Monday, 28 March 2011


As I was reading Why Does E=mc2 by Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw (blog, 9 Feb) I came across the name of Albert Einstein’s colleague and tutor, Hermann Minkowski, the man who first claimed that space and time must be merged together into a single entity, spacetime.

I read the name to myself as mɪŋˈkɒfski and thought no more about it.

(About the name Minkowski, that is. I’m still trying to get my head round spacetime.)

In supplying this mental pronunciation of his name, I was following the pattern of other -owski names I know: the anthropologist Bronisław Malinowski, whom my UCL teachers referred to as ˌmælɪˈnɒfski, or Jacob Bronowski, presenter of the 1973 BBC TV documentary series The Ascent of Man, whom everyone called brəˈnɒfski.

Mention of Hermann Minkowski revealed a gap in my general knowledge. He was evidently an important figure in the mathematics underlying modern cosmology. In Wikipedia we read that he came from Kaunas (Kovno), now in Lithuania but then part of the Russian Empire, and was of Jewish descent, educated in Germany. He was awarded his doctorate at the University of Königsberg and subsequently taught there and at Bonn, Göttingen, and Zürich, all German-speaking universities.

The mathematician Hilbert called him his best and most reliable friend.
Seit meiner Studienzeit war mir Minkowski der beste und zuverlässigste Freund…
As a German name, Minkowski is pronounced mɪŋˈkɔfski. This indeed anglicizes as (BrE) mɪŋˈkɒfski.

Since he is such an important figure in cosmology, I was thinking that I ought to add his name to LPD.

But if I do that I must check how it is actually pronounced by English-speaking physicists, mathematicians and cosmologists. Do they use the same pronunciation as I inferred?

It’s possible that they don’t, because Americans tend to treat -owski names differently, rendering them in accordance with English spelling-to-sound conventions as -aʊski. Do Americans refer to him as mɪŋˈkaʊski, then? Given the dominance of Americans in most fields of scientific research, would you find this pronunciation among British scientists too?

There’s no way to find out except to listen to people or to ask them. Fortunately we can nowadays sometimes save time by exploiting on-line resources.

I did a quick YouTube search. Given the existence of a classical musician and recording artist Marc Minkowski, the search term had to be “Minkowski -Marc”. This brought up this video and this one, showing that at least two Americans do call our man mɪŋˈkaʊski, as I suspected.

This British one, despite a promising title, has a sound track containing no speech.

Probably my entry for Minkowski, if I decide to add one, should read

Minkowski mɪŋ ˈkɒf ski || -ˈkaʊsk iGer [mɪŋ ˈkɔf ski]

But I need to check the BrE. Any British cosmologists out there?


  1. There's another alternative: I've always pronounced Marc's name as mɪnˈkɔfski. And he's French: how would _they_ say it?

  2. John, in ODP for AmE you get /ˈmɪŋkaʊski/, with stress on the first syllable. /mɪŋˈkɒfski/, on the other hand, is what one can find in OBGP, ODP, and in my Oxford Dictionary of English (2006).

  3. Back when I did a physics degree at Cambridge, it was definitely mɪŋˈkaʊski from all the British members of faculty, but I did hear mɪŋˈkɒfski from some of the continentals.

  4. I agree with your pronunciation, except that at least in citation form I seem to have n rather than ŋ.

    I'm not a cosmologist, but I have been to lectures by people who are which have mentioned Minkowski space. I'd have thought that I'd have noticed if they used the pronunciation but I can't be sure.

  5. My 1967 Funk & Wagnalls has '(ming·kôf′skē)'. They describe him as a 'Russian mathematician'.

  6. Well, given that Kaunas (Lithuanian, Kauen in German, Kowne in yiddish, Kovna in Russian, Kowno in Polish) before becoming Russian had been Lithuanian-Polish (the Double Commonwealth), with a predominance of the Polish language for centuries, chances are that Minkowski's native language (or one of them) was Polish; at least his name, 'Minkowski', is Polish. And in Polish it is pronounced 'minˈkɔfski', with palatalized 'm' at the beginning, so maybe 'm'inˈkɔfski' or however you transcribe it. In Polish, though I don't know about the then Lithuanian variant, '...ŋ...' would also be accepted, while the variant with 'n' seemeth to me more standard. (I am a Polish native speaker).

