« previous post | next post »

For the last few weeks, as I walk by the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology on my way to work, I've been noticing equipment marked "Dzwil" that belongs to a masonry construction company engaged to firm up the foundations.

Naturally, every time I saw that word I said to myself, "I wonder how they pronounce it".

This morning, I had an opportunity to ask one of the workmen how they say it.  Confidently and without any hesitation, he blurted out "Dizwill".

I told him that I study languages and I would have expected something different, which I demonstrated to him, pronouncing the consonant cluster together followed by a glide.  The worker was astonished and said, "I'm going over to tell the boss."

Of course, the boss knows how to say his own surname, and that's "Dizwill".  The worker and the boss were humored by my stodgy pronunciation.

I suppose that "Dzwil" is a contraction of the Polish surname "Dzwilewski".  For the latter, this website provides the following pronunciation keys:



If that is actually how "Dzwilewski" is supposed to be pronounced, then could we extrapolate for "Dzwil" something like "juhl"?

On the other hand, there is an article on the initial "dz-" in Wikipedia which states:

Dz is a digraph of the Latin scriptPolishKashubianLatvianLithuanianSlovak, and Hungarian to represent /d͡z/.

According to this, [Dzwil] would be /d͡zwil/.

The pronunciation of surnames, especially those that are non-English, even by the owners of those surnames themselves, can be mystifying, almost whimsical at times.  Here are some examples:

1. members of the same extended family in America pronouncing "Naquin" both à la française and style anglais; ditto for "Boucher"

2. the radically different pronunciation of "Quincy" in different parts of the Boston area

3. people who have never met me but know who I am pronounce my name in many different ways and correspondingly make a variety of assumptions about my ethnicity, from Scottish to Jewish to Austrian German; in my whole life I have only once "corrected" a person because that was in front of a large audience of linguists — otherwise, I really don't mind how people pronounce my surname, but some of my siblings probably do

4. even a name as famous, short, and seemingly simple as "Sapir" can be perplexing; see this post, and especially this comment (a Duke professor helped me figure that one out definitively)

5. I wonder how another Duke luminary, Mike Krzyzewski, pronounces his own surname and how many different ways Blue Devils' players and fans pronounce it; easier just to say "Coach K"

6. the distinguished Penn Sinologist, Derk Bodde, would introduce himself as "Derek Bod", which never ceased to amaze and amuse me; in Chinese I've seen it written as bódé 博德 and dé 卜德

And then there's "Xi", which at least one person interpreted as "11":

"'Eleven Jinping': Indian TV fires anchor over blooper" (9/19/14).

[Thanks to Ben Zimmer]


  1. Ken Miner said,

    November 3, 2015 @ 1:05 pm

    A Polish general named Tadeusz Kościuszko helped us out (the US) during the Revolutionary War. There are statues of him; there are bridges and buildings named after him. And everywhere – incredibly enough, since it's impossible to get it out of the spelling – his name is pronounced "Koskiosko", that is [kaskiˈaskow]. (Stress on the third syllable.) At least I have never heard it pronounced any other way. If you pronounced it correctly, even approximately, no one would know who you meant.

  2. Walter Burley said,

    November 3, 2015 @ 1:09 pm

    After years of lurking around Language Log, at last my opportunity has come: How should Roman Jakobson's surname be pronounced?

  3. Andrew Watts said,

    November 3, 2015 @ 1:17 pm

    For Coach K, Wikipedia agrees with my father in law (Duke '93, PhD) that it's /ʃəˈʃɛfski/. He's well enough known that I think fans (and even Duke haters) are pretty consistent in saying it his preferred way.

  4. Andrew Watts said,

    November 3, 2015 @ 1:19 pm

    Oops. Should have read the Wikipedia article further, because it answers your question more:

    The family name was originally Krzyżewski (IPA: [kʂɨˈʐɛfskʲi]), and while the media and general public pronounces it /ʃəˈʃɛfski/ shə-shef-ski, his own pronunciation is /ʒəˈʒɛvski/ zhə-zhev-ski.[6]

  5. mike said,

    November 3, 2015 @ 1:23 pm

    @Victor Mair, are you leaving us in suspense as to how you your own self pronounce your surname?

