For years I’ve read articles by Ta-Nehisi Coates and mentally pronounced his name /ˌta-nǝˈhisi/ (i.e., tah-nǝ-HEE-see), which seemed obvious enough. But this evening Terry Gross interviewed him on Fresh Air, and she introduced him as /ˌta-nǝˈhasi/ (tah-nǝ-HAH-see). My first thought was that she was misspeaking, but then she did it again, and I did a little investigating, and lo:

Also for the record Ta-Nehisi (pronounced Tah-Nuh-Hah-See) is an Egyptian name for ancient Nubia. I came up in a time when African/Arabic names were just becoming popular among black parents. I had a lot of buddies named Kwame, Kofi, Malik (actually have a brother with that name), Akilah and Aisha. My Dad had to be different, though. Couldn’t just give me a run of the mill African name. I had to be a nation.

Now, leaving aside the Egyptological side of it (the hieroglyphs transliterated as nḥsy and translated “Nubian” cannot, of course, be confidently provided with vowels, and I don’t know where the “Ta” comes from), I think it’s pretty nifty that there is a name in which graphic i is pronounced /a/; anything that adds to the weirdness and unpredictability of English orthography is fine by me. (I added the pronunciation information to his Wikipedia entry.)


  1. I don’t know where the “Ta” comes from
    I was under the impression it meant “land”, as in “Ta-Seti”.

  2. And so it is, at least with some guesswork involving the vowel. According to “Wörterbuch der Aegyptischen Sprache” (Berlin : Akademie-Verlag, 1950), p. 95: Land = tȝ.

  3. So, why on earth is it written with an i?

  4. I think it’s pretty nifty that there is a name in which graphic i is pronounced /a/
    Excellent! Now we can write [fɪʃ] the way God intended it: ghati.

  5. No wait, that’s the other way around. Ah nevermind. Sorry. Way past my bedtime.

  6. bulbul: Ta for the “Ta”! (No, I don’t normally use that Brit expression for “thanks,” but it was irresistible here.)
    lukas: You’d have to ask the elder Coates.

  7. Bulbul, if you’re still awake, do you remember mentioning the name of an eastern European woman poet three of four weeks ago? Maybe it was someone else. I googled her poetry, found little bits of it translated, and loved it (I’m not usually big on poetry) but now I can’t remember her name. I think she was also known for being involved in politics and for interpreting/translating some other poet or writer.

  8. In some dialects of English, /aI/ gets realised as [a].

  9. That’s been bugging me for quite a while. I can’t stand romanizations that make no sense. Does this really count as “English orthography”? What if he pronounced it “Throatwobbler Mangrove”? He should at least have the decency to explain or apologize.

  10. hieroglyphs transliterated as nḥsy
    The determinative after the transliterated glyphs is ‘man with arms tied behind his back’, used in the words for ‘rebel’ and ‘enemy’.
    Land = tȝ.
    Strictly speaking, it’s tA (= t plus two stacked apostrophes, which may not display correctly here), not (= t plus yogh). The A is a glottal stop – though may have been a trill in Middle Egyptian – (in hieroglyphic Neophron percnopterus), corresponding to Hebrew ’āleph and Arabic ’alif hamzatum, and is transliterated a.

  11. michael farris says

    I agree with faure, it was probably originally supposed to be /ai/, in which the off-glide disappears (a pretty common process in AAVE I think).
    The only weird thing is other people whose dialects don’t do that following that pronunciation (maybe like rhotic-speakers ‘dropping’ r’s when speaking of certain hip-hop artists?)
    As for orthographic i as /a/. How do you pronounce ‘I’ll’ in connected speech? In my speech the i-glide drops out and it sounds a lot like ‘all’.

  12. An AAVE pronunciation spelling for an Egyptian word? That sounds pretty far-fetched to me, but then I don’t know where ’70s Baltimore got its African first names from. Some book? Word of mouth?

  13. like rhotic-speakers ‘dropping’ r’s when speaking of certain hip-hop artists
    Like which?

  14. Dredging from memory my almost non-existent knowledge of Roumanian, I seem to recall that in that language â is sometimes used to represent /i/ (most notably in the word România), so if â can represent /i/ maybe i should be allowed to represent /a/.

  15. michael farris says

    Salt ‘n Peppa (I alternated between saying Peppa and Pepper myself)

  16. Nijma,
    I honestly don’t remember such a comment, you are probably thinking of somebody else.
    yogh/ȝ/3 is what Gardiner uses to transcribe the glottal stop, so I’ll stick with that.