  7. I think John is going the right way about it by conducting one of his polls online, and what impresses me more than the dictionaries or the Polishness of the name is that my son says he has never heard it pronounced mɪŋˈkɒfski in the field at all. He doesn't have any Polish associates, so they might well say that, but it seems that in his experience even the Russians can be keen to establish their US credentials with -ˈkaʊski.

  8. Well, I was not making no fuss about either the Polishness or something-other-ness of Minkowski's name, but the pronunciation of a word in the language it originally made part of is always a (possibly imperfect) guide, innit? It would e.g. interest me how Americans pronounce the name of the anthropologist, American of Swiss (francophone) descent, Cora Dubois. Doo- or Dyooboys? Or rather D(y)oobwah? Having no informants, I'd sort of think the latter is safer. But maybe it's 'dooboys', after all? And it is my impression, too, that Americans say mostly -aʊski, rarely, if ever, -ofski.

    BTW, names terminating in -owski are originally either Polish or Macedonian, not Russian or anything else (although they are frequent in Russia as they are in Germany, for instance).

  9. As a consequence of three anonymous comments today consisting solely of scurrilous abuse (now deleted), I have disabled anonymous comments, for the time being at any rate.

  10. I see the OED has an entry, which gives the following pronunciations:

    Brit. /mɪŋˈkɒfski/ , U.S. /mɪŋˈkaʊski/ , /mɪŋˈkɑfski/

  11. I'm a British professional astronomer and pronounce it /mɪŋˈkɒfski/ (which, unlike another Martin posting above, I guess I must have picked up from my British lecturers at Cambridge ~ 20 years ago). Difficult to be sure, since I also speak German, but I think this is evidence that that pronunciation is out there in the wild in the Br. physics community.

  12. I graduated in physics in 2007 and work in the related field of particle physics, and my remembrances of the pronunciation are something like /mɪŋˈkɒfski/, although I have noticed variation between /f/ and /v/, and /ŋ/ and /n/.


The thing with physics is that, perhaps even more so than other academic fields, it is massively international. Perhaps the influence of various European physicists has caused it to be pronounced 'properly' here? Just an idea, could be complete twaddle for all the evidence I have.

  13. Looks as if a comprehensive entry would have to be
    Minkowski mɪn ˈkɒf ski →mɪŋ-, -ˈkɒv-, -ˈkaʊsk i || -ˈkaʊsk i -ˈkɔːf ski, -ˈkɑːf- —Ger, Polish [mɪŋ ˈkɔf ski]
    I should think his first language was probably Yiddish.

  14. I'd have guessed German.

  15. Ad John Wells

    Once again, the Polish pronounciation is: [min ˈkɔf ski] or (though this is less standard) [miŋ ˈkɔf ski]. [i], not [ɪ], in any case, the latterr does not exist in Polish. [mɪŋ ˈkɔf ski] seems to be German, and maybe a lot of other things, but not Polish.

    Ad John Wells, Lipman

    It is kind of pointless to speculate which language Minkowski spoke as his first language, since we do not have sources on that (or do we, perhaps?), but as a man of Polish-Lithuanian ethnicity and moderately well-informed about the realities in the area, now and in the past, I should judge it rather unlikely that M. spoke Yiddish (as his mother-language). Yiddish was (in those areas) the language of poor, uneducated Jews, I am not sure if that was M.'s background. In those areas, 'cultured' languages were Polish and Russian, so I'd suppose one (or both?) of the two. But that's speculation. Maybe one day we'll find out, if we find a reliable source.

  16. @John
    It does look as if Polish [mɪŋ ˈkɔf ski] needs amending, and that seems to make it pretty pointless to put mɪn ˈkɒf ski first – anyone who goes to the lengths of not assimilating the n in an attempt to imitate standard Polish would probably not use ɪ either.