  6. Andrew Watts said,

    November 3, 2015 @ 1:29 pm

    @Waltker Burley

    Roman Jakobson's surname is Якобсо́н in Russian, so presumably /jakobson/. It's an Ashkenazi Jewish (Yiddish, essentially) surname.

  7. Alon Lischinsky said,

    November 3, 2015 @ 1:31 pm

    FWIW, Polish ⟨dz⟩ is indeed /d͡z/. I assume that the explanation above suggests /dʒ/ as the closest analogue in the English phonological inventory (and elides the medial /v/ from ⟨dzwi⟩ because /dʒv/ is phonotactically impossible in this language).

    @Walter Burley: if you're following the Russian original, with stress in the last syllable: /ja.kobˈson/ [i.kəpˈson] would be a faithful transcription, I believe (something like e-cuhp-SON, if you don't read IPA). I would find it extremely pedantic to hear it pronounced that way in English conversation, though.

  8. Jarek Weckwerth said,

    November 3, 2015 @ 1:34 pm

    Dzwilewski is not a possible Polish word/name. The only reasonably frequent Polish word that starts with dzw is dzwon 'bell'. Note the following /o/. If you have a following /i/, the affricate (and the /v/) must be palatalized, resulting in Dźwilewski. So the former is just an American diacritic-less spelling. Google searches confirm this: Dzwilewski brings up only American results, and Dźwilewski only Polish ones.

    The corresponding pronunciation would be /dʑviˈlɛfski/ where I didn't bother to mark the palatalization on the /v/ and /k/ because it's not distinctive. Not really pronounceable for English speakers.

  9. Jarek Weckwerth said,

    November 3, 2015 @ 1:37 pm

    Oh, forgot the Google links for those who don't have Polish diacritics (haha):



  10. Jarek Weckwerth said,

    November 3, 2015 @ 1:40 pm

    Oh, and the pronunciation of Kościuszko is discussed in a reasonable way in a note on Wikipedia. For some reason it's not given at the beginning of the article. But the original is even crazier than Dźwilewski from the point of view of English phonotactics.

  11. Francois Lang said,

    November 3, 2015 @ 1:46 pm

    Call them up and see how they pronounce it

    John H. Dzwil Contracting Company
    Regional Advisory Board 2
    580 Juniper Drive
    Blue Bell, PA 19442
    Phone: (215) 487-2108
    Fax: (215) 540-0162

    Mr. John Dzwil

  12. J. W. Brewer said,

    November 3, 2015 @ 1:51 pm

    "kuh-SHOOS-koh" is at a minimum a common and acceptable-variant AmEng pronunciation of Kosciuszko (spelled without diacriticals, of course), at least in the context of the Kosciuszko Bridge joining Brooklyn to Queens.

  13. David L said,

    November 3, 2015 @ 2:26 pm

    A friend of mine used to work with a guy whose last name was Nguyen, pronounced 'win' (he was American). So I said to my friend, that's nice, but do you know how to pronounce Ng? And then I did my best impression of a goldfish opening and closing its mouth.

  14. Yerushalmi said,

    November 3, 2015 @ 2:28 pm

    Sapir is a not-uncommon Jewish given name and surname, and I had always assumed that the "Sapir" in "Sapir-Whorf" was Jewish. Which, looking it up now, it turns out he is.

  15. Joel Walmsley said,

    November 3, 2015 @ 2:58 pm

    I immediately thought "Dizwill" because of the Taiwanese fountain pen manufacturer TWSBI (, which everyone pronounces "Twizbee"…

  16. Anschel Schaffer-Cohen said,

    November 3, 2015 @ 3:06 pm

    No one seems to know how my father's (Russian Jewish) family ended up with a German(ish) surname, Schaffer. (I don't believe the German word has a Yiddish cognate; if it did, it would almost certainly be shefer שעפֿער, with an e.) My great grandparents pronounced it /ˈʃeɪfɚ/; my grandfather, supposedly on the advice of his high school German teacher, changed his pronunciation to /ˈʃæfɚ/, with the result that I pronounce the name differently from my cousins.

