A plea for pronounceable language names

Suppose you hear that a colleague is working on a language called “@t~q^M#%”. What is your reaction? What’s wrong with the language name “@t~q^M#%”? It’s perfectly unique, it consists only of ASCII characters so is eminently typable, and it has a certain beauty. But of course it lacks pronounceability, so is it good as a name? In general, we expect a language to have a name that we can use in speaking about the language, not only in writing. For this reason, nobody has suggested that traditional language names should be abolished entirely and replaced by codes such as “uppe1395” (Glottocode for Upper Sorbian) or “xtq” (ISO 639-3 code for Tumshuqese).

Now what about a hypothetical language name such as “QmncpwuX”? This name is pronounceable, at least by people with special training in phonetics and IPA. So is pronounceability everything? I would say that the requirements on English language names should be even more stringent: They should be pronounceable in English, just like all other well-formed English words (or pronounceable in Russian, if we are in a Russian-speaking context, etc.). Because language names, when used in English, are part of the English language. We talk about the Greek language, the Polish language, and the Basque language, using the English words for these languages, rather than the Elinika language, the Polski language, or the Euskara language. Thus, language names are English words, like city names (we talk about Rome, Moscow and Cairo, not Roma, Moskva or Al-Qâhira), and like names of monarchs (Pope Francis, not Franciscus; or King Frederick the Great, not Friedrich the Große). (I have elaborated on this in a recent paper called “Some principles for language names”, where I talk about naming practices discussed in the content of Glottolog.)

Of course, the speaker communities may have an opinion on how to call their language in English, so they may prefer the name Inuktitut to Eskimo, or the name Oromo to Galla. This is just as with city names: The inhabitants of Mumbai may prefer Mumbai to Bombay, and the inhabitants of Beijing may prefer Beijing to Peking in English. In such cases, English speakers outside these cities typically follow these requests, for straightforward reasons of politeness. And likewise, linguists have changed their habits and now use the language names Inuktitut and Oromo. So now the English word for China’s capital is Beijing.

But can we imagine that someone would ask English speakers to use a name that is unpronounceable in English? For instance, inhabitants of Mexico insisting on the pronunciation [mexiko] with a velar fricative? Or inhabitants of Seoul asking for the mid unrounded vowel [ʌ] in the first syllable? This would be a public relations disaster. A city with an unpronounceable name would scare away tourists or investors. (The Danish city Århus changed its name (back) to Aarhus fairly recently, presumably to facilitate international recognizability.)

So is it reasonable that speaker communities should ask outsiders to call their language by some unpronunceable name? Maybe it is comprehensible from the perspective of minorities that feel under cultural siege and want to make a clear statement of their cultural and linguistic uniqueness. Thus, we find some indigenous groups in North America using names such as “Skwxwú7mesh” (e.g. here). I take such usages to be assertions of identity, and I find it hard to take them seriously as requests for replacing older English names. English can easily accommodate Inuktitut and Oromo, Mumbai and Beijing, but one cannot expect English speakers to really use names like “Tłı̨chǫ Yatıì” (for Dogrib), or “Kanien’kéha” (for Mohawk).

Of course, linguists who work on these languages know how to pronounce the language names, and one would not surprised to hear an expert of Nuuchahnulth actually pronounce the language name [nu:tʃa:nuɬ] in a scholarly presentation. But what about their colleagues? If I want to refer to that paper in my own oral presentation, how should I pronounce the language name? Should I learn this pronunciation as well? Should I expect the same from my first-year students, as soon as they have learned the IPA? I think the idea that we should all use the native pronunciation in English has the following two problems: (i) It assumes that languages of small communities that do not have a long tradition of writing and of state power should be treated differently from languages such as Greek, Polish and Basque, and (ii) it is based on the idea that language names should not be English words, but that when talking about them we should code-switch into these languages, even if we know very little about them otherwise. Since linguists agree that all languages have the same status and the same value, I find it hard to accept that small languages should be treated differently than large and powerful languages.

