Let’s talk about pronunciation

I love a “correctly” spelled and pronounced name as much as the next name nerd. But in my years (and years) of reading reading 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/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. For the life of me, I can’t remember ever hearing anyone who works there actually say the name Kateri, but I’m sure they must have 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 (nickname Kat, so cute!).

Behindthename.com’s entry for Kateri didn’t even venture a pronunciation, and among the people who commented the following pronunciations emerged as ones they’d heard used or assumed were correct: KAY-teree, kah-tuh-REE, kah-TAR-ie (all I think of with this is the John Wayne movie Hatari and the Atari video game system), 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?

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 twelfth grade, 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.

Yes, Sister.

How do you say Kateri and Gianna? What other names can you think of that have different pronunciations? (Coming very soon, a spotlight on the grandaddy name of split pronunciation opinions: Xavier.)


23 thoughts on “Let’s talk about pronunciation

  1. I say “kah-TEER-ee”, “JAHN-ah”, and “ZAY-vee-er” (but I *almost* say “ZAYV-yer”). But growing up, I said “KAT-er-eye”! Lol!!! I I think that was just because I’d only seen the name but never heard anyone say it. I will say “jee-AH-nah”, if that’s what the family prefers. But I’m not able to make myself say “eggs-AY-vee-er”. Xavier is one of my favorite names and I just don’t like it the other way. Also, I finally had to remove a long-time favorite name from my list because I just couldn’t count on people pronouncing it the way I prefer. The name is Amelia, and I prefer “a-MEE-lee-ah” and can’t stand “a-MEAL-yuh”. But I live in the western US and there’s a third pronunciation that several of my friends and family members use, and when I realized they weren’t even able to hear the difference, I scrapped the name. This pronunciation is “a-MILL-yuh”.


  2. When I was growing up in Catholic schools, the pronunciation of Blessed Kateri was always “Kuh-TEER-ee”. Now I live near a St. Kateri parish and they insist it is pronounced “KAT-ur-EE” and get quite annoyed when you say it differently. I just can’t do it though. It doesn’t sound ‘correct’ to my ear and I knew two girls named “Kuh-TEER-ee” in childhood. One of my daughters has a quite unusual Irish name that almost everyone mispronounces when they read it (doctor’s office, etc). I don’t regret naming her that because it is totally her name BUT I cringe when I think of her, as a teenager or older and hating her own name because it is always said incorrectly. However, my own name -a fairly simple one- was ALWAYS mispronounced-and still is, so I think she can cope with it. If she truly hates it, she has two wonderful middle names she could go by and just use her first initial. As for your other two names in the post, in our area, we say “GEE-ah-na” and Xavier, although an unusual name for this area, would typically be pronounced X-ay-vier. Loved this post, thank you!!!


    • We do that too — if we’ve given a more unusual first name we balance it with a more “normal” middle name, and vice versa. My mom was just telling me that kah-TEER-ee was the pronunciation she always knew growing up too, so I think that must have been the way it was generally said until more recently when she became more known. Maybe?


    • From what I’ve read, pronunciation in the Kanienkehaka (Mohawk) language of St. Kateri’s name is sometimes described as gah-dah-LEE degh-Agh-WEEdta, or something close to gah tah LEE deh gah GWEE tah,

      I come from the upper midwest, with a great many Native American language named places, and one thing that seems to be rather consistent is that in names and words, the spoken accent is on the penultimate syllable (meaning, next-to-last) if the word is at least four or more syllables long. And, the accent (stress) is almost always on the last or the first syllable if a name is three syllables.

      A couple of examples – Mahtomedi is mah-toe-MEE-die. The stress is on the penultimate syllable.
      Osseo is OSS-ee-oh. Osceola is oss-ee-OH-luh. On shorter Native American words, the accent might be on the first syllable or the last, but seldom on the middle syllable.

      These general pronunciations are for midwestern Native American heritage languages, especially because many were displaced from states further east as Euro-white settlers pushed into their previous homeland regions.

      Two things to remember, please. Many, many words were learned and taught in previous centuries by people who had ONLY read them but had never heard a native speaker of that language pronounce them. So the name Cairo is pronounced KY-roh in some states, but KAY-roh someplace else. Madrid is meh-DRID in Spain but in Iowa a town’s name is MADD-rid. In southern Missouri, a town is named New Madrid which is also pronounced MADD-rid rather than the way it’s pronounced in Spain.