    Meanwhile, my first-generation American girlfriend pronounces her last name (Nguyen) as /nuˈjɛn/ because that's the only way non-Vietnamese Americans will recognize it. Presumably her descendants won't even be aware they're saying it "wrong".

    Finally, the discussion of Kosciusko reminded me of this lovely guide to pronouncing New York City place names, produced by local NPR affiliate WNYC.

  17. shubert said,

    November 3, 2015 @ 3:20 pm

    As for "Xi" as "11":
    In Mao's words, CCP had 10 line struggles. After the fall of the "Gang of Four", the CPC named it as the eleventh struggle. Deng Xiaoping abandoned this notion.

  18. Sawney said,

    November 3, 2015 @ 3:38 pm

    Mair is definitely a Scottish surname (as well as a German and Yiddish one), but one which is relatively easy to pronounce for English speakers. On the other hand, there's certainly a wheen of Scottish names which cause problems for the unwary: Dalziel, Menzies, Cockburn, Colquhoun, MacLeod, for starters. Mind you, as far as the latter two are concerned, the American versions – at least as far as Hollywood was concerned – reflected their original pronunciation: Cahoon (or sometimes Calhoon), McCloud.
    Dammit, I live near a wee town called Milngavie– but it's pronounced 'Mulguy" (/mɨlˈɡaɪ/) – a source of wonderment and confusion for my non-local and non-native students.

  19. Michal said,

    November 3, 2015 @ 4:06 pm

    It's also possible that the original surname was "Dżwilewski" (note "ż" – z with a dot, not "ź") which does appear to be an authentic Polish surname.

  20. BZ said,

    November 3, 2015 @ 5:16 pm

    Re: Kościuszko, I hear (the bridge in New York) it pronounced as cos-cuse-co (rhymes with excuse-co) by the traffic reporters. My father, being Russian, always says "Costushka", which is probably a better approximation of the original, but not how the locals say it

  21. Matt_M said,

    November 3, 2015 @ 7:11 pm

    Another (even stranger) Kościuszko pronunciation: Mount Kosciuszko, the highest peak in Australia, was also named after Tadeusz Kościuszko. Australians universally pronounce this as /kɒziːˈɒskoʊ/ (cozzy – oss – co). I have no idea how "sc" ended up being pronounced as /z/, or "u" as /ɒ/.

  22. Ralph Hickok said,

    November 3, 2015 @ 9:26 pm

    J. W. Brewer's pronunciation of Kosciuszko is precisely the pronunciation I learned as I grew up in Wisconsin, where there are several memorials to him.

    @Sawnie: Another Scottish name I've come across in the U.S. is "MacEachern," which seems to be pronounced "MacAthern." I've known people with that surname in two widely separated Massachusetts cities, Gloucester and New Bedford.

  23. Michael Watts said,

    November 3, 2015 @ 10:24 pm

    I'd guess "sc" ended up as /z/ to Australians by being interpreted as /s/, like in science.

    Then it got voiced because that's what they do, the same way "Aussie" features a /z/ and not an /s/.

  24. Jakub Wilk said,

    November 4, 2015 @ 4:43 am

    *Dzwilewski* is an actual Polish surname, although less popular than *Dźwilewski*.
    *Dżwilewski* is also a Polish surname, but a very rare one.

  25. Chris C. said,

    November 4, 2015 @ 4:58 am

    My own surname begins with Cs- which makes it impossible for other Americans to spell, even when I first announce I'm going to spell it out for them and then do so. At least half the time they'll reflexively write "Sc-" instead.