  17. It’s actually Salt-n-Pepa, and why on earth would anyone pronounce that with final -r? It would sound ignorant.

  18. How do you pronounce ‘I’ll’ in connected speech?
    [ɒl] or even [ɒɫ].

  19. Farris is not down with the street.
    Maybe the Polish street, I suppose.

  20. Farris is not down with the street.
    Maybe the Polish street, I suppose.

  21. it was probably originally supposed to be /ai/, in which the off-glide disappears (a pretty common process in AAVE I think).
    That’s quite plausible. One would have to hear Coates’s father talk to be sure, but if he pronounces rise, say, as /raz/ and spice as /spas/, then it would make sense that his pronunciation of the penultimate vowel of the name would correspond to standard American long i (/ai/).
    An AAVE pronunciation spelling for an Egyptian word? That sounds pretty far-fetched to me
    Why? AAVE pronunciation isn’t applied only to certain chunks of the word-hoard, it’s how AAVE speakers pronounce everything. And foreign names with i tend to get pronounced with “long i” in American English (Iraq, Iran), so it makes sense that Nehisi would go the same route.

  22. I shouldn’t have said “It would sound ignorant,” which sounds like a putdown; what I meant was that the more familiar one is with Salt-n-Pepa, the likelier it is that one will pronounce the name as it is written and normally said rather than being distracted by the phrase “salt and pepper.”

  23. Michael & Language, do you know where this non-rhotic hip-hop comes from?
    Incidentally, I noticed recently that John Emerson has started calling me ‘dude’ and telling me to ‘chill’. Is that related? (I think of him as utilising the rhotic ‘r’, Garrison Keillor certainly does.)

  24. Farris is not down with the street.
    Well, duh. Salt-n-Pepa is sooo 90s.

  25. michael farris says

    You all are right (he wrote burning with shame and trembling in humiliation) being …. ‘down with the street’ as you young whippersnappers call it is not one of my defining features.
    As for Salt-n-Pepa, yeah I shoulda looked it up. That was just the first example I could think of, and I remember, since I knew about them in the 80’s in their pre-Push it days (he said trying to claw back a little self respect) being conflicted as to whether I should pronounce an ‘r’ since I was concerned that leaving it off could sound like I was being condescending and faux hip. (I was living in a heavily Stuff-White-People-Like environment at the time and we worried about things like that).

  26. marie-lucie says

    … Roumanian, I seem to recall that in that language â is sometimes used to represent /i/ (most notably in the word România) …
    The sound is not “regular” /i/ as in French dire, which is a high front vowel similar to that in English feet. See Wikipedia, Romanian language:
    the letters “â” (used inside the words) and “î” (used at the beginning or the end; it can also be used in the middle of a composite word) both represent the same close central unrounded vowel /ɨ/.
    The vowel in question is about the same as the Russian vowel in such words as (transliterated) my ‘we’ and vy ‘you (= vous)’.

  27. being conflicted as to whether I should pronounce an ‘r’ since I was concerned that leaving it off could sound like I was being condescending
    I’m gonna blame this conundrum on the prescriptivists. It’s only natural to feel uncomfortable pronouncing words in a language or dialect you don’t speak; you throw in a little extra emphasis, you smile self-consciously, ironically (at least that’s what I do with French phrases while reading aloud). But because prescriptivists have denigrated certain dialects for so long, it’s not always neutral (as it is with French); you have to worry about seeming condescending, even if you don’t look down on Black or Southern English at all. (For Black English maybe I should blame racists too.)

  28. If you’ve got last spring’s Code2000 update, you can use U+A722 ꜣ.
    Sometimes the two right half rings don’t touch and so look even less like 3 or ȝ. That’s true in the font Allen uses and in the hand-written Wörterbuch der Ägyptischen Sprache.
    For comparison, here are two early papers: Steindorff and Erman.

  29. michael farris says

    Nijma (star?),
    maybe you’re thinking of:

  30. Oh, and although the Harvard copy of the 1889 ZÄS in GB is defective / misscanned and starts on page 2 after the all important table, Toronto’s is in the Internet Archive.

  31. Why? AAVE pronunciation isn’t applied only to certain chunks of the word-hoard, it’s how AAVE speakers pronounce everything.

    Sure. I’m just trying to imagine a scenario in which Coates Sr. comes across Ta-Nehisi. Egyptologists don’t use AAVE very much for their transcriptions, I presume, but on the other hand /ˌtanɘˈhaɪsi/ probably doesn’t come close to the Egyptian model, however that was pronounced.

  32. AJP Obamabilia says

    i like the new word ‘obamabilia’, for the badges and chochskis that are being sold on the street to mark the inauguration of the new US president. I get almost 40,000 hits for it. Its being linked to one person only may inhibit its potential, though that hasn’t happen with ‘crown’, for example.

