Having your name pronounced the wrong way is never a good experience, believe me. But can you imagine what Ralph Fiennes, Zooey Deschanel, Matt Groening and many other celebrities have to go through when millions of people fail to pronounce their names every day? With the help of Nyest.hu, Business Insider and Wikipedia‘s pretty useful IPA transcriptions, I will now attempt to reveal the truth about some of the world’s most commonly mispronounced names.
Am I right to assume that the little voice in your head that’s reading this sentence gets slightly softer when your eyes reach the name Ralph Fiennes? Well, if it didn’t, you are either the actor himself, his biggest fan – or you’re just very confident that your pronunciation of his name is the right one. Neither Lord Voldemort (Harry Potter film series) nor Amon Goeth (Schindler’s List), which are two of his most well-known roles, is simple, but most of us manage to cope with them quite easily. The majority of English-speakers assume that the name ‘Ralph’ is always read [ɹæɫf]. Traditionally, however the correct pronunciation was [ˈɹeɪf]. And the renowned English actor is indeed very traditional, if only in his given name. If you think this was hard, let me tell you that ‘Fiennes’ is pronounced [ˈfaɪnz]. No, not [fiːns] or [fjɛn], the latter of which the French would assume. So the actor’s full name, Ralph Fiennes, shall be read as [ˈɹeɪf ˈfaɪnz].
Fiennes is not the only celebrity whose first and last name are equally easy to mispronounce. Addressing Zooey Deschanel – who played Jovie in Elf (2003) and currently stars in the series New Girl – as [ˈzuːi] is probably not a good idea. Despite the odd spelling of her name, she prefers [ˈzoʊ.i] – like Zoe, Zoë or Zoey. As for her last name, it is French, not German. So please don’t pronounce it as [ˈdɛʃaːnəl] or even [diːʃəˈnɛl] (the ‘English way’), and try [deɪʃəˈnɛl] instead.
Amanda Seyfried‘s surname is so easy to mispronounce that there are at least half a dozen different styles ‘in circulation’. The most common is [ˈseɪfɹaɪd], but [ˈsiːfɹiːd], [ˈseɪfɹiːd] and even [ˈsiːɡ.fɹiːd] (why Siegfried?) are almost as popular. The young actress – who may be familiar from Mamma Mia! (2008), Letters to Juliet (2010), Red Riding Hood (2011), Gone (2012) or Les Misérables (2012) – states in the interview below (starting at 2:19) that even her own sister says it differently.
Knowing that the Italian suffix ‘-ese’ is pronounced [ˈeze], I assumed that American film director and actor Martin Scorsese (who is, by the way, of Sicilian descent) expects his last name to be read as [skɔrˈseze]. However, most Americans who get the pronunciation wrong either say [skoɹˈsiːz] or [skoɹˈseɪziː]. All three are wrong, as Martin prefers [skɔɹˈsɛzi]. In my attempt to find some proof of this on YouTube, I came across an interview from 1991 in which David Letterman introduces him as Martin ‘Scor-SAY-zee’. He didn’t seem to mind though! So how do we know if Letterman was wrong? Martin Scorsese appeared in an episode of Entourage as a celebrity guest. And luckily, there’s a scene in which he introduces himself on the phone. We won’t find a more reliable source than the director’s own words, so let’s accept that his name is [ˈmɑɹ.tn skɔɹˈsɛzi] – or [ˈmɑːtɪn], if you’re English?
How do you think Matt Groening would pronounce his name? It comes up at the end of every The Simpsons episode to pay tribute to him as the creator. But for some reason, I cannot accept and learn that his last name isn’t [ˈgɹəːnɪŋ], [ˈɣrunɪŋ] (if the Dutch word ‘groen’ has anything to do with it) or [ˈgʁøːnɪŋ]. Instead, it is [ɡɹeɪnɪŋ] – yes, ‘GRAY-ning’.