    Oddly, when I tracked down my great-grandfather's passenger record from his arrival at Ellis Island, it was written Cz-. The sound supposed to be represented was tʃ, so I suppose our present spelling is correct according to Hungarian orthography. Which is odd, because as far as my great-grandparents was concerned the capital of their native polity was "Pest", but they weren't ethnic Magyars and as far as I know none of them even spoke that language.

    But my whole family now pronounces it as if it were plain S.

  26. Jongseong Park said,

    November 4, 2015 @ 6:11 am

    My long-term plans include producing a pronunciation dictionary with an emphasis on proper names (I already have the germs of a Korean pronunciation dictionary on my website), so I tend to pay attention to how names are pronounced in an adopted language. The way Polish names end up being pronounced in English and other languages is quite interesting, since Polish orthography uses letter combinations and letter-sound correspondences that are simply not familiar to speakers of most other languages.

    For Mount Kosciuszko in Australia, /ˌkɒz.i.ˈɒsk.oʊ/ is the traditional pronunciation as Matt_M says, though /kɒ.ˈʃʊʃk.oʊ/ is also used nowadays according to the Macquarie Dictionary.

    Danish tennis player Wozniacki (from Polish Woźniacki) becomes /ʋʌsˈnjɑɡ̊i/ or /ʋʌsniˈɑɡ̊i/ in Danish; German tennis player Lisicki is /li.ˈzɪ.ki/. Woźniacki and Lisicki would be pronounced /vɔʑ.ˈɲaʦ.kʲi/ and /li.ˈɕiʦ.kʲi/ in Polish, respectively.

  27. Mr Punch said,

    November 4, 2015 @ 8:24 am

    Never knew Roman Jakobson myself, but his former secretary did indeed say /jakobson/.

  28. Jongseong Park said,

    November 4, 2015 @ 8:45 am

    Yiddish has regressive voicing assimilation, so Jakobson would be something like [jakɔpsɔn] phonetically. The Russian pronunciation would be something like [(j)ɪkɐpˈson] I guess based on Muscovite vowel reduction.

  29. John Chew said,

    November 4, 2015 @ 9:43 am

    Expert Scrabble player Mark Przybyszewski's name is a little much even for his fellow players, so he usually uses the pronunciation [ˈaɪtʃɑːrt].

    I have to mispronounce my own (originally English toponym) surname as [xeːf] if I want it spelled/understood correctly in Germany and Eastern Europe.

  30. Bloix said,

    November 4, 2015 @ 10:03 am

    A post a few years back generated a lot of interesting and contentious comments on this topic.

    And one at Language Hat:

    In the LL thread I asked the OP, Arnold Zwicky, whether he says Zwikky or Tsvitsky – got no answer.

  31. Robert Coren said,

    November 4, 2015 @ 10:47 am

    Radio broadcasts of Boston Red Sox games have been announced for 30 years or so by a man named Joseph Castiglione. Having a nodding acquaintance with Italian, I would, on seeing that name, pronounce it something like /kasti'ljɔnɛ/, but he introduces himself as /kæstɪgli'oʊn/, and I'm not going to argue with him about it.

  32. Lars said,

    November 4, 2015 @ 10:50 am

    Also Peter Nielsen Ladefoged — no strange consonant clusters, but as a Danish name it would be [ˈpʰḛːd̥ɐˈn̤iːl̤sn̤̩ˈlæ̘ːð̠̤ˑˌfoːð̠̤̩] or something close, not very obvious to anybody but Danes. (His parents were immigrants to England from Denmark; the surname is occupational, 'barn reeve').

    But it seems he used an English pronunciation throughout his career, at least.

    And like John Chew, I have to accommodate the natives, though in Anglophone countries, and pronounce Mathiesen as expected instead of [m̤æˈtʰḭːsn̤̩]

  33. Jerry Friedman said,

    November 4, 2015 @ 12:31 pm

    For comparison with "Dzwil", in my limited (American) experience of the Dzus brand of fasteners, the name is pronounced /ˈdizəs/, rhyming exactly with "Jesus".