  33. Sure. I’m just trying to imagine a scenario in which Coates Sr. comes across Ta-Nehisi.
    Ah, sorry for misunderstanding you. I dunno, you see all sorts of weird vocalizations of Egyptian words, or he might have seen it unvocalized and read it to himself as Ta-Nehisi and remembered it that way.

  34. Does anyone know how Yosef Ben-Jochannan pronounces it? (See here for connection to Paul Coates.)

  35. Did you listen to the radio interview linked from the Wikipedia page?

  36. David Marjanović says

    Wörterbuch der Ägyptischen Sprache

    Lower-case ä. In German, there are no separate rules for headlines; adjectives only get an uppercase letter if they’re part of a proper name (like in “the Black Sea”: das Schwarze Meer) — being derived from a proper name is not enough.

  37. The page to which I linked and from which I copied the link title really does say:

    <title>W&ouml;rterbuch der &Auml;gyptischen Sprache</title>

    The Help page does treat it like a book title, though.

  38. Did you listen to the radio interview linked from the Wikipedia page?
    I had not; I have to avoid sound while there are still other people around here at work.
    But I have now gone through some of the many clips there and the pronunciation here at about 04:15 is pretty much what LH thought originally at the head of this post. So while his work might be the source of that particular spelling, that is all.

  39. What are “chochskis” ?

  40. Nicknacks (a small trivial article usually intended for ornament). Yiddish.

  41. I see another spelling, ‘tchotchke’, gets 57,00 hits and can be seen on wiki.

  42. Yeah, it’s normally spelled tchotchke. Hey, it’s even got a Wikipedia article! “A variety of spellings exist for the English usage of the term, e.g. tshotshke, tshatshke, tchatchke, chachke, or chochke, because there is no standardized transliteration.” Odd they don’t provide the Yiddish spelling.

  43. Well, we could provide one. And by ‘we’ I mean ‘you’. Where’s that NY doctor who publishes yiddish? He could do it.

  44. That Polish etymology sounds fishy, the only thing that comes close is cacko 3 = “Christmas tree decoration” and even then, both the Polish and the Russian word have [t͡s] and not [tʃ]. A dialectism, a loan-word from Byelorussian or something else? Incidentally, it’s čačky in Slovak.

  45. Slovak sounds like a much better bet.

  46. michael farris says

    I’ve never heard cacko as Christmas tree decoration (though I suppose that must be an original meaning?
    The first two are how I’ve always heard it.
    1. «artystycznie wykonany przedmiot» artistically produced item
    2. «o czymś, o kimś delikatnym, wypieszczonym» someone/something delicate and pampered

  47. If I may interject some additional (possibly irrelevant) information for the pleasure of all:
    Bulbul correctly identifies t3 as ‘land’, but the /3/ consonant is conventionally pronounced as an /a/ vowel by Egyptologists, so hence this is probably the source of the /a/ vowel here. The actual pronunciation of /3/ is unknown, although the consonant has been used to transliterate /l/ and /r/ in non-Egyptian names. In any case, it is definitely not a glottal stop as Gardiner once thought. In addition, t3 itself is quite possibly cognate with Semitic ‘tel’ ‘mound, hill’ from Afroasiatic.

  48. ‘Tchotchke’ is sometimes used in architectural discussions that take place in New York as a way to refer to bits of gratuitous, object-like massing in a building design. When they are also without any apparent function, these small tchotchkes seem symbolically frivolous — a tchotchke is never a good thing, not in architecture.

  49. Thanks, Matt! And how can it be irrelevant when it’s actually about the subject of the post? Now, tchotchkes, those are irrelevant—not that they’re any less welcome, of course. (Except to architects.)

  50. I neglected to point out explicitly that the earliest reference does explain the intent of the two more unusual symbols used by Egyptologists:

    Die Wahl des für [Gardiner G1], soll nur die Unsicherheit seines Lautes ausdrücken. Die Bezeichnung des [Gardiner M17] durch ı͗ mag als Combination des א-Zeichens mit dem i auf die alte Doppelrolle dieses Buchstabens hindeuten, der, ganz dem Befinde im Koptischen entsprechend, im neuen Reich das semitische א umschreibt und im alten Reiche zur Vokalandeutung des i mancher Endungen steht, da wo man später [Gardiner M17 twice] und [Gardiner Z4] dafür schreibt.

    Though as Matt points out, they now have a better idea of what the original pronunciation really might have been. (For something historical at about the time of that modern understanding, see this long review.)