So while I am all for politeness with regard to language-choice requests by minorities, I don’t think that it’s an expression of such politeness to do away completely with English words for languages. If we don’t have pronounceable English words, the strategy that people will use is not to mention the language name at all (“as you can see in example (12) from this Athabaskan language (Dënesųłiné)”, rather than “as you can see in the Chipewyan example”). And maybe the next step is that they will replace the example by an example from another, more pronounceable language. Choosing an unsayable language name is a public relations disaster, as with city names.

(On the other hand, I accept that some scholars see it differently – they may not care so much about the visibility and recognizability of the smaller languages, but may put more of an emphasis on the association of traditional English names with earlier bad behaviour of English speakers toward the speakers of the smaller North American languages, as seen strikingly in this blog post by anthropologist Sarah Shulist, who ends up denying the principle that language names are English words – but of course not consistently, so she has to treat Mohawk/Kanienkéha’ speakers differently from Greek/Elinika speakers.)

This blog post is primarily addressed to my fellow linguists, and I can’t blame them of course if the speaker community (or at least an influential part of it) insists on a difficult name. (The Indian city formerly known as “Trivandrum” has surely not made life easy for its board of tourism when it decided to be called Thiruvananthapuram, and has apparently put parochial pride before international public relations.) However, there are also many cases where the speaker communities have no particular opinion on how to call their language in English. In quite a few cases they don’t have a traditional name of their own, but call their language simply ‘our language’, or ‘the people’s language’. In such cases, where it’s the linguists that choose which name to use in English (or Spanish, ot Portuguese, or Chinese, etc.) shouldn’t they use a name that is easy to pronounce, to read and to write? Overexoticized language names, and especially unmotivated replacement of established names, achieve the opposite of what the linguists want to achieve: They make it difficult for people to recognize and talk about the language, so they make the language less visible.

Thus, I would hope, for example, that linguists working on Khoisan languages will accept that they cannot expect their colleagues (let alone nonlinguists) to correctly pronounce (or even write) language names such as Nǁng. At the very least, if they insist on writing the language names with these highly special characters (which at least Wikipedia has accepted, even though they are not real letters and do not exist in most fonts), they should tell us how to pronounce them in English, i.e. without clicks, not only how to pronounce them in the language itself.


Haspelmath, Martin. 2017. Some principles for language names. Language Documentation & Conservation 11: 81-93. [publisher]

OpenEdition suggests that you cite this post as follows:
Martin Haspelmath (November 30, 2017). A plea for pronounceable language names. Diversity Linguistics Comment. Retrieved July 19, 2024 from https://doi.org/10.58079/nstu

19 thoughts on “A plea for pronounceable language names

  1. Not being a native speaker I shall not offer an opinion on what any language or city should be or should not be called in English. I will assert though that I deny anybody the right to tell me what I should call a city, a language, a nation, or whatever, in my own native languages, which are Dutch, German and French. Let’s not turn the respect argument the wrong way. Naming is the exclusive right of native speakers, and any non-native speaker trying to impose choices of his own is impolite and committing an act of aggression. Therefore I shall continue to speak about Bombay, Birma, Peking, Madras, Ceylon, just as I shall always call the Portuguese capital Lissabon/Lisbonne and the Greek one Athene/Athènes/Athen. All of these toponyms have a long tradition in my languages. It is not for a non-native speaker, be she an anthropologist, or a politician, or even a linguist, to decide that toponyms or language names or are not French/German/Dutch words. We, the native speakers, shall decide for ourselves, thank you. A point in case is the term Eskimo for a number of languages spoken and communities living in the Arctic areas of America. I have been told that it has a negative connotation in their language and that they therefore prefer to use Inuktitut. Let them do so, by all means, when speaking in their language. I have no inclination whatever to meddle. But Eskimo has been a Dutch word for hundreds of years. It has never carried a negative connotation, and it is me, a native speaker, who is telling. My father, grandmother and grandfather would have told you the same about Eskimo (German) and Esquimau (French). And another one. I know fully well that Negro, in the mouth of an American speaker of English, is derogatory, and so is nègre in French. I do not use these terms therefore, when speaking English in the U.S., or French in whatever country. The Dutch word neger (lower case in Dutch, as it is not a demonym) however is not derogatory, nor has it ever been. The Dutch language does have a derogatory term for Black people, but I do not use it, and I shall not mention it. Neither is Neger (upper case, being a substantive) depreciatory when used by an Austrian (I am not sure about the Swiss and Germans in this case). Therefore I feel free to use neger in the Netherlands, in Surinam, Curaçao and in Belgium, and Neger whenever I speak German with my Austrian relatives. I do not care if my practice makes any languages or cities less visible, or whether I should treat smaller languages the same as larger ones, or what any foreign government or institution has been pleased to decide. I stand for my inalienable right to speak my language(s) as I see fit. Even if I am speaking about Calcutta, or Pondichéry, or Damão or Ouagadougou. I wonder why native speakers of English should feel different on this subject, but that, of course, is for them to decide ☺