There are thousands of people in the world who can’t say their surnames without saying ‘cow’ – like Simon Cowell. But, believe it or not, Mia Wasikowska is not one of them! The Polish-origin Australian actress – known especially for her role as Alice in the 2010 film Alice in Wonderland – probably hates when people pronounce her last name as [wɑːsiˈkaʊskə]. In reality, it’s [vɑːʃiˈkɒvskə]. The letter ‘w’ is /v/ in both cases (as in Polish), and the ‘s’ is /ʃ/.
Similarly, Americans often assume that Mariska Hargitay pronounces her first name with an /s/ sound, just like a ‘Marisa’ would. But the Law & Order: SVU actress, whose father originates from Hungary, sticks to the Hungarian pronunciation of her name. Well, she says it as [məˈɹɪʃkə], so it’s quite far from the original [ˈmɒriʃkɒ], but at least the /ʃ/ sound is still there. It is surprising, however, that her surname is said as [ˈhɑɹɡɨteɪ] while it would be pronounced [ˈhɒrgitɒi] in Hungary. I can understand that ‘-ay’ would be pronounced as [ˈeɪ] by most people even if she prefered [ˈɒi], but isn’t the issue caused by the ‘s’ in ‘Mariska’ the same?
In the case of some celebrities, a single vowel can change everything. In my article ‘Afrikaans, or South Africa’s Dutch?‘ I have made a mention of Charlize Theron, a well-known actress and fashion model in both America and South Africa. She starred in films such as Monster (2003), North Country (2005) and Young Adult (2011). Today I will focus on her surname, rather than her career or her lingual abilities. In South Africa, her full name would be pronounced [ʃɐrˈlis tron]. However, as most people in the USA said her last name as either [θəˈɹon] or [ˈθɛɹən], she eventually changed the pronunciation to the latter one – to make it sound more American. Oh, and ‘Charlize’ became [ʃɑrˈliːs] for the same reason, but this change was not so significant as it occured due to a different accent, not the orthography of a different language. Now she is so used to saying her last name the new way that she often says it as [θron] instead of [tron] in South Africa.
Most of us would never make the mistake of referring to Téa Leoni, an American actress who played Amanda Kirby in Jurassic Park III (2001), as [tiː] – the diacritic serves a purpose! But is it [ˈtiːə] or [ˈteɪ.ə]? Here’s the answer: she prefers the latter one, as ‘Téa’ derives from the Italian name ‘Dorotea’ – [doroˈte.a]. Similarly to Mariska Hargitay, Téa Leoni does not wish to break away from the original (Italian) pronunciation of her name. This is also shown by her surname, which should be said as [leɪˈoʊniː], not as [liːˈoʊniː]. Why? Because it’s a short version of her real last name: Pantaleoni – [pɑːntəleɪˈoʊniː] in American English and [ˌpantalɛˈɔni] in Italian.
Mila Kunis was born ‘Milena Markovna Kunis’ in the Ukraine (Soviet Union). For those of you who are familiar with Cyrillic, her full name is spelt ‘Мілена Марківна Куніс’ in Ukrainian and ‘Милена Марковна Кунис’ in Russian. So it must be obvious that Mila – whom you may know from Friends With Benefits (2011), Ted (2012) or Oz The Great and Powerful (2013) – says [ˈmiːlə ˈkuːnɪs], not [maɪlə ˈkuːnɪs]. I have some personal experience to share regarding the actress’ name: she is so popular in England that I’m exposed to hearing the wrong pronunciation of her name at least ten times every day at school. I remember how surprised I was when I heard a TV presenter referring to her as [ˈmiːlə] on a Hungarian TV channel. Of course, back then I assumed that it was the Hungarian media that pronounced her name the wrong way. It was hard to believe that all the people at school were unaware of the correct way to say it.
I hope that my attempt to teach you something new today has been successful. Oh, and let me apologise for the occasionally inaccurate IPA transcriptions, especially the non-English ones. It’s a bit strange to pronounce a celebrity’s name differently to how you always used to, isn’t it? Well, now you have the potential to correct a friend and perhaps start a funny debate. If you do so, please don’t forget to refer to this article!