I’m sure many of you have wondered, as I have, what the “correct” pronunciation of Pinochet’s family name is. Well, Eric Bakovic has not only wondered, he’s thoroughly researched it, and this post on Phonoloblog (a follow-up to his earlier Language Log post) has everything you will ever need to know on the subject. Short answer: you can pretty much say it however you like and be correct (in the sense that there are Chileans who say it like that). There are northern dialects in Chile where ch is realized as [š], but more important is the social element; Bakovic quotes a Slate Explainer article by Daniel Engber as follows:

The confusion starts with the ch sound, which can serve as a marker of social class in Chilean Spanish. In educated speech, the Spanish ch is similar to the English pronunciation, as in the word chess. But popular dialect turns the ch into something more like sh. A high-class Chilean would probably pronounce the country’s name as “chee-lay,” while someone with less status might say “shee-lay.” Likewise, the same two people might describe the ex-dictator as “pee-no-chay” and “pee-no-shay.” …

It gets more complicated with the final t. As a general rule, the whole syllable—”chet”—should be spoken aloud. But in casual conversation, Chileans tend to drop the final sound. Someone who pronounced Pinochet as “pee-no-chet” would be correct, but he’d also be speaking in a formal (and perhaps a bit uppity) tone. On the other hand, some Chileans are inclined to use the French pronunciation of Pinochet, since the name is of French Basque origin. In that case, they’d drop the t and go back to “pee-no-shay” or “pee-no-chay.”

Finally, there are those who forgo the other options in favor of the somewhat-derogatory nickname “Pinocho.” When graffiti artists scrawl Pinochet’s name, they sometimes render it as “Pin” alongside the number eight, or “ocho” in Spanish. Thus, “Pinocho.”

Chileans point out that however you say the name, you’re unlikely to be corrected. … It wouldn’t be awkward for two people to have a long discussion about the ex-dictator using two different pronunciations.

How did Pinochet himself say it? Three different sources told the Explainer they knew or remembered how the general or his family pronounced the name. And they gave three conflicting answers. You can hear Pinochet utter his own name two seconds into this video clip from 1980—it sounds a lot like “pee-no-chay.” If you’ve come across another audio or video clip in which Pinochet or a member of his family pronounces the name, please send it to the Explainer.

Bakovic points out that it’s not actually all that clear how he’s saying it in that video because the sound quality is so poor, and also that “Pinochet’s Wikipedia entry says his father was a ‘descendant of Breton immigrants who arrived in Chile during the 18th century’, and Brittany’s quite a way from the Basque country.” Final -t is pronounced in Breton, for what that’s worth, but I’d love to get the actual etymology of the name if anyone knows it.

Bakovich goes on to provide much more information about South American dialects (in particular, my beloved porteño); I recommend the whole post to your attention.


  1. I think it’s pronounced “murderous dog who deserved to die much younger than he did.”

  2. I know Engber’s father. Nice chap, a mathematician and mushroom enthusiast, he has shown me much kindness. Never met Engber fils, though.

  3. The reporters on France 2’s newscast generally pronounce the final “t” in Pinochet, but those on the US Spanish-language networks (Telemundo and Univision) omit it. So, roughly, the French opt for a “Spanish” pronunciation, and vice versa.

  4. Nblinks: Probably each is trying too hard to be correct. My father’s name (as spelled in English) starts with a J, and in the U.S. he generally expects people to pronounce it either with the J sound that it looks like, or with the Y sound that he uses when he says it. (He spells his name the KJV way, but pronounces it the modern Israeli way.) But sometimes people surprise him; one of his neighbors, in her attempt to convey her ethnic savvy, proudly pronounces it with an H sound.
    (Sadly, I have no such fun stories with my own name; people typically either pronounce my name correctly, as /ran/, or pronounce it as it’s spelled, as /ræn/.)

  5. John Emerson says

    I once irritated someone extremely by pronouncing their name in Swedish (more or less): Yohonson for Johanssen. their American name was pronounced Joe-hansen.
    In general, I think that people should be allowed to freely choose the pronunciation of their own names. I once knew a 30 year old named Nathalie who pronounced the “th” sound as in English. It was her name, after all.

  6. Can we at least make an exception for the yuh-VONs and ex-AY-viers, John?

  7. Siganus Sutor says

    I’d love to get the actual etymology of the name if anyone knows it
    It might not be a final etymology but Jean Tosti says that Pinochet is a name found in Aveyron and in the north of Brittany and that it could be a diminutive of pinoche, which could be linked to the fruit of the pine tree or to… the penis — une pine (pronounced like the English “pin”) is a prick, and pinochet could then be seen as a “little prick”.
    It could also be linked to the conical pieces of wood (pinoches) used on boats to fill holes in the hull.
    Breton names ending with -et are usually pronounced “ett”? That could explain why in islands like Mauritius and Reunion so many names of French origin having this termination are pronounced this way — though not all of them.

  8. Can we at least make an exception for the yuh-VONs and ex-AY-viers, John?
    The one that gets me is Caitlin. I want to shake them all and say “It’s kat-LEEN, dammit, not ‘KATE-lin’!” But I don’t, because I’m a peaceable and tolerant man.

