Thursday, 15 September 2011

names, names

Thanks to Karen Chung for pointing me towards a website called The Name Engine.
The Name Engine® provides the correct name pronunciations of athletes, entertainers, politicians, newsmakers, and more. Even well-known names are often pronounced in different ways, leaving you to wonder what the correct pronunciation is. You'll find the right answer here. Better yet, you'll actually hear the right answer.
Sounds as if the BBC Pronunciation Unit will be put out of business, not to mention pronunciation dictionaries.
All names are painstakingly researched for authenticity. Personal confirmation is the ultimate goal. At a minimum, they are confirmed by individuals with firsthand knowledge of the name in question. These individuals include team play-by-play announcers, public relations representatives, sports information directors, agents, etc.

Pronunciations are given in respelling (no IPA) and as sound clips. This is an American website, and both are strictly in AmE only.

At the moment the database of names included is very limited. It is divided into Sports (twelve subsections) and Miscellaneous (Companies/Brands, Entertainment, Newsmakers, Places, Politics).

Under Places there are just fifty or so geographical names, all of them places in the US except Abbotabad, Kyrgyzstan, Montevideo, and Qatar. (The “correct” pronunciation of the last-mentioned is given as ˈkɑːtɚ, a possibility I don’t countenance in LPD. In Arabic it’s ˈqɑtˁɑɾ.)

I looked in vain under Sports for Sharapova (blog, 1 and 5 July) and under Entertainment for Beyoncé. In the latter section I also learnt that Björk is “correctly” pronounced disyllabically, as biˈjɔːrk. H’m. (In Icelandic, monosyllabic bjœɾ̥k, and in BrE usually bjɔːk.) Under Companies/Brands, Bombardier (blog, 6 July) is given the respelling “bom-BAR-dee-ay”. But the associated sound clip is stressed differently, as bɑːmˌbɑːrdiˈeɪ.

The website looks very professional and clearly has great potential. There is no information given about who sponsors it or runs it. On the face of things, if it lives up to its grandiose claims, it might in time be more reliable than do-it-yourself Forvo (which currently boasts “1,108,951 pronunciations in 279 languages”).

I wonder whether The Name Engine® will get round to giving Americans guidance on the pronunciation of “difficult” British names such as Leicester.


  1. One day, maybe, it'll be a matter of 'if you didn't want your name mispronounced, then you should have recorded it online on the standard reference site'. Which would be no bad thing.

    Or you could just update the spelling of your name.

  2. Wikipedia receives a lot of criticism, but at least it uses IPA, often accurately. When a publication (book, website, etc) uses an "imitated pronunciation" (respelling), as is the case here, surely it's essential to provide a guide to the respelling system? If I don't know how to pronounce Givenchy, am I going to be helped much by the respelling ZHJEE-vahn-SHEE ? What about Worcester, MA? The pronunciation is given as WUH-ster but it's not at all clear which vowel sound is supposed to be represented by the UH. If the answer is "listen to the sound clip", why bother with the respelling at all?

    And is it just me, or is the pronunciation given for Lufthansa rather odd (in both respelling and sound clip)? I only have the first edition of LPD to hand but that certainly suggests ['lʊfthɑ:nzə] rather than [ləft'hʌnˌzʌ] for the US pronunciation. (That [ˌ] is meant to indicate secondary stress - either I've chosen the wrong Unicode symbol or it's not very satisfactory in this font.)

    If this website is to take off, I feel it needs to be much more rigorously structured ("Places" > "On the Map" ???), it needs to have many more entries (the Politics section is remarkably badly stocked) and it needs to give more information about who is behind it, how the pronunciations are arrived at, and what respelling system is being used.

  3. I'm not impressed with this so far (though as always I'm impressed with Karen Chung, who is a resource hunter extraordinaire).

    For starters, the total anonymity of the site owners does not pass my smell test.

    Björk is clearly wrong, as you point out, and the other errors you mention give me pause, too. It's a great idea, but I think they have a long way to go to beat Forvo, which I have found very useful, despite its own limitations, and,, and, and (which has sound files), although I do wish they would add IPA for those of us who read and prefer it.

  4. Thought it might be worth adding this note from the VOA pages:

    VOA Pronunciation Guide - Methodology

    VOA English language broadcasters should try to pronounce a person's name as that person pronounces it. The goal is to sound intelligent, informed, and natural. Therefore, we should not overly stress certain sounds which are peculiar to specific foreign languages. In other words, don't try to sound as if you are fluent in a language if you are not.

