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Thread: How the hell do I pronounce that? Non-English MC names!

  1. #1
    practical experience, FTW bombergirl69's Avatar
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    How the hell do I pronounce that? Non-English MC names!

    So, likely a really dumb question but one that's come up with my new project. I had a character named Mwfanwy in my first book (very, very minor, some conversation about how to pronounce) Now, I have an MC named Sadhbh, because I have always loved that name! In the first chapter, she goes to a meeting where of course someone can't pronounce her name, so there is a natural discussion of it, but a friend glanced at the chapter and had an immediate reaction (not having gotten to that part) --she was like - what the...?

    I don't want obstacles to people enjoying my story, but I also want my character to have her name! And it is relevant--life has bumped her around a little, she's lost a lot and her name is important to her (I also have a name that isn't always obvious to people, unless they're familiar with it!)

    Anyway, maybe this isn't a thing, but seeing someone's reaction, I'm thinking it may be and I should use something else.
    The fact that there's a highway to hell and only a stairway to heaven says a lot about anticipated traffic numbers.

  2. #2
    practical experience, FTW benbenberi's Avatar
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    Give your characters the names that belong to them.

    If those names are utterly unpronounceable by human tongues (Xzzx'xlzzz*zx, for example), consider changing them to human-pronounceable names, since all your anticipated audience is human.

    Otherwise, don't worry about it. You're never going to be able to control how readers pronounce the names -- don't worry about that, it isn't important. You're never going to be able to make readers even try to pronounce names if they don't want to -- long names, unfamiliar names, any names at all, there are going to be readers who just look at Myfanwy and Sadhbh and see M---------- and S------. That doesn't matter either, unless there are other characters named (different) M---------- and S------ in the same book.

    There are, sadly, readers who will react to any unfamiliar name with shock/horror/dismay/incomprehension, and who can therefore read only books populated by people named Ashley and Jason. If your book is a book where people are not all named Ashley and Jason, these people are not your readers.

    If you really, really, really need them to be your readers, you might consider changing Myfanwy and Sadhbh to Michele and Susan.

    But really, it's not necessary. You're never going to get every potential reader out there to love your book. There are plenty who may love it with Myfanwy and Sadhbh just the way they are. If those are the proper names for the characters, keep them.
    Last edited by benbenberi; 11-01-2017 at 05:12 PM.

  3. #3
    Moderator AW Moderator Maryn's Avatar
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    Listen to benbenberi, who said what I'd thought only better and more completely.

    It did no harm for me to think of a book I'd loved having a character named Penny-lope or Al-OY-sious. (That was Penelope and Aloysius.) Later when I learned how those names are actually pronounced, it had no impact on what I thought of the book.
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  4. #4
    ....... Harlequin's Avatar
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    Someone's common is someone else's unusual. I know at least two Myfanwys**, so wouldn't be bothered.

    Celtic names may trip up Americans and internationals, but very few Brits would blink at them. It sounds like you've already put in a cheaty (in a good way) scene to explain the pronunciation; I'd say that's sufficient.

    **or do you mean a whole new name, unrelated to Myfanwy? I assumed that was a typo, apologies if not the case.
    Last edited by Harlequin; 11-01-2017 at 07:25 PM.
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  5. #5
    Such a nasty woman SuperModerator Old Hack's Avatar
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    I have an aunt Myfanwy. It's a beautiful name. There are lots of Welsh names in my family so I'm used to people asking how they're pronounced.

    I don't know how to pronounce Sadhbh though, so looked it up: an Irish name, pronounced "sive", to rhyme with five. Lovely.

  6. #6
    practical experience, FTW Tazlima's Avatar
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    I've been known to read works by SEE-uh-mus Heaney (I got mocked for that one in college by classmates who quickly set me straight).

    ...and don't get me started on names out of greek mythology, which I consumed avidly in middle and high school without ever hearing the names pronounced aloud. I read Antigone as "Anti-gone." as in, the opposite of gone.
    Last edited by Tazlima; 11-01-2017 at 08:13 PM.
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  7. #7
    practical experience, FTW bombergirl69's Avatar
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    OMG THANK you all! Yes, this is the name by character would need (issues with her name and people misspelling it - saddy, sabish - are part of what she deals with) BUT not the hill I would die on if people said change it!! I had a friend at camp named Siobhan and wow, did she have trouble! But I am quite sure she never changed her spelling to accommodate people!

    Just always liked Sadhbh and would like to keep it. I don't want people thinking I have tons of typos in the book though!!

    In my first book, one of the MCs (Welsh) has a dog named Griffith (but there is a discussion about him wanting to spell it Gruffydd or Gruffudd but feeling it would annoy vets! )

    And yes, I used the name Mwfanwy (no "s")

    And funny about Antigone! My name is Greek(ish) with same pronunciation issues. Easy peasy if one is familiar, but if not...I've gotten my share of interesting guesses (just as I did when I first saw, "rhywbeth!")
    Last edited by bombergirl69; 11-01-2017 at 08:53 PM.
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  8. #8
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    Real names are often like that. I'm “Długosz” which is quite common but outside of Polish communities baffles Americans (and wedges the vBulliten software, which accepted it as a username without complaint). My wife is “涛” — how would you even begin to pronounce that?