  9. I’d pronounce it ‘Hijodelagrandísimaputa’ myself.

  10. At least they’re pronouncing Caitlin according to English spelling, LH. With Yvonne and Xavier they’re taking somewhat un-English-looking names and pronouncing them as if they had extra letters.

  11. To the wolf in sheep’s pseudonym, above (sorry, LH, vulgar marxist weeds should be DDT-ed without mercy, on any vegetable patch):
    It would do you good to read this article:
    …1st-world leftists single Pinochet out for special venom because they believe he attacked them personally. It doesn’t matter that other rulers of other political persuasions killed far more; Pinochet killed members of the protected class.
    In the end, Pinochet becomes a mirror that reflects the Left’s own dark heart. Leftists always portray themselves as altruistic, only concerned with the fates of the least powerful among us. Pinochet revealed their narcissism to the world. While he showed them to be no worse than the rest of us, he also showed them to be no better.
    Perhaps on some level they understand that and hate him even more.

  12. “vulgar marxist weeds”
    Wow, Tatyana, that’s the most spectacularly misdirected bile I’ve read in a long time. Personally I couldn’t give two shits about Pinochet, but you hardly have to be a Marxist or leftist at all to disapprove of the man.

  13. “Bile”? I assure you, my stomach and other intestines are in admirable condition.
    Apparently, you didn’t appreciate my courtesy and didn’t read the article I linked, or you would understand the connection.
    Oh, and “personally, I couldn’t give two shits” of what you did or didn’t read in a long time.

  14. Sigh.
    Tatyana, the fact that leftists can be scumbags does not make Pinochet any less of a scumbag. Now can we try to keep this focused on pronunciation?

  15. I do apologize again, dearest LH.
    But, “leftists CAN be scumbags”? Show me a non-scumbag leftist. Well, after the age of 13.
    Ironically, the General employed the same strategic logic as your first commenter on this thread: to avoid bigger evil, kill it while it’s still relatively little. In his case, it was a winning strategy, and CHile is objectively better for it.
    If only same was done on time in Cuba.

  16. Returning to the subject of pronunciation, as you wish:
    if you accept as purely anecdotal evidence my memories from the Young Pioneer times, being prepped for the International Young Communists’ Conference we were drilled in endless chanting of “El pueblo unido jamàs serà vencido!”, along with correct spelling/pronunciation of the personages like Victor Hara and Pinochet. We were told it ends with “chet” (like in “machete”, w/o the final “e”) I’d trust our instructor’s expertise, he was one of the consultants being sent to Chile.

  17. In general, I think that people should be allowed to freely choose the pronunciation of their own names. I once knew a 30 year old named Nathalie who pronounced the “th” sound as in English. It was her name, after all.
    I’ve met a few who would routinely use the glottal stop for the same sound in their names. Grausam. But, yes, her name, and all that.

  18. Typo “Hara” above should be spelled “Jara”.
    [talk about correct spelling…oh the shame]

  19. My one-time Chilean roommate used to say “pinotchett”.
    Re the origin of the name, I agree with Siganus Sutor’s second interpretation as being the most likely, even though I had never thought of the association before. But the name does sound both slangy and funny in French – to a person who would not know who the actual man was, mention of “le général Pinochet” could suggest a comic character in a farce, not someone who can be taken seriously as a person in authority – almost as would an English character called “General Wigglebottom” or some other slightly ribald name – it would be impossible for the author of a serious work of fiction to give this kind of name to an equally serious character, and someone aspiring to a high position would be handicapped by such a name. General Pinochet might not have risen very high in the hierarchy if his ancestors had remained in France.
    About the diminutive ending -et, it seems to be very common in dialects of the French Atlantic seaboard BETWEEN Brittany and the more Southern Gascon- and Basque-speaking regions. In Canada there are many people originating from that general area, and many “doublet” family names (last names), pronounced identically but some written with -et and some with -ette, as in Doucet and Doucette, Gaudet and Gaudette, Ouellet and Ouellette (the spelling in -ette, apparently more common in Québec, seems to be a reformation indicating that these words end with the sound t – this respelling probably started at a time when the final written t was no longer pronounced in the more standard French used by the clergy who were then keeping track of the population in registers of baptisms, marriages, etc , so hearing a t at the end of a name suggested that the diminutive suffix was the feminine -ette rather than the masculine -et).
    About personal names: most people do not choose their own names, or a given pronunciation, but call themselves the way they have always been called in their families, starting with their parents, who have their own reasons to choose a name or its pronunciation – “Nathalie” could very well have had a father, grandfather or uncle called “Nathan”, hence the similar pronunciation of the th, meant to recall the former name – or the parents may just have been misled by the foreign spelling (always a problem in a culture that is fond of adopting foreign names – personally, I cringe when English speakers learn my name from seeing it written and call me “Murree” – I much prefer to be addressed orally as “Mary” which is the true English equivalent of the French name Marie – but speakers from many other languages often have it much worse).

