The National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS), a part of the Library of Congress, has a page called Say How? A Pronunciation Guide to Names of Public Figures that is based on an excellent idea:

Say How? was born at the Library of Congress Talking Books for the Blind Recording Studio, where pronunciation of words and names borders on obsession. We found that one area was conspicuously missing from all of our many dictionaries and pronunciation guides: names of lesser known and contemporary public figures. Reference works tend to favor the famous and the dead. So at our Studio we began compiling a file of 3 x 5 cards with names of people prominent and obscure, past and present, in the fields of entertainment, politics, sports, literature, science, crime, fashion, medicine, law – anyone, in short, who’s name could possibly turn up in a book…

Our sources are many; personal knowledge, publishers and authors, print references, foreign embassies, archival film, radio airchecks, etc. Endless media monitoring, from the Olympics to talk shows to Court TV, has proved invaluable. And yes, some sources are more trustworthy than others. Attention must be paid. But the major source, whenever available, must be the person him/herself. For instance, the surname Moreno is commonly said as either mor-EEN-o or mor-AIN-o, but Rita Moreno pronounces her name mor-ENN-o. And despite the spelling, Brett Favre says his name is pronounced FARV. So FARV it is, and mor-ENN-o it is, and that’s that.
Common usage, a useful standard with conversational speech, becomes less useful when applied to people’s names. Most people pronounce Chico Marx’s first name as CHEEK-o, but Groucho always said CHICK-o. Most people say DEZZ-ie Arnaz, but Lucille Ball always said DESS-ie. I’ll go with Groucho and Lucy. Do you say EEL-ya Kazan? Many do, but Elia says ee-LEE-ya. And Louis Armstrong has gone on record as preferring to be called Louis, so no matter how many millions call him Louie, it’s Louis here…
In print, a name must be spelled correctly. This is the oral/aural equivalent.

So says Ray Hagen, compiler of the list, and I applaud his ambition and his principles. The problem is that the list has errors, of both spelling and pronunciation, that make it somewhat unreliable. The pronunciation has gotten an intrusive -l- in “Abadia, Jorge (HÔR-há ä-bäl-DÉ-ä); the spelling has faltered in “Abeywardebe, Harsha” (it should be Abeywardena, which is reflected in the pronunciation); I find it hard to believe there is a silent -a in Adeshina (given as ä-DÁ-shin). One of the most glaring offenders is “Sacirbey, Muhamed (SHÄK-r-bá)” (the name of a Bosnian diplomat); it is impossible for c to have the sound k in Serbo-Croatian, and in fact the name is correctly spelled Sačirbej and hence pronounced “shahcheerbay” (cf this article from November 2000: “Bosnian Permanent Representative to the UN Mohamed Sačirbej addressed the UN General Assembly on Thursday…”). But I don’t want to give the wrong impression; the vast majority of the entries seem to be accurate, and I was glad to learn (for instance) that Edward Ruscha is roo-SHAY. And Ray Hagen does invite correction:

Say How? is meant to be an ongoing project, with errors corrected and new names added regularly. In fact, we eagerly solicit any and all contributions and corrections. Please send all such information to:

I will use it with pleasure, relying more on the American entries than the foreign ones, and will send in corrections as they occur to me. (Via Incoming Signals.)


  1. A little project like this one, in its simplicity and thoughtfulness, makes me momentarily happy to be part of the human species. But I’m bound to soon see some random sh*t on the news that’ll wipe that smile off my face quick.
    Adeshina, which is a Yoruba surname, has a final paragraph that’s pronounced like in “GNAW”.

  2. Aha — thank you (or should I say o se e)! Only on Languagehat do you get immediate correction of a Yoruba name by a native speaker of Yoruba.

  3. PSA hat.

  4. Jonathan Wright says:

    I had a look at that list and was fairly horrified at the mangled pronunciation of Arabic names which it recommends. The ‘h’ in Ahmed, for example, has simply been dropped, when it is in fact a clearly audible unvoiced pharyngeal fricative. It also recommends stressing the second syllable of Assad, which is completely mistaken. These are merely two of many errors I came across in a brief perusal. I wonder who advised them on these names. They might also modernize their transcirpion of vowels, which looks horribly 19th century.

  5. The h hasn’t been entirely dopped, but treated very cavalierly: Ahmed gets treated as ["a:med], [ak"med], ["a:mad], and [ax"med]. Below them Ahtisaari ["AhtisA:ri] gets his [h] turned into [k].
    Non-English ‘A’ is treated inconsistently. Why do Sani Abacha and Roberto Alagna get one schwa apiece in [a"ba:tS@] and [@"la:nja]?
    Typos in Valdas Adamkus. No guide to Luis Alvarez’s surname. Schwa instead of [I] in Kingsley and Martin Amis.
    Useful enough for some names, in that I’d never heard Maya Angelou or Christine Aguilera spoken and they’re different to what I’d expected; but really it needs a lot more work before it should be released publicly. And drop the goddammed ad-hoc AY EE EYE OH YOU vowels: buy a real phonetic notation.