    I do like the idea of putting the more typically European pronunciations first, especially in LPD, but including the wannabe AmE in the UK section.

  17. Ad John

    "Polish [mɪŋ ˈkɔf ski] needs amending,.. anyone who goes to the lengths of not assimilating the n in an attempt to imitate standard Polish would probably not use ɪ either."

    yes, that sounds correct to me. [mɪŋ ˈkɔf ski] _qua_ Polish would be Polish with a German accent. There is, or rather there was (the Holocaust!) a 'Jewish' (Yiddish) accent in Polish too, with such things as a strong aspiration of initial t's, p's and k's, but I can't recall (and don't believe) that it implied using [ɪ] rather than [i] in closed syllables.

  18. Brzezina quoting Altbauer claims it was, but the whole matter is more complex.

  19. Pointless or not, this discussion is fascinating, even though determining little Hermann's personal phonology seems downright impossible to me. Even if we assume that his native language was Polish (which I doubt) we can only speculate which point it might had been in the vast dialect continuum of former Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. For example, if we assume features typical for some eastern dialects, like closed o (o pochylone) and labialisation of consonants before the rounded vowels, it would be something in the lines of [min 'kʷof ski]. Nevertheless, in today's standard Polish it's of course [min ˈkɔf ski].

    Also, I'd disagree that the usage of Yiddish was limited to the poor and uneducated. Those were the times of the flowering of Yiddish literary culture in Lithuania. Here's a nice article on the subject:

    But even if Hermann's parents knew Yiddish, I think that it would be rather their second language with their mother tongue being German. I've found the story describing Minkowski family in more detail:
    I don't know what are the author's sources however.

  20. Ad nul

    Yes, I agree this discussion is interesting.

    Re poor and uneducated. I put the things as I knew them; besides, there is no contradiction between that and there being a literature; I am in Sardinia now, where there is a literature in Sardinian, even though the language has for a long time been used by culturally (and not only) deprived classes. Or take the Ukrainian or Byelorussian literature --- they start in the modern form in the XIX c., even though then the respective language were of uneducated peasantry, mostly. Your link does not open on my machine, though. Besides, maybe M.'s family _was_ poor and uneducated, good heavens, there is no dishonour in it.

    Re the dialect continuum. Yes, you are right, eastern Polish dialects used to have this pre-labialisation of the stressed 'o', a Russian imfluence, or should I say Eastern Slavic influence. But I am not sure if dialectal properties 'count' in assessing the pronunciation of a word in a language. Is the 'real name' of Somerset Zomerzet? Well, maybe it is. Difficult... .

    Re the commapress book. It says M. was a German Jew. In a sense he was, he spent much of his life in Germany, for instance. But were his parents German Jews? The realities as I knew them --- of course I claim no omniscience or such --- were such that for Lithuanian-Polish Jew it was rare to choose German as their 'cultured' language, despite all the similarities between Yiddish and German. The book does not look very meticulous with regard to non-physics-related things, for instance it says Koenigsberg was not Germany in 1872, which is wrong afaik.

  21. In English I'd pronounce it /mɪŋˈkɑvski/ although I feel my /ɑ/ being pulled towards the center position, bordering on /mɪŋˈkavski/ (but somehow still not quite "Minnesotan-ish"). Definitely no /f/ for me, only /v/.

    In French (and to answer djbcjk's above question), I'd attempt /minkɔvski/ (nb. the "w" in French wagon is a /v/ too: /vagõ/).

  22. I must say I’ve lost my confidence that it was the German language that was mainly spoken in Minkowski’s family home as I can’t find any reliable sources on that. It could have been Polish, could have been Yiddish. Even if they were originally poor and uneducated, the scenario where Lewin Minkowski becomes so successful in his business that he is able to educate both his sons in Königsberg doesn’t sound implausible. (And it’s noteworthy to mention that Hermann’s older brother Oskar was later reknown for recognising the link between the pancreas and diabetes, which “ultimately resulted in the discovery of insulin as a treatment for the disease.”)