      There are exceptions to every rule or generalization, of course. Anoka, in Minnesota, is ah-NO-kuh. Accented on the middle syllable of a three-syllable name.

      And also, depending on whether a word in the English language came from an Anglo-Saxon or a Germanic origin, don’t make a mistake about words with “th,” In German, it’s spelled that way but pronounced as if it were just the “t” sound. The “h” has no effect. So, in German and Scandinavian names, Thor is Torr. And Neanderthal, the prehistoric human species which was first named for the Neander Valley where they were first found, is more correctly said as nee-ANN-dur-tal, not nee-ANN-dur-thawl as it is often pronounced in America.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thank you. As has been said elsewhere, when it comes to proper names, many variations can be correct – FOR THAT PARTICULAR PERSON. It’s not always just one way with no variants.

        The name Colin is most often pronounced as CAWL-in. But Gen. Colin Powell (Ret.) pronounces his given name as COLE-in.So, Cawl-in is correct for most people but Cole-in is also correct, but for some other people. I think too about given names such as Evelyn. In most traditions, most of the English-speaking ones at least, it was traditionally pronounced Ev-uh-linn for a girl, but as Eve-uh-linn (using a hard “e” as in eave or even) when it was given to a boy.For example, the author Evelyn Waugh, where his given name was EVE-uh-linn, or it may have been closer to EVE-linn.Because sometimes, instead of being pronounced as (almost) three separate syllables, it’s often common to hear the second and third syllables more or less elided together, making the middle one nearly silent or just barely glossed over so that it’s heard nearly as being just two noticeable syllables, EVE-linn. Names are fun. My middle school music teacher’s surname was Wisniewski — and that was after the Polish spelling had been Americanized out of it by his forebears in the US.But as pronounced? It was vish-NEF-skee. No “W”  sound to it at all.First syllable just like fish except with a vee instead of an eff sound. And, since he also performed as a cabaret and band singer as his off-hours vocation, professionally he went by a performance name of simply “Mr. V.” We could play with names all evening, but I’ll let you go. Congrats on the site you manage. It’s a good one.

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      • Polish names do tend to follow the “w = v” rule as that how it was pronounced in Poland! So much so that I would be surprised if your music teacher used a w-sound with that spelling :). Wojtyla is a more famous one that comes to mind! (voy-TEE-ya) The Polish alphabet and language is interesting, and even attempts to Americanize often still resulted in pronunciations that wouldn’t be familiar to the way we say things. My grandmother’s given name was a form of Teresa in Polish (pronounced CHESS-lahv-uh… I couldn’t even begin to spell it, but I am sure it had a “w” for the “v” sound). “Chessie” was a common nickname. She opted for “Tessie” in the US, but by doing that, the spelling of her “new” name looked nothing like her Polish name!

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      • I would love to find it on paper someday! She always told the story of her name verbally! And her bills etc said “Tessie” (not sure if that was her legal name, though).

        Liked by 1 person

      • A dear friend of mine also had the last name Olszewski (ol-SHEV-ski). He was constantly saying, “No, not Ol-zoo-ski” haha. I know some do accept the “ooski” pronunciation with the “ewski” ending, but others kept to the “evski” pronunciation.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Oh no! I sort of pride myself on being able to (often, not always) figure out the pronunciations of really ethnic names, but I would totally say Ol-zoo-ski! My husband’s dad and his siblings changed their very Polish last name (their dad was a Polish immigrant) to an anglicization of it — the old way had the w-pronounced-v, the new way has a w-pronounced-w.


      • Polish surnames in America are the hardest, haha. I totally wanted to say Ol-zoo-ski when I met him too!


  3. We named our daughter Evalena, an obscure German name, a more common form is Evalina. We pronounce it eh-vuh-LAY-nuh, although I think it really is supposed to be pronounced eh-vuh-LEE-nuh. No one knows how to pronounce it and even close family have a hard time saying it and spelling it, especially because we call her Evie (EE-vee). We named her for Mary, the “New Eve,” and St. Helen (Lena).

    I don’t regret naming her Evalena and absolutely adore it, I also love all the nicknames!


    • I come from a family fluent in German (and speak it some myself). With your spelling, to are pronouncing it correctly. The “e” has an “ay” sound more than an “ee” sound. In fact, my grandmother’s name is Helene (pronounced “heh-LAY-nah” in German), so you were spot on in choosing your spelling. Beautiful name! (Yes, Evalina would have the long “ee” due to the “i”).


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