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A practical guide to how to pronounce non-English names for English speakers

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Pronouncing Non-English Names For English Speakers

A practical guide to how to pronounce non-English names for English speakers

The goal of this guide is to produce a simple guide to help you pronounce a surname from a non-English speaking culture that sounds reasonably correct. In this guide, we will provide reasonable approximations using sounds that are already familiar to English speakers.
Learning to produce non-English sounds is out of scope for this document, but lots of fun and I highly recommend it.


Rule #1 for pronouncing someone's name is what the person in question says the pronunciation of their name is should override this document! For example, in the US, many families that immigrated many years ago have changed the way their name was pronounced from its original heritage pronunciation. That's totally fine! Use their pronunciation!

There's an important non-obvious caveat here though. If you are not a native speaker of the language of the person, you should not assume your brain can hear their pronunciation accurately to reproduce it. Many languages have sounds that simply do not appear in English and if you don't speak those languages, your brain will try its best to map it to English sounds. It will frequently fail badly. If you've never seriously studied a foreign language, you may have never had this experience before, but it is very real. One way to get an intuition for this is to think about how many song lyrics you've later realized you've misheard in your native language.


Chinese is a complicated subject and the goal of this guide is to be practical and simple. The vast majority of Chinese people in the world today writing their names using the English alphabet use a system called Pinyin. You can be confident when using this guide with people who were born in mainland China after 1950 or so but use caution with people from Taiwan, or people who emigrated from China before those periods. Cantonese speakers (especially from Hong Kong) are also not covered here (yet).

tricky consonants

First, if you can remember only 4 things:

  1. Zh is like a J sound (as in "Jam")
  2. X is like a Sh sound (as in "Shot")
  3. Q is like a Ch sound (as in "China")
  4. C is like a Ts sounds (as in "Its")

These just need to be memorized. The sound most English speakers guess in these cases is to make them sounds like the Zh sound in the middle consonant in the English word "measure". This is very wrong and because that sound gets used for all of them (and J) it can be very confusing.

Zi, Ci, Si, Zhi, Chi, Shi, Ri

Another set of tricky sounds that you can probably improve on and show up in names frequently are this pattern of consonant+i. The "i" sound isn't pronounced like any of the sounds that "i" represents in English. It's not pronounced like a vowel at all. It's just a marker that tells you to just pronounce the consonant sound. A close approximation in English for "si" is the vowel in "roses".

The good news about Chinese surnames for English speakers is that there are very few of them. The word for "the masses" in Chinese (百家姓) can be literally translated as "the old 100 surnames" because of how few there are. Even better news is that the top 20 surnames account for more than 54% of all Chinese people's surnames.

Here's the top 20 with the tricky ones explained:

Rank Pinyin Pronunciation Tricks
1 Wang has an "ah" vowel. Wahng
2 Li
3 Zhang Zh = J, "ah" vowel. Jahng
4 Liu sounds like "leeoh"
5 Chen rhymes with "fun" in US, in UK rhymes with the second syllable of London
6 Yang has an "ah" vowel. Yahng
7 Huang
8 Wu
9 Zhao J sound, rhymes with "wow". Jow
10 Zhou J sound, same as English name "Joe"
11 Xu same as English word "shoe"
12 Su
13 Ma
14 Zhu same as English word "Jew"
15 Hu
16 Lin
17 Guo take the first syllable in "water" and put a G sound in front. "Gwaww"
18 He a trickster! pronounced like the interjection "huh!"
19 Gao rhymes with "wow"
20 Luo takes the first syllable in "water" and put an L sound in front. "Lwaww"

common given name components

The Chinese have a wide array of possible given names, but many characters with nice meanings (e.g. beautiful, tranquil, great) are used commonly. We list a few tricky common ones in this chart

Name Pronunciation
Fang Fahng
Feng Fuhng
Gang Gahng
Gui Gway
Hai english "Hi!"
Jing literally just "jing". not zhing.
Jia Jah, just one syllable, not Jee-ah
Jie Jee-ay, all one syllable
Jun Joon
Qiang Chee-ah-ng, all one syllable
Yang Yahng
Yong Yohng
Xiao the first syllable in "Shower"
Xiu same as english "show"
Ye say "yes" without the 's' sound


Japanese romanization of names is very standardized and regular. Japanese pronunciation is one of the most covered topics on the Internet but this is a practical guide for non-experts so we're going to intentionally ignore things like pitch accent, stess vs. syllable timing and just look at a few of the more common gotchas.

