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Baby Names Pronunciation: A lesson in geography

How xo you say that name again?

posted by: Josh View all posts by this author

By Josh Murray

For many parents (especially Nameberry regulars), the process of choosing a child’s name is exciting, scary, intricate, thoughtful, and time-consuming. With all the resources available here, it’s easy for novice and seasoned parents alike to place an emphasis on a name’s spelling, history, etymology, meaning, and popularity ranking.

Just take a glance at the forums and you can find many namers seeking the perfect appellation for their newborn-to-be. Certainly some prospective parents have to grapple with the question of proper (or preferred) pronunciation. But what happens when regional dialects throw a wrench into the entire process?

Here, I will focus on my personal experiences with variations in dialect as someone who has lived in the Southern and Midwestern United States. Nameberry has a number of international visitors and contributors, which helps to make it the great community it is. This status brings with it the fact that many various dialects and pronunciations exist for any individual name.

While I’m sure my thoughts will ring true with some readers, surely others will disagree with my opinions on various pronunciations. Rather than contradicting my argument, however, this phonetic disparity only further supports my point. I therefore implore you: read my musings and please feel free to disagree wholeheartedly!

The Long “I”: This one hits home for me, as my wife and I chose the name Silas for our son. Most people would agree that the first syllable of this name is pronounced with a long “I” sound. What we discovered after naming our son is that different regional dialects approach this vowel sound in unique ways. We prefer the “rounded” or “falling” vowel sound, which is akin to the word “eye.” In linguistics, this type of sound is called a diphthong. Many of our family and friends from the Southern United States employ what is known as a monophthong, making the long “I” sound more like “ah.” The effect is that many people close to us pronounce our son’s name as SAH-lus. It isn’t a big issue, but it’s something we notice especially during our trips down south.

“Aw” and “Au”: During my travels, I have noticed that these two vowel sounds differ greatly depending on the region. Take the name Dawn for example. In some parts of the country, many English speakers would pronounce Dawn in a manner that makes it essentially a homophone with the name Don. In other areas, and once again I point to the South, Dawn can sound much closer to “Doan,” as in Joan with a D. Another name I would point out here is Lauren. It seems to me that many people in the Northern and Midwestern United States pronounce this name the same as Loren. But in the South, speakers use a softer vowel sound, making the name sound more like LAH-ren.

“En” and “In”: As someone who was born in the South, this is one I still have difficulty with. Essentially, for many southerners, these two sounds are exactly the same. Thus, the name Jenny ends up sounding like Jinny and the name Wendy sounds like Windy. I have lived in the Midwest for the past five years, but I still have to make a conscious effort when asking for a pen to ensure that someone doesn’t try to hand me a pin instead. I’m not a professional linguist, but I always say that these distinct sounds don’t register to the southern ear. In fact, my wife encounters the consequences of this vowel conflation quite frequently. Her name is Kendra, and more often than not when she is required to say her name to a stranger (think the barista at Starbucks) she discovers her name has been written as Kindra. She has resorted to spelling her name in these situations as a result. Perhaps some readers can corroborate our experience.

These are just a few issues with dialects that I have noticed, but I’m sure there are many more. But if my post has a conclusion, it must be this: there’s ultimately no such thing as a mispronunciation-proof name, especially if your child’s life could potentially cross regional or international borders. But should this be a factor in choosing a child’s name? The knowledge of Southern dialect certainly impacted the names we considered for our second child. What do you think?

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About the author

Josh

Josh Murray has a PhD in English and is a college instructor of writing and literature. In whatever free time he can find, he researches names and naming trends. He and his wife have a son and a daughter. You can find his (infrequently updated) naming microblog on Twitter: @readyNameFIRE.
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6 Responses to “Baby Names Pronunciation: A lesson in geography”

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GreenEyes375 Says:

May 6th, 2016 at 12:13 pm

I’m from the South, and until I read this I didn’t realize I pronounced Silas more as SAH-lus instead of SEYE-lus. And I still don’t understand how Kendra/Wendy/Jenny are different from Kindra/Windy/Jinny.
As you said before, any disagreements only strengthen your argument. I have lived in many places in the South, and I (and all the people I know) pronounce Dawn like Don. We do tend to linger on the Daw part, more like it had two syllables instead of one (i.e. Daw-awn) and we day Don like D-on. This also could be because we pronounce Don differently.
With Lauren and Laura (and any Lau- name) we say Loren/Lora. But with any other au name, we say more aww (rhymes with saw and caw). Maura and Saundra are MAW-ra and SAWN-dra.
But I have noticed that the further down South you go (and the thicker a person’s accent) they tend to say short E’s (eh) more like ay (rhymes with gray). My name is Helen, and some people say it more HAY-len instead of HEHL-en.

Maerad Says:

May 6th, 2016 at 5:44 pm

I actually had a debate on a name site (not this one) really recently because I said I would say Kenzie and Kinzie differently, and someone else (I now assume Southern) called me stupid as the names were pronounced the same. I pointed out that in my accent they aren’t but the person didn’t seem to accept that accents change how you say names. It’s nice to see it actually talked about and I’ll bear it in mind in the future if I’m ever saying that someone has picked two ‘different’ names that to them it might sound the same.

Orangerolls Says:

May 7th, 2016 at 2:25 am

I’m from New Zealand so my pronunciation is all kinds of crazy. I struggle to work out how other nationalities pronounce names when I see them written how they sound because the sounds themselves are pronounced differently here. I have to put on my best guess at an American accent to work what the sounds are. E and I sounds are different here but many people say New Zealanders say our E’s like I’s and our I’s like U’s. So we say the name Ben like Bin and word Bin becomes Bun. Go figure.

CsprsSassyHrly Says:

May 7th, 2016 at 6:09 pm

The only one that I noticed having an issue with are the “en”/”in” sounds. I will admit, being a Houston-born-and-raised girl, that I am guilty of pronouncing Wendy like windy and Kendra like Kindra. Even orangerolls’s example of Ben is something I’d never noticed myself pronouncing like bin. “Pen” is a “pin” even if “pin” is not a “pen”. Though I know “en” and “in” make different sounds, when I’m speaking casually, I suppose the two sounds are more interchangeable.

The first two examples, “aw” and “the long I” have never been an issue for me. Dawn is pronounced like Don and Silas would be pronounced like sigh-lus to me.

ClancyOfTheOverflow112 Says:

May 8th, 2016 at 6:45 pm

I’d never thought about ‘en’/’in’, mainly because we don’t have such different pronunciations in Australia, and ‘en’ would always be pronounced ‘en’. It’s interesting though. The one that gets me is Clara/Klara. In Australia (I assume NZ, too), the UK, Europe etc it’s *always* pronounced KLAAH-ruh, but in the US it seems to *always* be CLAIR-uh (I assume Canada is the same). It comes from the Latin ‘clarus’, so it should technically be KLAAH-ruh, but it is interesting to see such a dramatic and distinct difference in pronunciation.

athenamay24 Says:

May 8th, 2016 at 7:39 pm

Haha, being from Alabama, this is so interesting to me! I think it really depends on the context for me. If I meet someone who introduces themselves as Dawn prn Don or Silas prn Sigh-las I’d probably prounoumnce them that way, but if I was just reading Dawn or Silas aloud I’d be more likely to say DAW-n and SAH-las. Also, when I see Silas, in my head I think Sigh-las but when I say it it comes out SAH-las. Same with Dawn.

But this is what really gets me. Pin and pen are pronounced differently? How do you pronounce Wendy if it’s not like windy? I didn’t realize there was a difference. To me that definitely says something about whether any name has only one pronunciation.

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