  9. #9
    Mostly harmless SuperModerator dpaterso's Avatar
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    I imagined "Sadhbh" would be heard as "Sadie" or similar but didn't worry about it, character names I can't pronounce don't give me pause, I just keep reading, presuming that at some point in the story someone's going to say to them, "How do you pronounce that?" or "How do you spell that?" -- and I'll make the mental adjustment once they explain it.

    Quote Originally Posted by JDlugosz View Post
    My wife is “涛” — how would you even begin to pronounce that?
    Google Translate gives me a helpful suggestion, but I'd hope the author would give me the English translation rather than including a Chinese logogram in the story every time the character appears, because that would just be damn annoying.

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    Last edited by dpaterso; 11-02-2017 at 10:30 AM.
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  10. #10
    Tending bar by the litterbox. Thomas Vail's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by JDlugosz View Post
    My wife is “涛” — how would you even begin to pronounce that?
    Depends on whether she's Korean or Japanese.

  11. #11
    ....... Harlequin's Avatar
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    I'd be confused by different spelling of Myfanwy just because it's not one I've come across, but I'd get used to it. I don't mind unusual names, particularly in fantasy.
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  12. #12
    practical experience, FTW bombergirl69's Avatar
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    Definitely not fantasy! And yes, typo! Should be Myfanwy! Thanks for catching that!

    I really appreciate the help here! Funny, I really like Jo Nesbo (and I highly doubt I pronounce his name correctly) His MC is Henry Hole, which of course I pronounce the American way but I think is like Harry Hooleh or something. The thing is... I can at least come up with something, even if it's wrong! My friend's point was seeing a bunch of consonents--dhbh--meant she couldn't pronounce anything! I do see that, but am heartened that people can work through it, and yes, right off I do have a discussion(an inept counselor) try to pronounce the name, so it's clear by page...5!!
    The fact that there's a highway to hell and only a stairway to heaven says a lot about anticipated traffic numbers.

  13. #13
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    I might be a bit irked by names with too many apostrophes and/or consonants, but it won't stop me from reading a book I like. A dear friend transposes all such words to 'Fred', leading to hilarious 'Fred from the planet Fred' moments. He won't read my stuff, for various reasons, but I remember him when I'm inclined to launch personal and place names.

    Let's face it: some types of fantasy don't accommodate 'Jason & Ashley' English-speaking readerships. Names are just one hurdle.

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  14. #14
    ....... Harlequin's Avatar
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    Hey now! Jason is a very old and classic Greek name ;-)
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  15. #15
    practical experience, FTW bombergirl69's Avatar
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    Ha! Jason is a fine name (just not in my book!) But that's a good point. This is NOT fantasy, at all (a few mystical elements but not fantasy) not a book about Wales or Ireland nor a book where everyone has interesting names (pretty basic -- >Ginger, Joanna, Cruz). But, there is a Sadhbh! I like the Fred idea...Phryd?
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  16. #16
    Mildly Disturbing Filigree's Avatar
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    My elitist point is that many English-speaking readers, particularly Americans, are utterly coddled when it comes to unfamiliar words. That becomes a looming problem in fantasy and science fiction reading.

    Jason is a perfectly good Hellenic name, and Ashley is Saxon derived (I think). Most English names have knotty roots, but we are so familiar with them we don't see that. English speaking Americans are less exposed to names from other cultures.

    I'd love to do a survey of familiar/unfamiliar names in right wing / alt right fantasy and sf authors' works, but that is a deep and crazy rabbithole to follow for free.

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  17. #17
    Writer Beware's Faithful Igor Richard White's Avatar
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    Great. This thread is giving me flashbacks to my days as a herald in the SCA. I swear, 2/3s of the knights in the West Kingdom had Welsh names of seven or more syllables. (OK, that might be PTSD kicking in), AND if you mispronounced their names in court or at a tournament, it was a guarantee they'd hunt you down at the next fighter's practice for a "reminder" session.

    I've studied Czech and Arabic and Welsh is still the hardest language I've ever had to deal with.

  18. #18
    is watching you via her avatar jjdebenedictis's Avatar
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    I think, if you're worried readers will trip over it (and I would -- Sadhbh=Sad-bee in my poor doofus-North-American brain), then add or subtract a few letters to make it more manageable for those who are unfamiliar with that name, or spell it phonetically. Sive or Siaffe wouldn't bother me, but Sadhbh is a name I would have trouble with for the whole book.
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  19. #19
    No, you're the grease monkey. Fruitbat's Avatar
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    I think building in the exchange where the MC tells another character how to pronounce her name fixes any inconvenience to readers well.