    The sources for these pronunciations (persons) are as follows:

    1. The person himself or herself
    2. The person's office or colleagues
    3. The appropriate VOA language service
    4. Embassies
    5. The United Nations
    6. Outside experts

    The sources for place name pronunciations are as follows:

    1. Merriam Webster's Geographical Dictionary
    2. The Columbia Gazetteer of the World
    3. VOA language services
    4. Embassies
    5. The United Nations
    6. Outside experts

    The Merriam Webster Geographic Dictionary is our first and main source for researching place names. If you need further clarification, you may proceed to the other sources listed. But for most purposes, you need go no further.

    However, be aware that Merriam Webster's Geographic Dictionary often gives more than one acceptable pronunciation for a place. If a comma separates these choices, it means their editors place equal value on the "correctness" of these entries.

    Just because a pronunciation is listed first does not mean it is preferred.

    When multiple place pronunciations are given, VOA broadcasters should consult with their editors to see if a specific pronunciation is required. As of this writing (July 2003), VOA English does not have a firm policy on which pronunciation to choose if multiple choices are given in the M-W Geographic Dictionary.

    Any place listings in the VOA Pronunciation Guide are for clarification purposes only, and do not carry the weight of preferred methodology. In other words, any place pronunciations given may be considered "correct," but are not necessarily required by VOA editors.

    Occasionally, a place pronunciation will be listed in the VOA Pronunciation Guide because it could not be found in any of our printed reference sources. In these cases, research was done with language experts or outside sources.

    For the pronunciation of other words, VOA uses:

    1. Merriam Webster's Third New International Dictionary or
    2. Merriam Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary

    A number of reference books (medical, biographical, etc.) are available from the Shift Chief in Broadcast Production. The phone number is 202-619-3563. Located in the Shift Chief's office is the original VOA pronunciation card file dating to the late 1950's. The pronunciations in this file use International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) symbols. These symbols offer more complex pronunciations than those found at this site. However, to properly use the IPA, you must be completely familiar with its methodology.

  5. "I wonder whether The Name Engine® will get round to giving Americans guidance on the pronunciation of “difficult” British names such as Leicester."

    I wonder whether it will get "round" to giving Brits guidance on the pronunciation of "difficult" American names such as Los Angeles and Maryland.

  6. While this site may be useful to find out how to pronounce English speakers' names, it is of very limited use when it comes to foreign names. If a distant goal is to be an alternative to Forvo, native pronunciations must be supplied, both as transcriptions (IPA) and as sound clips. Americanized transliterations that can even be listened to are helpful and can be shown additionally, but they are doubtlessly secondary to native pronunciations.

  7. @Yuri: I think when Brits call LA lɒs 'ændʒəliːz we're using our own British variant of the word. We know Americans call it lɒs 'ændʒələs (or lɑːs 'ændʒələs) but that sounds American to us - perverse though that may be!

    However, your point about Maryland (m'eərilænd) is fair enough, and you could add Missouri (mis'uːri) as well. When people pronounce those names as they're spelt it's usually because they don't know the correct pronunciation. I realise you could make the same argument for Los Angeles but I think there is a difference.

  8. @Pete:

    I'm doubtful of your claim about British pronunciations of "Los Angeles". Fwiw, every American I've ever met pronounces it /ɛl 'eɪ/ :)

  9. @vp: You mean I'm wrong that Brits say lɒs 'ændʒəliːz? Or I'm wrong in saying they do it on purpose?

  10. As a big fan of Björk, I've always pronounced her name in my English (a London variety of SSBE) with a NURSE vowel, and this is how I've heard it from other fans. Within her fandom, those who use the pronunciation with a THOUGHT vowel are viewed as outsiders (i.e. not fans).

  11. John,
    «Bombardier (blog, 6 July) is given the respelling “bom-BAR-dee-ay”. But the associated sound clip is stressed differently, as bɑːmˌbɑːrdiˈeɪ.»

    It's not that unusual in LPD for sound clips to be different from any of the transcriptions, as I've mentioned on here before.

    Pete, vp,
    There's quite an interesting discussion of lɒs ˈændʒɪˌliːz etc re John's blog entry for 19 Jan 2010:
    You have to search lɒs ˈændʒɪˌliːz. Pete's lɒs 'ændʒəliːz doesn't work for some reason.

  12. Nobody can say that Arlo Guthrie isn't an American, and he rhymes "Los Angeles" with "keys" (= kilograms) and "please":

    Coming into Los Angeles
    Bringing in a couple of keys
    Don't touch my bags if you please
    Mister Customs Man


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