Vowels are relatively few and straightforward.

Vowel Pronunciation
a ah
e eh
i ee
o oh
u oo
  • Watch out for combinations with the letter y. kya, kyu, kyo, nya, ryo, and many more combinations. The y is never pronounced like an "i" in english. Each of those are pronounced as a single syllable in English and the y "flavors" the consonant. The way English speakers say Tokyo as 'Toh-Kee-Oh' is the mistake you want to avoid here. Toh-kyoh.

  • if you see the letter combination "tsu", your initial instinct might be to break it up between the t and s, but this is a single sound that is the same as the final consonant 'its' combined with the 'oo' vowel. Example: not Mit-su-bi-shi (Mit-soo-bee-shee) but Mi-tsu-bi-shi (Mee-tsoo-bee-shee).

common names with tricky pronunciations

Name Pronunciation Notes
Yamashita Yah-MAH-sh-Ta some vowels (i, u) get removed (called devoicing), this common name has it
Kyoko Kyoh-koh (not Kee-oh-koh)
Ryousuke Ryoh-skeh the -suke suffix is usually skeh


Czech names are a bit harder than they look and have some unique challenges, at least some of which are quite hidden.

The biggest problem you're going to have is that most of the time when you, the English speaker, see a Czech name, there is a chance it has been simplified of important pronunciation information because Czechs use a few symbols that are not easily typable on a standard English keyboard and therefore, Czech people frequently just leave them out but they contain critical info that can make your pronunciation attempt be WAY off as we'll see in this section. I have a hack that can help for this. First, check their LinkedIn page, as those are frequently written for other Czechs and will have the missing symbols. My second suggestion is to search Wikipedia for the name and you'll often find someone with that same given or surname. You can then use the "other language version" selector to pull up the Czech language page for the full symbol info.

The first type are what most would guess are accent marks (i.e. á, í ,é, etc.). These aren't actually accent marks. They actually mark if the vowel is long or not. If you see these marks, just hold the vowel about 1.5x longer. Don't treat them like accent marks. The stress in Czech names is always on the first syllable.

Vowel Pronuciation
a ah
e eh
ě yeh
i,y ih
o oh
u oo
ů long oo

If you use a short vowel where you should have used a long vowel, it won't throw the sound off too badly, but that's unfortunately not true of the second type of frequently missing symbols. The symbol is a little hook over certain consonants that completely changes the sound of the consonants. Here's a table of the hook consonants and the other suprising pronunciation of consonants in Czech.

Czech Consonant Pronunciation
š SH
č CH
ř RZH - yeah, czech people know you aren't going to get this right. combine an R and the middle consonsant in "measure" and hope for the best.
ž ZH - the middle consonant in "measure"
c TS - like the last consonant in "its"
j Y - as in "yellow"
ch same as scottish "loch". not like ch in "cheese". That's what č is for.

Finally, there are two consonants that act like vowels sometimes: R and L. I think the best approximation for R when used a vowel for R is the final "ir" in "stir". For L, you can use the "ull" in "full" as your approximation.

Example tricky names

This list is heavily seeded with the names of my co-workers that I hear people get wrong all the time as that was my primary motivation for starting this list. Please file an issue if you have a Czech name people butcher and I'll add it.

Name Pronunciation notes
Václav VAAHTS-lahv not VAHK-lahv.
Černý CHEHR-neee
Beneš BEH-nesh Elaine on Seinfeld is an example of Rule #1 above :)
Petr PEH-tur
Tomáš TOH-maahsh not like Thomas or TOH-mahs or toh-MAAHSH.
Karel KAH-rehl not like Carol.
Marek MAH-rehk not like the word "mare" with "ek" tossed at the end.
Konečný KOH-nehch-nee
Jakub YAH-koob not like Jacob
Jareš YAH-resh
Píchová PEEE-CHoh-vaah the CH is the "loch" ch not the "cheese" ch.

Another Czech name fact worth knowing is that women add the suffix -ová to the end of their surnames. So the wife of Mr Beneš is Mrs. Benešová.