    Whatever readers' varying opinions about a hard-to-pronounce name are (and whatever country they happen to be from), I can't really see it being a dealbreaker anyway.
    Last edited by Fruitbat; 11-02-2017 at 11:27 AM.
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  20. #20
    Super Procrastinator Kallithrix's Avatar
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    This reminds me of the Goblet of Fire, where Viktor Krum had trouble saying 'Hermione' so she had to correct him - and then thousands of readers suddenly realised that they'd been pronouncing it wrong as well, lol. So, it happens.

    My books are set in ancient Egypt, so of course some of my characters are going to have unfamiliar names that people struggle with - my main character is Djehuty, and some struggle with the pronunciation of 'dj' (the D is basically silent - I don't even know why it got put there, since it's transliterated from the hieroglyphic letter anyway, but I didn't make it up). I realised people had trouble when betas started reading it, so about 75% of the way through the novel I have a scene where he is teaching the FMC to read, and he sounds out his name phonetically. I suppose that might come as a surprise to people who've been saying 'doody' for 300 pages, lol!

    Quote Originally Posted by Maryn View Post

    It did no harm for me to think of a book I'd loved having a character named Penny-lope or Al-OY-sious. (That was Penelope and Aloysius.) Later when I learned how those names are actually pronounced, it had no impact on what I thought of the book.
    Wait... you mean it ISN'T pronounced Al-OY-sious? WTF?? *looks up pronunciation on google*

    Well feck me.....

    *MIND. BLOWN*

    Quote Originally Posted by Harlequin View Post
    Hey now! Jason is a very old and classic Greek name ;-)
    Um.... actually, 'Jason' is the latinised version of the name. If you want to get all pedantic, in Greek it should be Iason (there's no 'j' in Greek) and the pronunciation is 'YA-son'

    Or Ἰάσων if you wanna get technical
    Last edited by Kallithrix; 11-02-2017 at 11:35 AM.
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  21. #21
    writer, rider, reader...ex-pat! BethS's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by bombergirl69 View Post
    So, likely a really dumb question but one that's come up with my new project. I had a character named Mwfanwy in my first book (very, very minor, some conversation about how to pronounce) Now, I have an MC named Sadhbh, because I have always loved that name! In the first chapter, she goes to a meeting where of course someone can't pronounce her name, so there is a natural discussion of it, but a friend glanced at the chapter and had an immediate reaction (not having gotten to that part) --she was like - what the...?

    I don't want obstacles to people enjoying my story, but I also want my character to have her name! And it is relevant--life has bumped her around a little, she's lost a lot and her name is important to her (I also have a name that isn't always obvious to people, unless they're familiar with it!)

    Anyway, maybe this isn't a thing, but seeing someone's reaction, I'm thinking it may be and I should use something else.
    Include a pronunciation guide? I've seen that done before.

    Fwiw, The Rook by Daniel O'Malley has a main character named Myfanwy. He worked in there somewhere how to pronounce it. Rhymes with Tiffany, I think.
    Last edited by BethS; 11-02-2017 at 06:48 PM.

  22. #22
    Back on Track Carrie in PA's Avatar
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    I'll just throw in my "Meh" here. I decide in my head how to pronounce the character's name the first time I read it. Even if there's a scene later on with the character correcting a mispronunciation, I'm probably not going to change how I hear it in my head. So use the name that works for the character, and don't worry about how readers pronounce it.

    As an aside, you'd think my name would be simple enough to pronounce, but very, very few people say it correctly. If I've learned to live with it, so can your characters.
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  23. #23
    practical experience, FTW benbenberi's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Kallithrix View Post
    Wait... you mean it ISN'T pronounced Al-OY-sious? WTF?? *looks up pronunciation on google*

    Well feck me.....

    *MIND. BLOWN*
    When I was a kid my best friend & I made up all sorts of stories about an adventurous character named Aloysius -- but we never wrote any of them down because we had no idea how to spell "Aloysius," and when we discovered the spelling it just looked so utterly different from the pronunciation we couldn't believe it & wouldn't use it. It still looks wrong to me...

  24. #24
    practical experience, FTW bombergirl69's Avatar
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    Wow, really interesting! A pronunciation guide is a good idea! For both Blackfeet and Welsh (and Gaelic!) I could have used Naimh or Caoimhe, which I also love, and maybe would be easier (no, someone would never get near the right pronunciation if they weren't familiar) but they could come up with something --likely not neev or queevah, tho!) But, if I were to see prcjtgbntrcv as a main character, I might give up! Just no hope! (I can see the value of Fred!) That's what I worry Sadhbh will look like! Happily, the novel is in first person, so, it won't be Sadhbh did this and Sadhbh did that, but still...
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  25. #25
    practical experience, FTW benbenberi's Avatar
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    Bear in mind that a substantial % of readers won't see a pronunciation guide, and a substantial % of those who see it will ignore it anyway. Any information that's critical to the story needs to appear actually in the story, not in surrounding material. But pronunciation is rarely critical to the story, so no problem here.

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