How Do You Say ...

English is a tricky language, and its spelling seems to have been designed by somebody who didn’t like people. Combine that with (to take an example at random) a long list of names of people from dozens of countries and regions, over a span of rather more than three thousand years—and you’ve got yourself a recipe for a classroom full of perfectly intelligent students, not one of whom will volunteer to take a turn reading, because they don’t want to say the author’s name wrong out loud.

We don't just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary.

We therefore offer pronunciation info for the author names, but in abbreviated form to avoid taking up too much space. This is a guide to the abbreviations.

A few systems have been used to illustrate correct pronunciation in English, since at least the seventeenth century.* Our editor at large has been induced, by force when necessary, to keep this explanation short and to the point,† and to stick to what’s called “General American” pronunciation. (Some of the sounds described below may seem like they blend together; that’s a great way to introduce how phonetics relate to perfectly fine. It’s not uncommon for people to instinctively make the correct sound even if they couldn’t describe it.)


English has a lot of these! Vowels are traditionally divided into categories of “short” and “long,” according to the pronunciation of Latin. These don’t quite cover the English system, so we’ve added lists of semi-long and nasal vowels, lax vowels, and semi-vowels, plus standard diphthongs.

Short Vowels
ă as in căt
ĕ as in pĕn
ĭ as in sĭng
ŏ as in pŏt
ŭ as in bŭn

Long Vowels
ā as in bāke
ē as in complēte
ī as in mīce
ō as in bōne
ū as in ūnion

Semi-long and Nasal Vowels
ä as in fäther
å as in yåwn
â as in plân
ê as in thêre (rare, except before r)
õ as in rõll
ô as in bônd
ü as in püt
û as in prûne

Lax Vowels
Lax vowels often merge into short ŭ, but particularly careful speech may distinguish them.
à as in àlive
ø as in cøntain

w as in wick
wh as in whip (many speakers merge this into plain w)
y as in yell

Our long ī and ū are technically diphthongs (ä + ē and y + û, respectively). Other English diphthongs are below.
e͡w as in ye͡w (ĭ + û)
e͡y as in gre͡y (ā + ē) (many speakers simply use long ā for this sound)
o͡i as in fo͡il (õ + ē)
o͡w as in clo͡wn (ă + û)


English is slightly more reasonable with these. Consonants mostly come in three kinds: plosives (hard stops), fricatives (the hiss family), and sonorants (murmuring sounds). Sonorants are subdivided into “clear” and “dark” types. “Clear” sonorants are usually followed by a vowel in English, though not always. “Dark” sonorants, on the other hand, may actually play the role of a vowel, in somewhat the same way the semivowels (w and y) are very close to being consonants.

p as in pin
ch as in cheese
t as in tart
k as in kit
b as in bear
j as in jelly
d as in dog
g as in give

f as in find
sh as in shell
th as in thin
as in loch (lo)
v as in very
zh as in treasure (treazhure)
ð as in clothing (cloðing)‡
h as in hot
s as in sink
z as in zebra

“Clear” type:
m as in mark
n as in never
ŋ as in thing (thiŋ)
l as in let
r as in ring
“Dark” type (semi-consonants): 
ḿ as in rhythḿ
ń as in buttoń
ł as in cołd
ŕ as in leadeŕ


Aside from the sounds themselves, pronunciation also involves stress. Primary stress falls on the syllable in a word or name that receives the most emphasis. (Emphasis can come in a few forms: saying the stressed syllable louder, at a slightly lower or higher pitch than the rest of the word, for a slightly longer time, or any combination—like many things in language, we mostly do this unconsciously.) There are a few varieties of stress in English, but in the pronunciation guide, we’ve done no more than put all stressed syllables in bold, for simplicity’s sake.

And that’s it! Happy enunciating.

*The fifteenth to seventeenth centuries form an important period in the history of English; besides influential works like Shakespeare and the King James Bible, this was when what’s called the Great Vowel Shift took place, and most of the things that are wrong with English are its fault. Middle English (spoken around 1150-1480) had a sound system a bit like modern Italian, and its speakers wrote phonetically for the most part. In the fifteenth century, the English pronunciation of vowels started changing. Now, sound changes are normal in the history of languages; what made this one a mess was, while the sounds changed, the most prestigious form of Middle English spelling, for some reason, stuck! (Foreign words borrowed into English also keep their spellings: this mostly means French, Greek, and Latin, all of which have their own spelling rules.) This actually does make English spelling exceptionally useful as a guide to etymology—at the low, low cost of making it a complete pain in the neck for all other purposes.
†And yet, you can’t expunge all the footnotes, Matt.
‡The letter ð (named “eth”) is derived from d; it was once used in places where we now have th, and still appears in Icelandic. It dropped out of use in England not long after the invention of printing (most languages didn’t use it, so most printing presses didn’t want to pay for an extra letter).


We hope this guide is helpful to you. If you’d like to read more about the subject of language, try our “Great Conversation” posts on signs & symbols and on language as such; you might also enjoy some of our discussions of its role in curricula, whether considered purely as a subject or as part of a larger framework, or our profile of one of the great theorists of language and its use, Ludwig Wittgenstein.

Published on 29th August, 2023. Page image of a woodcut illustration of a manticore from Edward Topsell’s 1607 book The Historie of Foure-footed Beastes. Manticores may initially have been based on garbled descriptions of tigers (as unicorns likely were of rhinocerotes); some accounts said they had the faces of handsome men and spoke with alluringly beautiful voices, only to lure unwary travelers and kill them with the poisonous spines shot from their tails. The application of the same principle to the deceitful simplicity of English as written in the Roman alphabet will, of course, immediately suggest itself to any reader.

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