This Wikipedia article is a lot of fun, if (like me) your idea of fun is:
* Averham, Nottinghamshire — /ɛərəm/ (“airum”)
* Avoch, Highland — /ɔx/ (“och” rhyming with loch)
and so on.
And as lagniappe, here’s a story by Eleanor Arnason called “The Grammarian’s Five Daughters.” It’s a little too faux-fairytale for me, but you may well like it, in which case you may thank Kattullus, who sent me the link.


  1. Just for fun: “Somboumkhan” is pronounced SOO-bu-conn, with a secondary accent on the last syllable — in English at least.
    A Lao kid of that name was in my son’s first grade class. The illiterate kids learned his name immediately, but the teachers had trouble with it. In subsequent years, when the teacher stumbled over the name on the first day of class there would be a chorus of kids correcting her.

  2. Not to forget P.G.Wodehouse’s rendition of “Mapledurham” as “Mum”. (IRL, it’s pronounced as spelled.)

  3. Sheesh, and people make fun of me for living in Kalamazoo! I’ve met many people who didn’t think it was a real place, but none who didn’t know how to pronounce it. :-D

  4. Sure, Ran, it’s like Kalamata except for the last syllable, right?

  5. A charming bit from the Wikipedia page:

    # Barugh, South Yorkshire — /bɑrk/ (“bark”)
    # Great Barugh, North Yorkshire — /bɑrf/ (“barf”)

    To each his own!

  6. Thanks, that *is* my idea of fun. ;-)
    Interestingly enough, neither Edinburgh nor Reading, two places with which I’ve had trouble in the past, are on the list. I blogged about it, see link.

  7. It seems to me that this is backwards — this isn’t a list of names with non-intuitive pronunciations, it’s a list of names with non-intuitive spellings.
    For example, if I’m at a large gathering, and someone introduces me to a “Mr. Fanshaw,” I’m not going to think, “What an unusual name.” Only later, when I try to look him up in a directory, am I likely to have a problem.

  8. Hey, ‘Strange Horizons’! I sent them a short story once. They’re still sitting on it. :)

  9. this isn’t a list of names with non-intuitive pronunciations, it’s a list of names with non-intuitive spellings.
    Good point, but the vast majority of people will encounter these names in writing and be surprised at how they’re pronounced, not the reverse. As someone who believes in the primacy of speech, however, I support you!

  10. “As someone who believes in the primacy of speech, however, I support you!”
    Well then, they are spelled correctly. Or were. People just got the mush mouth in the meantime.
    You left Baile Atha Cliath alone, I notice.

  11. @KCinDC: No, “Kalamazoo” is pronounced “cal(cium)-a-ma(roon)-zoo,” with primary stress on the “zoo” and secondary stress on the “cal.” “Kalamata,” I believe, is pronounced “call-a-maw-(pas)ta,” with primary stress on the “maw” and secondary stress on the “call.” (or maybe a bit differently for people without the cot-caught merger).

  12. Sorry, Ran. It was a joke.

  13. Also, if I remember correctly, some Greeks say ka-la-MAH-ta and others ka-LAH-ma-ta.

  14. I should give you two gems of Cantonese Transliteration and commonly found in personal names and places names in Hong Kong: one is well known, another one less so.
    They are “Ng” and “Tsz”.
    One of them actually have a vowel, guess which one?
    Answer to be reviewed later.

  15. Michael Farris says:

    I’m guessing Tsz has a vowel (either a schwa or something like Mandarin -i after some sibilants) since IINM nasals can form syllables on their own.
    I knew a cantonese speaker whose family name was I think M in Cantonese (the same character was pronounced Wu in Mandarin).

  16. You’re thinking of 28481k’s first puzzle, Ng (which can sound like M when you hear it said), which is indeed the same as Wu in Mandarin — a somewhat mindboggling fact!

  17. Michael Farris is right, the one with vowel is “Tsz”, which supposes to have an apical vowel (like a centralised i [ɨ] akin to Mandarin Hanyu Pinyin -i for sibilants), but nowadays Cantonese phonological shift means that vowel /ɨ/ merged with /i/ and pronounced as /tsʰi/ (and seldom palatalised as /tʃʰi/ as that would be “Chi”!).
    Hence, Tsz is usually pronounced as /tsʰi/ in English, but it represented both unaspirated /tsɨ/ and /tsʰɨ/ as aspiration was marked by a losable apostrophe.
    Tsz can take whatever tones you want as it is a typical syllable in Cantonese.
    Ng has an interesting history. Cantonese Ng can be traced as *ŋ(w)u in Middle Chinese. In Mandarin, the nasal initial /ŋ/ is dropped quickly because it obsruct clear pronunciation in long distances as it would happen in Northern Plains of China. However, Cantonese, being famous of speaking like “Houyhnhnm”, retains nasal initial. As the vowel weakened to a schwa like Min-nan, people found out that nasal consonants can easily form syllables of their own. Therefore, even the schwa is dropped, and leave out the plain /ŋ/.
    Ng can actually take THREE lower tones, they are ꜕꜖(IPA tone 21), ꜕꜔(IPA tone 23) and ꜕꜕(IPA tone 22), there are two surnames in Cantonese which are pronounced as Ng, but their tones differ, so be careful. :P

  18. A few of the names follow the ordinary rules of English spelling and are only notable because of their etymology. That is, they are spelling pronunciations. So I think they have to be classed as non-intuitive pronunciations. For instance, Cairo, Delhi, and Des Plaines.
    BTW, there weren’t any monks near Des Moines. Moines was likely short for Moingwena, a band of Illinois. And apparently, that name means sh*t-face.

  19. That’s a great story, thanks!

Speak Your Mind