A quick disclaimer. My wife is Thai-American and I know some Thai, but unlike some of the other sections where I consider myself an advanced learner, this is a language in which I'm a rank beginner. If you are a native English speaker who has put the work in on Thai and want to flush out this section, I would greatly appreciate your contribution. In the meantime, I'm going to list some gotchas I've learned the hard way. -- Steve

Tricky consonants

If you remember one thing about pronouncing Thai names, the letter 'h' usually doesn't do what you will expect it to do when it is combined with other letters. By itself, it sounds the same as English, but when combined with other consonants, it tells you whether or not you let out a puff of air or not. You do this in English all the time, you just don't realize it because we don't spell it. The easiest example here is the word Thai which I assume you are pronouncing correctly! Hold your hand in from of your face and say Thai. Feel the puff? That's what the h does when you add it to a consonant as in "Th". Now do the same with the English word "pup". Feel the puff? That sound is written 'Ph'. 'Kh' is the first syllable in English "cat". Now you know how to pronounce 'Th', 'Ph', and 'Kh' which are the most common mistakes. Now here's the slightly tricky part: If you see 'T', 'P', or 'K', without the h, you need to take your normal English sound and then don't puff at the end. Oh, and because everything has to be hard all the time, 'Ch' is just a normal English 'Ch' sound.

Also, Thai 'V' is pronounced like English 'W'. I remember this by associating it Richard Wagner's name. It's weird but it works.

Tricky vowels

Thai has a lot of vowels and some of them are surprising, but I think English speakers guess pretty well most of the time. If you are only going to remember one thing besides the air puffs we discussed in consonants, please remember that the Thai suffix '-orn' is pronounced like the English suffix '-awn'. Steve, I can hear you asking in your head, why would this one combo of sounds be the only other thing I remember about Thai? Well, faithful reader, the Thai suffix "-porn" is quite common in Thai female names. This name suffix is pronounced "-PAWN", not like English "porn". So yeah, prioritize remembering this one to avoid many awkward situations!

Mispronounced names

(coming soon)


Polish looks to an English speaker like a complicated mess of consonants. The consonants are a powerful weapon of special grade.

But even in the exaggerated example from the film (Grzegorz Brzęczyszczykiewicz), once we learn that Z modifies sounds in Polish just like H in English sh, ch, zh, it gets much easier. So:

Polish English approximate Example first name
cz ch as in cheese Czesław
sz sh as in fresh Bartosz
rz z as in azure Marzena
szcz sh ch as in fresh cheese Mszczuj (relax, it's very uncommon!)

Now you're ready to pronounce Grzegorz Brzęczyszczykiewicz correctly enough to earn beers from your Polish friends down at the pub. You may as well stop here but the further you go the better you will pronounce!

The natural next step are some Polish-only letters and letters pronounced differently than in English:

Polish English approximate Example name
ą Nasal o, as in French sont surname Bąk
ć, ci As cz, but softer surname Cichy
ę Nasal e, as in French vin surname Sęk
j y as in yes Jan
ł w as in window Sławomira
ń, ni ny in canyon Stanisław
ś, si As sz, but softer Jaś (nickname of Jan)
w v as in very Władysław
y approx. i as in bin Tytus
ź, zi As rz, but softer surname Ziarno
ż Same as rz Błażej

The ones with surnames as example are very uncommon in first names - the reason is that while surnames are usually Slavic in origin, first name usually have Latin, Greek, Hebrew and otherwise Biblical roots, with a few common Slavic first names - so they do not have typical Polish/Slavic sounds. ś, ć, ń, being soft, unvoiced and therefore cute usually occur in nicknames (Sławomir -> Sławuś, Przemysław -> Przemuś, etc.) but rarely in full names. This function is nearly identical to Japanese -chan.

Now, the two final rules which will make you sound as a native. The second-last syllable is accented (pronounced louder). Examples: barBAra, Ada, maRZEna, jan.

In clusters of unvoiced (p, k, t, s, w, sz) + voiced (b, g, d, z, f, rz/ż) consonants, and when the voiced phoneme is at the end of the word, the voiced consonant becomes unvoiced. Examples: Krzysztof -> Kszysztof, Przemysław -> Pszemysłaf.

This concludes all but the most rare rules of Polish pronunciation. Now go and train on your colleagues names, and earn their neverending respect.

Contributed by: Przemysław Buczkowski ([email protected]) (Use my name to train, I don't mind!)


by Steve Carroll

feedback, suggestions, and contributions very welcome

Open Source Agenda is not affiliated with "PronouncingNamesForEnglishSpeakers" Project. README Source: SteveMCarroll/PronouncingNamesForEnglishSpeakers
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