  34. CB Shedd said,

    November 4, 2015 @ 2:15 pm

    I'm a native Mississippian from Jones County and have driven through Kosciusko, MS, many times. The Wikipedia page for the city gives /ˌkɒsiˈʌskoʊ/ as the pronunciation, but I think the first /s/ is voiced and the STRUT vowel (as represented in the Wikipedia pronunciation) is better represented by the DRESS vowel.,_Mississippi

    In the clip below with Kosciusko Major Jimmy Cockcroft, you can hear a few instances of the Mayor and the radio announcer saying the town's name throughout the interview.

  35. Coby Lubliner said,

    November 4, 2015 @ 5:29 pm

    @ Chris C: The football player Larry Csonka's surname was pronounced as though written "Zonka", though it would have been no more difficult to pronounce as the more nearly authentic "Chonka." My guess is that initial Cs- was seen as equivalent to X- and pronounced accordingly.

  36. Victor Mair said,

    November 4, 2015 @ 7:01 pm

    @Francois Lang

    No need to call the company; I asked them directly, person to person.

    I walked by the construction site at the Penn Museum again this morning and asked several more workers how to say the name of their company, and they all replied immediately: "Dizwill".

    The first day I asked, the boss was there (I think he was also the owner), and he acknowledged that his workers were saying the name correctly: "Dizwill".

  37. Chris C. said,

    November 4, 2015 @ 8:04 pm

    @Coby — And that's probably why my high school gym teacher insisted on pronouncing my name as if it started with Z.

    Rather than being equivalent to an X, I'd guess many Americans find [s] rather difficult in some places, and end up voicing it. I hear it all the time from newscasters, most irritatingly in stories involving Israel's capital, where the "s" almost always comes out /z/.

  38. Jonathan said,

    November 4, 2015 @ 8:23 pm

    Brett Favre.

  39. George said,

    November 4, 2015 @ 9:47 pm

    @Jerry Friedman My parents were close with the Dzus family when William (Volodymyr) was running it; I even visited the factory a few times. The owner was from Galicia and considered himself Ukrainian; he and his son pronounced it "Joos" (I don't know IPA, but think "juice" with a shortened vowel sound, or "Джус" in Ukrainian.) For Americans they mostly pronounced it as "Zeus." So the "Jesus" variant likely crept in after Theodore (the owner's son) sold the company.

  40. hoxxy said,

    November 4, 2015 @ 11:53 pm

    If you want a real challenge, try pronouncing the celebrity's name of "Hoda Kotb".

  41. Y said,

    November 5, 2015 @ 1:40 am

    What's Czysz-ling At Motoczysz?

  42. Y said,

    November 5, 2015 @ 1:43 am

    (That article was written by someone named Ets-Hokin, another remarkable name.)

  43. Jayarava said,

    November 5, 2015 @ 7:01 am

    I moved from New Zealand to the UK 13 years ago and people still hear my surname, Attwood, as "Edward" when I say it. Inluss Oi uz a faike push eccint.

  44. Jongseong Park said,

    November 5, 2015 @ 8:52 am

    @Chris C., the spelling cz for a [tʃ]-like postalveolar affricate is Polish, not Hungarian. In older Hungarian spelling, cz would have represented an alveolar [ts], written simply c in modern spelling. Polish-style spelling was also used in the past for Czech, hence the English spelling corresponding to what is now written as Čech. In Hungarian, [tʃ] would actually be written as cs.

  45. Rodger C said,

    November 5, 2015 @ 8:55 am

    Jakobson's disciples at IU forty years ago pronounced it YAHkobson.

    There is an Uz, KY (ref. Job 1:1) which I've been told is pronounced "Yoozy."

  46. Jerry Friedman said,

    November 5, 2015 @ 11:01 am

    George: Thanks for the interesting information. I suspect, though, that the "Jesus" pronunciation might have been used before the sale by people who had no contact with the owners.

