English. And in the case of English we have the added complication of the often opaque relationship between spelling and sound. (Think of the familiar names George, Leonard and Leo, where eo corresponds to ɔː, e and iːəʊ~iːoʊ respectively.)
Today I’m concerned not with geographical names, commercial names, or characters in fiction and mythology, but just with names of people; and among them not with surnames but with personal names (christian names, forenames, first names).
Naturally I tried to do my best to give these good coverage in LPD. But I’m conscious of a fair number of gaps: in particular, Indian names and Islamic names. Plenty of native speakers in Britain bear these names, and neither LPD nor any other pronunciation dictionary covers them adequately.
But it’s not just Indian and Islamic names. Parents today feel very few constraints on the choice of names for their children. They are free not only to create new spellings for familiar names, but also to invent entirely new names. How then is a pronunciation dictionary to keep up? It can’t.
(I am still feeling a bit embarrassed that I missed Britney in the 2008 edition of LPD. I console myself that at least I managed to add the surnames Obama and Miliband in time.)
This was brought home to me yesterday when I attended a funeral for a man of the same age as myself. The service sheet listed the names of all his immediate family. He was called Dan, and among his brothers and sisters (he came from a big family) were John, Helen, Edith, Joyce, Olivia and Ethel. No problem there. His sons and daughters included George, Dawn and Lorna, but also the unusually spelt Dannii. Then come the grandchildren. The names of one or two are unremarkable (Marcus, Karen, Shawn), but they are in a minority. Most of them have names not to be found in pronunciation dictionaries: Vonetta, Chiedza, Khaila, Shelayne, Keanna. Then his four great-grandchildren are named Stephon, Sha’Myri, Tierra and Teondray. I suppose the first may just be an unusual spelling of Stephen, but the others have every appearance of having been invented on the spot.
Not all parents choose to do their own thing in this way. Like everything else in Britain, it tends to be sensitive to social class differences. I have no grandchildren, but my great-nephews are called Jack, Joseph, and Joe, and my great-nieces are Sophie and Lucy.