  2. Pronouncability is a relative matter, of course, but effort counts, and linguists typically get more out of their efforts.
    Geologists are very fond of giving local names to geological features, and almost perversely tend toward more baroque names. Not many geologists are blameless in their pronunciation when they refer to the Nagsugtoqidian mobile belt, the Nuvvuagittuq greenstone belt, the Kunagunarrina Formation, or Kolbeinsey Ridge. If they can do it, linguists can do it too.

    You can’t really compare Deutschland being “misnamed” Germany to a small community which is only now starting to attain some minute bit of political power. I’m sure Dënesųłiné folks know full well that the name is hard to pronounce by L1 English speakers, including some of their own who are working very hard to establish competency in the language. For all the good that linguists do, we are by and large linguistic tourists, and should make the utmost effort to be gracious.

    P.S. Until I looked it up just now, I didn’t know how to pronounce Chipewyan correctly, either.

  3. Hi, very annoyed by your article. Trivandrum is a colonial leftover. British conquerors took our name and decided that it was easier to rename cities than to learn their names. Thiruvanthapuram may not be the easiest thing to pronounce, but guess what? If you are trying to make a trip all the way to India, your Western-exceptionalistic brain can try and pronounce the name 🙂

    • Yes, I agree – and I said so in the article! But maybe the example was not the best… And the purpose of the post was precisely to argue that all names should be treated equally.

    • I mean Thiruvananthapuram may look hard at first look (it seems a lot easier to me if I write it as Thiruv-anantha-puram, lord-Ananta’s-city), but if the British can have English places like Loughborough (/ˈlʌfbrə/),
      Mytholmroyd (/ˌmaɪðəmˈrɔɪd/) or
      Woolfardisworthy (/ˈwʊlzi/) – and we’re not even touching on Irish place names like Carrigeenmoylenanagh or Welsh ones like Llanfairpwllgwyngyll – then why can’t the Indians? It definitely smells like colonialism. I got these examples from Wikipedia—there’s an entire family of articles listing counterintuitive or hard-to-pronounce native English place names.

      In the recent Eyjafjallajökull eruption there were a lot of jokes about how hard is the name for English speakers (or, I’d argue, how hard the orthography makes Anglicization) – but no one suggested giving the volcano an easier English name. (It, too, seems a lot easier to me just by writing it as Eyja-fjalla-jökull, isle-fells’-glacier).

      • Note that all the examples that you give are pronounceable in English, at least in principle – and for some of the cases, you even provided the pronunciation using familiar English sounds. No problem with that. What I see as a problem is that we’re supposed to treat names of small languages like people’s names, which names of big languages get short, easily pronounceable names – I think we are putting these small languages at a disadvantage.

  4. you seem to suggest that the two options are: i) pronounce it faithfully or ii) pronounce it in the traditional english way. but there is a third option, which is to apply native phonology to the preferred name.

    in other words, i do agree that if the citizens of mexico requested that it only be called [mexiko], that would be a bit of a burden on english speakers who find it difficult to pronounce. but reverting to [meksiko] is not the only option — we could instead make use of the nearest english analogue — [mehiko]. it seems entirely reasonable that mexicans might prefer people say [mexiko], gave or take their native phonology.