  6. Yeah, like I say, a lot more useful for English-language names than foreign ones. A good idea that needs a lot more work.

  7. Hmmm, part of the problem becomes: to what degree do they want to apply the same rules to foreign names? They’ll be hard pressed to get many English speakers to do pharyngeal sounds, for example, no matter how many times they hear the name pronounced by its owner.
    Of course the way anglophones pronounce foreign names is often not anywhere near as close to correct as we could get given just the phonemic set of English. The pronunciation of Chinese names at the olympics always makes me shudder.

  8. Yes, that is a problem. One solution would be to give two pronunciations, first an Anglicized one adapted to what an announcer is likely to find easy to say, then an accurate rendition of the pronunciation in the original language (if not in IPA, then in some suitably rigorous notation).

  9. (Oops, I meant final syllable, not final paragraph, but I think you got my drift.)
    All the “A”s in Abacha are the same: the word is pronounced exactly as written, open as you can manage, no fancy stuff.
    Abacha, former dictator of Nigeria, is dead, and are we glad (he was a horrible serial killer of the citizens of his country).

  10. The other complicating factor is that people with foreign names often opt for a pronunciation which would non-standard in their own language. I work with a couple of polish people, both speak polish but both choose “english” pronunciations of their names which would be considered incorrect in polish, even when the correct pronunciation would not be difficult for english speakers (in one case it is merely a change of emphasis).

  11. Ray Hagen says:

    Hi – I just saw your page commenting on my SAY HOW? and I’m tickled and amazed. Thanks so much for your kind words.
    One of the problems with the on-line version has to do with the diacriticals. Different in many ways from the print version, which uses standard diacriticals, the on-line version couldn’t accomodate all of them so some strange (to me) substitutions had to be made.
    I was interested in the comments correcting my version (corrections are ALWAYS being made) and would love to have anyone email me with a precise and readable corrected pronunciation of any name they find.
    This project, which started out in the mid-1970′s as index cards in a shoebox, was intended as a service to narrators who record taped books. I never imagined that it would be available on a world-wide website (for that matter, I never imagined world-wide websites), but here it is, though it was never planned as an international reference work..
    Tricky business. And endless.

  12. Hey, I’m glad you found the site, Ray! Believe me, I’m well aware of the difficulties involved in trying to maintain such a list, and I’m glad someone as diligent as you is on the job.

  13. I am looking to find out how to pronounce certain diacriticals. I am not certain what this site is though. Anyhow i would like to knowhow to pronounce an acute or grave Y, I, A, O, U. an a Diaeresis E, A, O, Y, I, U.
    I do not really not much about accent marks on letters and would like to know more if anyone could tell me.

  14. Just wanted to say that, for checking American personal names that do not appear in other reference works, we in the BBC Pronunciation Research Unit find Ray Hagen’s SayHow pages invaluable. We know better than most the difficulties of representing the phonologies of multiple languages in a simplified spelling system! Keep it up Ray :)

  15. What is the correct pronunciation of the name of the famous poet/philosopher Kahlil Gibran?

  16. It’s an anglicized version of Arabic Jubran Khalil Jubran, so I guess the main thing is to pronounce the G “soft” (like J). I usually say kah-LEEL zhi-BRAHN, for what that’s worth.

  17. Kathryn Jones says:

    Thanks so much for your help

  18. How does the poet Maya Angelou pronounce her last name?

  19. Hi
    Could you tell me where Louis Armstrong is recorded as having stated that he prefers the pronunciation ‘LOO-is’ for his name?

  20. olumoroti abiola says:

    what is the correct pronunciation of yoruba?
    is it yorba, with the u silent or is it
    yor-eu-ba? or yo-ru-ba?

  21. I’m just wondering if the guide is intended to report on prevailing pronunciation or if this is trumped by native-language/self-reported pronunciation. A good example is Martina Navrátilová, whose name is almost always pronounced mär-TĒ-nä nav-rə-ti-LŌ-vä, when any Czech would pronounce it with a quite different stress, something like MÄR-tē-nä nä-VRÄT(y)-il-ōvä ((y) for palatization; Czechs would stress the surname’s first syllable and lengthen the second, making it sound to foreign ears like the stress was on the second). You can hear it at (
    Of course, there’s no reason to expect Americans to trill r’s, palatize t’s, and master the stress-length thing, but it’s pretty easy to do an American version that actually sounds like something in the ballpark of the Czech pronunciation.

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