  51. Μὴ παυσάσθω ὁ ζητῶν τοῦ ζητεῖν ἕως ἂ εὕρη, καὶ ὅταν εὕρῃ θαμβηθήσεται καὶ θαμβηθεὶς βασιλεύσει καὶ βασιλεύσας ἀναπαήσεται.
    Is the second logion of Thomas really about you?

  52. David Marjanović says

    What does ἀναπαήσεται mean?

  53. he will rest. There is nothing in the Coptic version to correspond with the last three words of the Greek. Where the Greek reads and reigning he will rest the Coptic reads only over the All.

  54. Like fiosachd says. Some more info here.

  55. @MMcM
    Ahh! Academic German! My only weakness!
    no, the second saying isn’t really about me, but I like the quote. It has a nice ring to it.

  56. tsatski,
    we have tsatsag, which means loose ornament, something like the longs strips used to decorate the Native American costume

  57. long

  58. Let’s call the whole thing eef.

  59. Elessorn says

    And here it is. I thought we had had a thread about this at some point.

    I have to say, the connection to the name Phineas would never have occurred to me.

  60. German and Litvak Jews say tsatske, for what it’s worth, presumably because the surrounding languages have /ts/ but not /tS/.

  61. David Eddyshaw says

    The s-for-sh (not just ts for tsh) is a stereotypical feature of Litvak Yiddish.

    It features in a H*Y*M*A*N *K*A*P*L*A*N story where a newcomer character attempting to show off at the expense of the rest of the class is fatally undermined by carrying the habit over from Yiddish into English.

    (Can’t quote chapter and verse, unfortunately. One of my children seems to have walked off with my copy.)

  62. David Eddyshaw says
  63. David Eddyshaw says

    “Big shot” (which I presume began as a Yiddishism) in Litvak is “greysser sisser”

    I am confident that everyone will want to know this. You never know when it might come in handy.

  64. Now only Mr. Pfeiffer’s sentences remained to be read aloud. Mr.
    Parkhill teetered back and forth on his heels.

    “Mr. Pfeiffer, will you please read your work?”

    A hush. All waited. All listened. And what all then heard, in indescribable astonishment (Mr. Pfeiffer had only opened his mouth twice, once for that unforgivable “Feh!” and then for that arrogant “Done!”), was a high, thin, squeaky sibilance: “In Detroit Missigan see saw siny Sinese braceletss in sops, ingraved by sarp tsiselss.”

    There was no getting around it: Mr. Pfeiffer had said “Missigan” for “Michigan,” “see saw” for “she saw”, “siny” for “shiny”, “sops” and “surp”-“A Litvak!” rang out a clarion voice. It was Mr. Kaplan. “Mein Gott, he’s a Litvak!” He wheeled toward Mr. Parkhill. “Must be! From Lit’uania! He prononces, a ‘sh’ like a hiss stimm-” The heavens split above the beginners’ grade.

    “Shame, Koplon,” – howled Miss Tarnova.

    “Can Pfeiffer help it he’s a foreigner?” protested C. J. Fledermann.

    “He’s a foreigner and a Litvak,” cried Hyman Kaplan.

    “In class is no place to condemn!” shouted Mr. Olansky. “To descripe,” said Mr. Kaplan, “is not to condamn!”

    The riposte only fanned the flames that swept through the battalion of Fischel Pfeiffer’s admirers.

    “Not fair!” charged Mr. Blattberg hotly.

    “Not fair?” purred Mr. Kaplan. “If a student calls a shoe a ‘soo’ should ve give him a banqvet an’ sing ‘Hooray, hooray, he’s ruinink English’!”

    “But discussion should be about the work,” sputtered Miss Atrakian, “not the personal.”

    “Mine remocks are prononciational, not poisonal!” rejoined Mr. Kaplan.

    Mr. Nathan was having a fit.

    “Class, class, ” Mr. Parkhill kept saying, “there’s just no reason for such-”

    “Keplan, you are bad!” blurted Isaac Nussbaum. (Mr. Nussbaum, who was pious, tended to confuse error with sin.) “Mr. Pfeiffer writes like a king!”

    “Ha!” scoffed Mr. Kaplan. “He can write like a kink but he talks like a Litvak!”


    “Kaplan, you jalous!” seethed Mr. Hruska.

    “Who’s makink poisonal remocks now?” leered Mr. Kaplan.

    “Mr. Kap-”

    “Stop!” boomed Reuben Olansky. “Mr. Hruska put his finger on! Koplan picks on tiny ditails!”

    “A fishbone is tiny, but ken choke you to dat!”

    “Mr. Pfeiffer’s words are so fine, so what if he recites not perfect?” pleaded Miss Mitnick.