  20. Siganus Sutor says

    Oh, yes, Marie-Lucie, you’re right: there is also this dear Lyse Doucet, one of my favourite reporters, whose particular voice I spot immediately when she speaks on BBC World.

  21. Mary, Marie, and Maria are three different names in the US. Even Karl and Carl are different names, and Charles, Carol, and Carla are three more.
    When my mother Joan and her best friend Jeannette travelled in Mexico, their Mexican host called them “The two Juanitas.”
    I don’t think that these questions are decidable.

  22. I don’t think that these questions are decidable.
    As is so often the case. I’m always torn between regret at the lack of knowledge and pleasure that the universe is so unknowable (and thus will never bore me).
    But I have decided, on the basis of this thread, to stick with my formerly tentative pronunciation in -CHET rather than -SHAY.

  23. A little googling tells me that Yavon may be a spelling variant of Yvonne. Javon is seemingly pronounced with an American J, and a different name.
    Yavan and Javan are Biblical and classical, and can mean “Greek” (from Ionia, supposedly). In classical Indian drama Greeks were “Yovanas”, and I have read that they were especially represented by Amazonian guardswomen.

  24. Siganus Sutor says

    If names of all origins can be used in one place, how for instance do you decide whether Jean* refers to a boy or to a girl?
    And if your name cannot be pronounced normally by people speaking another language, should they try to stick to the “correct” pronunciation (as defined by yourself and you likes) or can they adapt it to their own diction without being “rude”? (After all, isn’t it a sign of politeness to use the name of people the way they do it themselves?)
    * the “an” sound — like in the French Jean (John) — doesn’t always seem easy to say when English is your language.

  25. I find a good resource for this sort of thing. From what I understand the Biblical Yavan (a son of Japhet, if I’m not mistaken) was later etymologised to equate to Ion so as to explain him as the progenitor of that part of the world.

  26. Aidan’s mention of glottal stops reminds me that at least predictable dialectal pronunciation differences should probably be taken into account in applying the rule of pronouncing people’s names the way they do. I’d certainly not vary my pronunciation of “Mark”, for example, depending on whether the Mark in question speaks a rhotic or nonrhotic dialect. I guess the idea is to replicate the same phoneme sequence in one’s own dialect, though I’m sure there are cases where the phoneme mapping isn’t clear.
    When one gets into applying the rule to the names of people speaking other languages, however, things get murkier. Should English speakers pronounce “ch” or “ll” or “s” differently in the same Spanish name depending on what Spanish dialect the bearer speaks, or can we use the pronunciation in some “standard” dialect?

  27. This reminds me of the problem of transliterating names into katakana. (Please tell me if I’ve mentioned this before!)
    In a company I used to work for in Japan, we had two foreigners, one English, one American.
    The Englishman was called ‘Gower’. In normal katakana transliteration this is ガワー (gawā), but he objected to the lengthening of the final syllable as ‘not how we pronounce it’, so he called himself ガーワ (gāwa).
    The American was called ‘Johns’. In normal katakana transliteration this is ジョンズ (jonzu). But of course, Americans don’t pronounce ‘Johns’ that way, so he insisted that he be called ジャーンズ (jānzu).
    The insistence on the correct (dialectal) pronunciations in their Japanese names is fine, but it’s a courtesy that they certainly wouldn’t expect from other speakers of English. I, for one, continued to call them /gæwə/ and /ʤɒnz/ in English according to the lights of my own particular dialect.

  28. Sorry, the above comment from “Hainan” was by none other than Bathrobe.
    Incidentally, I’ve decided not to go into the bathrobe business, but I am now in the process of renaming my site “Bathrobe’s Chinese, Japanese & Vietnamese Language Site”, and all pages will be called “Bathrobe’s ….”. Give the site a bit more character, as it were. I did a very brief market survey before I made the decision. It took the form of asking one of my young female Chinese friends what she would think of a website by a 浴袍先生. She said, “I love it; in fact, I think I’ll call you that from now on”. I will admit that I am rather too easily swayed by the preferences of the fairer gender (note, had to change the original word used here)… At any rate, there will now be a reason for Google to list me on the first page of results for Bathrobe.

  29. It seems unikely to me that the Sanskrit name for the Greeks, Yovana, would trace to the Hebrew Yavan. Perhaps there’s a common Aramaic ancestor / cognate. Other Eastern languages have words more directly derived from Ionia, so perhaps the “Yavana” I remember is an error or an entirely different word. The “Yavana + Sanskrit” Google is very interesting but very inconclusive.

  30. On a very far tangent:
    I remembered Marie-Lucie’s “the diminutive suffix was the feminine -ette rather than the masculine -et” when reading this BBC’ story:
    Lionesses like their males to be deep brunettes.

  31. Here’s the BBC’s ruminations about what to tell their newsreaders as to pronounce ‘Pinochet’ in their broadcasts:

  32. And Dale Whitaker’s comment at those same ruminations that:
    “I remember enjoying a BBC news bulletin some years about a Chilean demonstration with the newsreader saying Pin-uh-shay and the crowd in the background clearly saying Peen-otch-ett”.

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