Can you say Buttigieg? Can you even say Klobuchar? What makes them so hard to pronounce?

We all try to say Mayor Pete’s name correctly — but most of us fail.

That’s partly because we’re told that his neighbors pronounce it “Buddha judge” whereas his campaign insists on “Boot Edge Edge,” according to the New York Times. Both of these are automatically wrong! I say “automatically” because any attempt to imitate Maltese words using English words is doomed to failure, just like those silly attempts to tell someone to pronounce Spanish José as “Hoe Say” or German sehr gut as “zayre goot.”

There are many other complications with trying to pronounce Buttigieg, as explained clearly in this brief but thorough article, which not only discusses this word but even brings up Paul Auster’s wonderful but annoying novel 4 3 2 1 . The ultimate problem is the interaction between Anglicization and phonological mismatch: when you emigrate from your home country and go to an English-speaking one, do you preserve the original pronunciation of your name or do you make it more English-like? Or something in between? And if you preserve the original, how do you deal with the fact that English phonemes won’t be a good match for the phonemes of your original language? There’s no good solution here, so it’s no wonder that Americans have trouble with Maltese — not to mention that fact that none of us have studied the language either in school or from friends and relatives.

And then we come to Klobuchar. The burning question here is whether the ch is pronounced as in “choose” or as in “chic” or perhaps even as in “Chanukah.” Even pundits on the very same episode of the very same show — “Pod Save America,” for instance — will disagree within the same conversation. There are two obvious solutions to this problem, whether we’re talking about Buttigieg or Klobuchar or anyone else for that matter. One solution is spell the name phonetically using the International Phonetic Alphabet, not English words; this method is fairly precise and objective (though not as precise as people think), but it suffers from the inability of most readers to make sense of IPA (International Phonetic alphabet, of course, not India Pale Ale). If you want to learn how to do that, there are plenty of good links at the bottom of the article, and your efforts will be repaid with a useful life-long skill. In the case of Klobucharwe have the advantage of looking at the original spelling of the name in Slovenian (yes, her grandparents were Slovenian, just like you-know-who): Klobučar. Of course that doesn’t do much for you unless you know what č is; Wikipedia helpfully explains that it’s a voiceless postalveolar affricate, which probably still doesn’t help much until you see their example of ch as in “chocolate.” Now you think you’re done, but you aren’t! As we pointed out above, pronunciations change after immigration, because of Anglicization and assimilation, so where are we? That brings us to the second solution:

I said that there are two obvious solutions to this problem, so what is the second? Listen to the person say their own name! That sounds simple, and it has the advantage of giving each person agency to decide how they want to be called. But it has a major disadvantage —two of them, in fact. One is that people are not consistent about how they say their own name, especially if it was originally non-English. The other is that ear-witnesses are no more reliable than eye-witnesses: what we think we’re hearing isn’t necessarily what we’re really hearing. The classic example of this is the Yanny/Laurel controversy from two years ago; go to the link, play with the slider, and see when you think you’re hearing one pronunciation and when the other. Then try if on a friend, and there will surely be situations where one of you hears one name and one hears the other. So you can’t even solve the problem by asking Pete and Amy to say their own names, as you won’t be sure what you’re hearing!

Categories: Linguistics