    • Maybe if Mexico were to change its spelling to “Mejico” – but why change? Germany has no problem with not being called “Deutschland”, and China has no problem with not being called “Zhongguo”. Country names can be different, and so can language names.

      • what does spelling have to do with anything? and yes i agree that i am unaware of any movement by mexicans, germans, or chinese people to have their country/language names be referred to differently in english — it was a hypothetical.

        my point is this: nobody expects you to pronounce the language names faithfully. i’m sure that [ganjageha] or something like that will suffice in the case of Kanien’kéha, if those people prefer for their language not to be called Mohawk.

      • This comment has made its way over to reddit’s linguistics forum. We’re trying to figure out whether your comment means that you are opposed to Anglicizing or approximating the words that speakers use for their language when they object to the language in English. I’m taking your comment (in the larger context of what you write) to mean, Anglicizing and approximating language names is a fine strategy, provided that the change fits the desire of the speakers and is explained by the linguist presenting work on the language. Others take the comment to mean, approximating the pronunciation and Anglicizing it are not preferable to maintaining the old name, even if the speakers are in favor of changing it. Could you clarify which (if any) is your intention?

        • The main point that I am trying to get across is that language names are not code-switches, and even languages of smaller communities have the right to be treated as English words (or Welsh words, or Chinese words, whichever language we are currently using), like names of bigger languages like French and Russian. For person names, we code-switch (though we treat some important people like the pope differently from ordinary people), but for language names, we shouldn’t need to code-switch. A comment that David Pesetsky made on Facebook was that he always marvels when Lisa Matthewson pronounces the name of her language, St’át’imcets (or maybe even Šƛ̣aƛ̣imxeč), but if the language were still called Lillooet, we would all be able to pronounce it, and it would be treated more like the bigger languages. In linguistics, where we normally treat all languages alike, this seems the most consistent approach.

          • We understood your main point, but it was this secondary point that we wanted clarification about, and it’s a little disappointing that you didn’t answer it. If speakers started to resent Lillooet for a motivated reason, would you be opposed to an approximation like Statteemhaitch?

          • Of course not – there are many cases where there’s no question that speakers want a name change, and in that case, linguists must follow their usage. For example, the North American language formerly called “Winnebago” is now called “Hochunk” by the speakers (it seems), but linguists have often been calling it “Hocąk”, or “Hoocąk”, or “Hočank”. Special letters are nice if one is a linguist and understands them and can type them, but they do not work well for the general public. If one insists on using them, one seems to signal that the name is designed mostly for usage by specialists.

  5. I don’t think respecting communities’ choice of name is a matter of mere “politeness”. It’s rather a matter of elementary respect for people’s agency (much like refraining to call a black man a “negroe” or “nigger”, or African-American Vernacular “Ebonics”, isn’t just a matter of politeness).

    It’s true that English speakers should have a pronounceable English word for each language/ethnicity; but Anglicizing the self-determined name is a different topic than using a different one. Thus there is no reason to blame English speakers for using an Anglicized spelling pronunciation of the word ‘Romani’; but calling the language ‘Gypsy’ isn’t acceptable, and that goes well beyond politeness.

    • Yes, politeness is “elementary respect” – I agree! And I say so in my 2017 article.

  6. I couldn’t agree more. An absolute bedrock principle must be that a name contain no sounds that aren’t in the phonological inventory of the naming language. So no nasalized vowels or tones or clicks or ejectives, etc., for language names in English. It is entirely unreasonable to berate someone for not being able to pronounce a segment that they don’t have in their inventory (otherwise I’d constantly be correcting non-North-Americans on the correct pronunciation of in my name, for example).

    • This seems reasonable to me. Asking native speakers of any language to try and pronounce words using phonology outside of their language is like asking left handed people to write using their right hand. Respect is important, but how can you respect a culture without being able to say the name of its language out loud?

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