  47. ryanwc said,

    November 5, 2015 @ 11:43 pm

    I have little to add, except that, having almost neer met someone with my surname outside the family, I have to give a shout out to John Chew, and mention that though I've never traveled in Eastern Europe, I had a related experience playing soccer on a team of Serbians in Chicago. The league was serious enough that refs would check each team in using ID cards. Walking down the line before the game, mangling one name after another, refs would often look at my ID with some relief – at last, a name I can pronounce, and call me Ryan [xeːv] .

  48. Theodore said,

    November 6, 2015 @ 2:33 pm

    In high school, I had math teacher named Wrzeszcz, which he pronounced /ɹɛʃ/. That was easy enough for students to say, but when it came to writing it, many would just use "Mr. Z³".

  49. David Marjanović said,

    November 6, 2015 @ 9:01 pm

    Lisicki would be pronounced […] /li.ˈɕiʦ.kʲi/ in Polish

    Except that Sabine Lisicki is a woman, so she'd be Lisicka in Poland in the first place.

  50. Roger Lustig said,

    November 6, 2015 @ 11:17 pm

    @Anschel Schaffer-Cohen: it certainly wasn't spelled that way in the old country, because they used Cyrillic or Hebrew letters, depending. And even if and when it was in our alphabet, say, on the steamship ticket, there's no telling how (and to match what language) it was transliterated. SCHÄFFER is a fair transliteration of the Yiddish SHEFER–if, in fact, the word meant "shepherd." (Yes, SCHÄFER would work too. There's a SCHÄFER-SCHÄFFER marriage somewhere in my family tree.) And an umlaut–or extra vowel–can easily get dropped along the way.

    However: the Yiddish word Shafer (pronounced to rhyme with "coffer", more or less) means "agent, manager"–in other words, something of a cognate to "factor" (which brings us back to the German "schaffen" as an origin). In that case, the 2nd F in your name could have been inserted to *preserve* the pronunciation of the first vowel.

    Alexander Beider's A Dictionary of Jewish Surnames from the Russian Empire is the standard reference for this sort of thing.

  51. Roger Lustig said,

    November 6, 2015 @ 11:26 pm

    @Theodore: for a brief and shining moment, the San Diego Padres had a catcher named Doug Gwosdz. (No doubt the s was once a z.)

    His nickname?


  52. Chris C. said,

    November 7, 2015 @ 4:08 am

    @ Jongseong Park — Thanks but what's your point? I believe I said exactly that the Cs- spelling was according to Hungarian orthography. And since my family originates in a part of Galicia now in Polish territory, with nearby Polish speakers, that probably explains why my great-grandfather saw Cz- as a valid alternate spelling.

    I'm not sure what alphabet he might have used natively. Might have actually been Cyrillic, so which of the available latinica transliterations he chose to use on any given occasion may not have been terribly important to him. Meaning we ended up with the Hungarian option more or less by accident.

  53. Jongseong Park said,

    November 7, 2015 @ 7:33 am

    @Chris C., sorry, I misread your comment and thought you said that the spelling with Cz- was correct according to Hungarian orthography. Apologies!

  54. Robert Coren said,

    November 7, 2015 @ 9:54 am

    @Roger Lustig: My mother's maiden name was Scheiner (pronounced like the slang term for a black eye), and I'm pretty sure, based on something I heard my grandfather say, that it had originally been (my guess at modern transcription) Shayner — anyway, with the stressed vowel more or less /e/, and I assume it to be the Yiddish/High German version of "Schöner" ("handsome").

  55. Robert Coren said,

    November 7, 2015 @ 10:00 am

    A bunch of years ago, I was on a newsgroup (remember those?) with someone with an Eastern European surname whose pronunciation was not immediately obvious to English-speakers, and several people asked him how it should be pronounced, always getting the answer "any way you like", which made me want to take him by the virtual shoulders and shake him (actually, I often had that reaction to this individual, but that's neither here nor there). I wish I (or someone) had thought to ask, "When you make a phone call to someone you're doing business with, how do *you* pronounce your name?"

RSS feed for comments on this post