  23. Young Hermann grew up in Kovno (now Kaunas), multi-ethnic, multi-cultural town, and on its streets you could hear people speaking in many languages (mainly Polish, Russian, Yiddish and Lithuanian, but not limited to). But he was born in 1864, the year when national January Uprising against Imperial Russia fell, and due to resulting repressions against the use of native languages, his family name could be officially written only as “Минковский” (pronounced [mʲɪn ˈkʷof skʲɪj] in today’s Russian, I don’t dare reconstructing historical pronunciation there). If he had gone to school in Kovno, he would’ve been taught in Russian only. So maybe that’s why his parents decided to move to Königsberg, German-speaking city (its Low Prussian dialect to be more specific). And yes, in 1872 it was a part of the brand new German Empire (unified by Bismarck in 1871).

    What’s my point? Languages then were much less standarized than we are accustomed to now, and dialectical properties were much more prominent. If we were to assess every single way the name could be pronounced in Minkowski’s lifetime, the dictionary entry would get absurdly long and confusing as hell (not to mention the painstaking research behind it). Nevertheless it’s good to remember that the language-dialect continuum, much like as the famous Minkowski continuum, spreads both through space and time. For instance, imagine today’s head of the Polish state speaking with an accent like this: (it’s a recording of Józef Piłsudski from 1924)

  24. Ad nul

    yes, but the 'funny' element of Piłsudski's recording is chiefly: 1. the sentence intonation, 2. the contents, 3. the style; accent particularities, vaguely 'borderlands' (kresowy) are not so prominent, perhaps a tendency to palatalise the sound of 'l' in such words as 'ludzie' or 'należy', probably an East Slavic influence. Now even these weak characteristics are rare today, not to say extremely rare (people who spoke like that dying out), so the accent still 'faellt auf', as they say in German, or attracts attention.

    Re Minkowski, I still find it hard to believe that he spoke German as his first language, and all but impossible that he spoke Lithuanian, I think the choice (not mutually exclusive) is between Yiddish, Polish, and Russian, with some local traits in grammar, vocabulary, pronunciation...

  25. In French (and to answer djbcjk's above question), I'd attempt /minkɔvski/ (nb. the "w" in French wagon is a /v/ too: /vagõ/)

    Léon Warnant's Dictionnaire de la prononciation française also gives /min-kɔv-ski/, although with the strong, usually regressive voicing assimilation in French one would actually hear /min-kɔf-ski/ in normal speech.

    W isn't a very French letter, so its pronunciation largely follows the pronunciation in the source language in theory. But /v/ is very much a default pronunciation of w otherwise. 'Wagon' comes directly from English but as an older borrowing has a pronunciation that follows French spelling-to-sound rules, with a nasalized vowel at the end. Here w is /v/, not /w/ as in English. French place names that contain w that should be pronounced /w/ or /ɥ/ (usually near Belgium) are regularly mispronounced by French speakers not familiar with such names, as they invariably use /v/.

  26. Minkowski's work actually centered around number theory, his contribution to relativity is something of an accident (because he knew quadratic forms very well so he immediately saw how a particular quadratic form now known as the Minkowski metric could give an elegant presentation of special relativity). And it is somewhat ironic that he is now best known for this contribution.

    I say this because it is entirely possible that number theorists and relativists pronounce his name differently, since they don't talk to each others very much. I'm sure there must be numerous examples of such a phenomenon where a scientific word is pronounced differently by scientists of different fields or sub-fields if the fields are disjoint enough.

    As a French mathematician, I pronounce /minkɔfski/ when speaking French, and /mɪŋˈkɑfski/ when speaking English (I learned English in Canada and I have the caught-cot merger, so I write /ɑ/ here), and I must admit I tend to regard people who say /mɪŋˈkaʊski/ as Philistines.

    I'm pretty sure the British cosmologist Brandon Carter says /mɪŋˈkɒfski/.