“I see you took the name of the town. What was your father’s name? “

Following on from yesterday’s look at mispronunciations (and “mispronunciations”) by native speakers, I want to look specifically at how we often pronounce surnames differently, specifically surnames from other languages. I thought about this after watching The Godfather Part II recently, and noticing the way the character Senator Geary pronounces the surname Corleone*. Notice how it changes in the clip below (contains salty language!):

At first, he pronounces it like “Corleonn” (and does so repeatedly in the scene preceding this one, wherein he also mispronounces the name Vito). We assume he’s just a typical English speaker ignorant of the pronunciation conventions of Italian, and pronouncing the name as it looks to him. But then he very deliberately pronounces it correctly, to show that he was putting on an act, and is in fact quite a shrewd customer. It’s a great trick, because it’s very believable. We English speakers don’t tend to speak a second language regularly, or be exposed to one, so we can often be unaware of how words are pronounced in other languages. Senator Geary provides a nice example of how we will often not pronounce the e at the end of Italian words, because it’s usually silent in English.

But there is a grey area here, because what if, for example, an Italian American pronounces their name in this manner. Can we say that they’re wrong, then? It’s their name, so surely whatever way they choose to pronounce is correct, in their case. This is something I’m quite conscious of with regard to Irish surnames.

A lot of names are pronounced differently in Ireland compared to in other countries. The names Doherty, Flaherty, Gallagher, Mahoney, and Shaughnessy, for example. In Ireland, the first two are pronounced phonetically (with Doherty having a short vowel sound, as in doctor), but they’re difficult for other English speakers to pronounce, because of the way there’s a vowel before the h. They might there pronounce them like Doe-erty or Dockerty, and Flarrety, because they’re much easier to say. Irish people don’t have a problem putting a vowel before an sound, because that sound exists in the Irish language. And even though most of us don’t speak it, we’re exposed to it at a young age through learning it from primary school, and through surnames such as the above which feature sounds from the language.

It’s a similar case with Gallagher, in which the g is silent, so it sounds like Galla-her. Again, very hard to pronounce for most English speakers, and, it’s not obvious that it should be pronounced that way. With Mahoney, we stress the first syllable, so the o has a short schwa sound, unlike the American pronounciation in which the o is stressed, and the a has a schwa sound. In this way, like the others, it has that awkward vowel + h sound, which is more than likely why the pronunciation changed in America. With Shaughnessy, it’s another case of the traditional pronunciation not being obvious from the spelling. We pronounce it Shocknessy, but -gh generally isn’t pronounced that way in English, so it’s pronounced Shawnessy in the rest of the world.

And that’s ok. Some of my compatriots get annoyed when they hear these names pronounced so, but I understand it. Most Irish people aren’t aware of the fact that so many of our names have sounds which come from the Irish language, and don’t feature in English otherwise. Nor do they consider how difficult is for other English speakers to pronounce those names, which are, effectively, names from another language, just as foreign as Corleone or DuBois. So I understand completely why they’re pronounced differently. Plus there are probably now more people living in other English-speaking countries with these names than there are in Ireland. So it would seem churlish in the least for us to tell them that they’re mispronouncing their names!

*and if you’ve seen the film, you’ll know that it’s not the family’s original surname, but the name of the village Vito came from, with the immigration officer at Ellis Island giving Vito that as his surname.

2 thoughts on ““I see you took the name of the town. What was your father’s name? “

  1. Good post, Niall. Foreign names and their pronunciations fascinate me.

    To add to this surname challenge, we’re seeing so many first names pronounced differently than how you’d read them. Like Orangejello and Lemonjello becoming Or-on-je-lo and Le-mon-je-lo, heaviest accent on second syllables. (Don’t ask me who named their children that!) Or Male and Female, given the Latin twist, mah-lay and fay-mah-lay.
    Some poor kids must fight all their lives to get their names, first or last, pronounced the way their native tongue, or their trendy parents, intended.


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