    “A mistake,” said Mr. Kaplan, “is a mistake.”

    “Mr. Pfeiffer needs praise, not pins!” railed the widow Pilpul.

    “Are ve in cless to praise – or to loin?” flashed Mr. Kaplan.

    “You don’t give the Litvak a chence!” cried Mrs. Moskowitz.

    “I vouldn’t give an Eskimo a chence to wrack English!”

    Mr. Nathan was shaking like a man made of Jell-O.

    “Kaplin, give an inch!” came Bessie Shimmelfarb’s overdue plea for accommodation. “Just vunce, give an inch!”

    Mr. Kaplan placed truth above measurement.

    “You have to make allowance for frands!” stormed Mr. Blattberg.

    “If mine own brodder made soch mistake,” Mr. Kaplan retorted, “should I give him the Nobles Prize? If Pinsky makes a mistake, does Keplen say, ‘Skip, skip, maybe he’s a cousin Alfred Einstein’s’?”


    “What’s Einstein got to do with Pfeiffer?” asked bewildered Milas Wodjik.

    “What’s Pfeiffer got to do with Einstein?” snapped Tomas Wodjik.

    “Koplon, Koplon, whare is your PITY?” beseeched Miss Tarnova.

    “Piddy?” Mr. Kaplan shot up like a flagpole. “You esk piddy for de man who sad ‘Feh!’ to de cless?!”

  65. I’m going to have to remember “Mine remocks are prononciational, not poisonal!”; it may come in handy.

  66. Bibliographical note: This is the Revised Version, aka O Kaplan! My Kaplan of 1976. My memory, which differs in “tiny ditails”, is from The Return of Hyman Kaplan, 1959, though I have read both versions.

    In any case, Mr. Pfeiffer agrees afterwards that Mr. Kaplan was right, and although he can write English quickly and well, and with beautiful handwriting (he is an embroiderer, I think), his pronunciation is strictly from hunger, or at any rate from Lithuania.

    Hat: Remember to say [pʌɪsənəl], not [pɔɪzənəl].

  67. i just crossed this and as Ta-nehisi’s dad, ha d i seen it sooner would have responded sooner. i’d like to say the pronunciation of his name was not of my doing. his name was given to me along with its pronunciation by Yosef ben Jochannan, who members of the Black community lovingly called Dr. Ben. he was one of our most knowledgeable elders. by birth he was Ethiopian, and was born into the Jewish faith. he was largely self taught as a historian and Egyptologist.

    i am amazed by the discussion that precedes my comment. and the only point i’d add is that we pronounce my son’s name the way we do because that’s the way Dr. Ben pronounced it.

  68. Thank you very much for dropping by and adding that information, Mr. Coates! That’s the kind of thing we would never have known otherwise.

  69. Lars (the original one) says

    But we guessed! Mad props to MMcM for divining the connection 8 years ago (January 20, 2009 at 3:52 pm)

  70. Quite right! Mad props to MMcM indeed.

  71. Thanks I was making my own way with pronouncing Ta-Nehisi Coates’ name as well. Sounds like Tennessee so now I think I can remember it. Good to find out the name origin too.

  72. Only a day or two ago I heard his name pronounced as “ta nehishi” and I figured, sure, if the pronunciation is that weird, it must be right. I hadn’t remembered this blog post.

  73. Well, it is almost nine years old.

  74. I just love this blog. Thank you all.

  75. Thank you for dropping by and leaving that generous comment!

  76. like rhotic-speakers ‘dropping’ r’s when speaking of certain hip-hop artists

    Belatedly and relatedly, A Public Service Announcement from Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson

  77. That’s great, thanks!

  78. i don’t remember whether i was around these parts back in ’09 (i think not, at least not regularly, because i can’t imagine i’d forget mr. coates dropping by, or “the widow Pilpul” for that matter).

    but belatedly: טשאַטשקע (per YIVO) – with all the usual dialect permutations: final [-i]; that litvish [s]; &c (though i think the אַ/אָ & a/o differences in spelling & transliteration are just disagreements about rendering [ɑ]). af english, i like “tshotshke” best, because YIVOniks did get to me young but as a galitsianer i disagree with their vowel choices.

    and that O Kaplan! My Kaplan passage is fantastically tasty – so many different yinglishes! (and slavicisms, too – assuming onomastically that hruska* and wodjik are likely not yidn).

    * whether pronounced with or without its homeland haček, speaking of [s] vs [ʃ].

  79. David Marjanović says

    A Public Service Announcement from Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson

    More on this in the first 2 minutes of this (and probably in the rest of the video, and the one or more that follow, but I’m too tired to watch further right now 🙁 )

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