Let's Talk About Pronunciation

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Louisville Pronunciation Guide by Alex Leung (2004) via Flickr, CC.

Louisville Pronunciation Guide by Alex Leung (2004) via Flickr, CC.

I love a “correctly” spelled and pronounced name as much as the next “namiac” (as my mom calls me). But in my years (and years) of reading name blogs and name books and name discussion forums, and inserting myself (invited or not) into any name discussions I hear going on around me, I’ve come to realize that I have not always been correct. Or rather, that certain “errors” I sometimes see or hear people make in regards to names are not actually as incorrect as I have believed.

One big example is Kateri.

I am familiar with the Shrine of Our Lady of Martyrs (for the North American Martyrs, including St. Isaac Jogues) in upstate New York, which is at the birthplace of our brand new St. Kateri Tekakwitha. I can’t remember ever hearing anyone who works there actually say the name Kateri, but I’m sure they must have done so in my presence a thousand times, and since I grew up knowing Kateri is pronounced kah-TEER-ee, I assume that’s how they say it. (Otherwise I’d have some memory of being jarred when hearing a different pronunciation said at the shrine, right?)

Therefore, I always knew that Kateri was pronounced kah-TEER-ee.

Then I made a friend who has a sister named Kateri, and they say kah-TARE-ee.

Then a friend named her daughter Kateri, pronouncing it KAH-ter-ee (nicknamed Kat, so cute!).

The web site I consider to be the most trustworthy in terms of name meanings and origin, Behind the Name, didn’t even venture a pronunciation in its Kateri entry, and among the people who commented the following pronunciations emerged as ones they’d heard used or assumed were correct: KAY-ter-ee, kah-tuh-REE, kah-TAR-ee, and GAH-dah-lee, which is said to be the “authentic Native American pronunciation.”

Given all this, would you be able to say there is one “correct” pronunciation? Which one would it be, and why?

How about Therese? We all love St. Thérèse, but her name can be pronounced te-REE-sa, te-RAY-sah, te-REZ, and te-REESE. Any guesses as to the “correct” one?

Then there’s Zelie. Zelie is charging up the Catholic baby name charts, used in honor of our beloved St. Thérèse’s mama, Bl. Zélie Martin (born Marie-Azélie Guérin), set to be canonized this October with her husband, Bl. Louis Martin, at the World Synod of Bishops on the Family. How do you say Zelie? I’ve seen/heard ZAY-lee, ZEE-lee, ZEL-lee (and the corresponding spelling Zellie), and say-LEE (supposedly the authentic French pronunciation).

Or how about the granddaddy of split opinions regarding pronunciation: Xavier? Do you say ZAY-vyer or ex-ZAY-vyer? I bet you have a strong opinion about which is “correct,” right?

And what about Gianna? St. Gianna Beretta Molla is so beloved (for good reason!) that she has a million little namesakes — first names, middle names, Confirmation names, religious names. It seems the Italian/original pronunciation is JAHN-nah, but I’m sure you’ve all heard and/or used the pronunciation jee-AH-na. Does that make the latter wrong?

Not in my opinion, and I’ve got good company: My mom was taught by the Sisters of St. Joseph at the convent school she attended from Kindergarten until she graduated from high school, and she remembers the Sisters — who were sticklers for every kind of rule — specifically teaching them that when it comes to proper names, no one has the market on the “correct” pronunciation. Rather, the parent bestowing the name and/or the person bearing the name has ultimate decision-making authority over the sound of the name. Even if they want to pronounce Stephen as STEF-en or Maria as mah-RYE-ah or Sean as SEEN.

Yes, Sister.

How do you say the names mentioned in this article? What other names can you think of that can be said different ways? Do you agree with the Sisters that no one has the market on the “correct” pronunciation of given names?

Copyright 2015 Katherine Morna Towne
Photo: Louisville Pronunciation Guide by Alex Leung (2004) via Flickr, CC

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About Author

Kate is a writer, lifelong lover of names, wife to a really good man, and mama to their six boys ages 2 to 11. She shares her thoughts on Catholic baby naming at Sancta Nomina.

11 Comments

  1. Thank you for addressing this!! I’m pregnant and considering using the name Zelie if we have a girl, but I haven’t been sure of the pronunciation. Your post helps me feel better about it! I’m also strongly considering the name Gianna, and I didn’t even know it could be pronounced different ways. Thanks for giving me more confidence in pronouncing whichever way I like!

  2. My name is Anna, but my mother made the decision to call me AH-nuh, rather than the more common ANNE-uh. It was rough sometimes growing up, and still shocks me a little when people mispronounce it, but I’ve definitely grown into the opinion you expressed—my mother, and now I, get to decide how my name is said! Though, I will say it’s annoying to talk to businesses on the telephone–people I don’t know and won’t talk to again–introduce myself as AH-nuh, and get called ANNE-uh for the rest of the conversation. Oh well! I still prefer my pronunciation.

    • Hello AH-nuh! 🙂 I’m sorry it’s been such a pain for you, but how wonderful that you’ve decided to own your pronunciation and prefer it! My husband has a very traditional name with a traditional pronunciation and the solicitors that call our house butcher it all the time. There’s no winning with them!

  3. We named our daughter Luciana after two female relatives, Lucy and Ann (Plus I LOVE Sts. Lucy and Ann). I’m Hispanic, so we chose the pronunciation Lucy-AH-nah. However, at doctor’s offices, classes, etc, we’ve heard her name pronounced Lucy-ANNE-uh, Lu-chee-ah-nuh or Lu-chana. I can see how someone could easily use another pronunciation, especially someone from an Italian descent. We call her Lucy for short, so daily pronunciation isn’t an issue.

  4. Susie Oakley on

    I love what you said Anna about how even though you have identified your name pronunciation as Ah-nuh, folks in telephone conversations still go on to pronounce it differently!
    The name I have basically been called all my life is Susie, nickname for Susanne. I have always loved the spelling of my Susanne with an s in the middle, and love my Susie spelling with an s in the middle. So, I don’t know if this will give you a chuckle, but even when I write a note and sign my name…so often the reply spells my name differently!
    Love this article, Kate Towne! Thank you!

  5. Our daughter is Kateri (Ka-teer- ee) and we’re considering Zelie for our next bundle! Love this article & will have to share it in a few months when she arrives!

  6. We named our daughter Zelie and it’s not common here at all (Australia). We didn’t know anyone called Zelie so we gave it our own pronunciation and say Zay-lee. I met a French woman a while back and she prounced it the same, but it sounded better with her lovely French accent.

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