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The NameShouts Journey
August 28, 2021

How we built our phonetic spelling guide

Hayley Ostrega
Hayley Ostrega
Linguistics Expert
min read

- Hayley Ostrega, Linguistics Research and Data Associate.

“What’s in a name?”

Societies have been growing more diverse, and thank goodness we have reached an era where individual authenticity is celebrated. This may come in the form of one’s hobbies, interests, and fashion; the hipster culture is in!

What about the individual difference we are given at birth? That’s right: our name! In Shakespeare's play, Romeo and Juliet, Juliet famously exclaims “What’s in a name?” To that, we answer, it's our language, heritage, and culture.

In fact, our name can shape our lives. Discussed in an article in the New Yorker, recent research suggests that our names can impact our grades in school, profession, who we marry, where we live… the list goes on.

When there is a lack of effort in pronouncing somebody’s name correctly, there can be long-term repercussions.

As Gerardo Ochoa put it in his TedTalk, when he was called “Jerry” during his 5th-grade roll call, “Not only did she [the teacher] change my name, but the rest of my life”.

Our names are our identity. People with “difficult” names shouldn’t have to give this up to accommodate others! In an interview with actress Uzoamaka Abuda, she recalled when she asked her mother to change her name to “Zoe”.

For crying out loud: singer and businesswoman Rihanna has been active since 2005, but we only recently started pronouncing her name right! It's “ree-AH-nah” and not “ree-AW-nah": her song “What’s My Name” was a cry for help! The ignorance must stop. Come on, do it for Rihanna!

phonetic spelling of rihanna

Spelling: not the best starting point

To pronounce names right, using a name’s spelling can be risky business. If there’s one golden rule to name pronunciation, it's this: never trust spelling. Spelling is a bully that is just out to deceive us.

There are exceptions to this, i.e., languages that are consistent in their spelling rules. Try pronouncing Italian Vittorio and Elena or Spanish Pablo and Alba; aside from a foreign accent, you can be fairly accurate at the pronunciation.

But ABC is not always easy as 123: there are many languages that don’t use the Roman alphabet (A, B, C, … X, Y, Z) and their transliterations (aka, its Roman alphabet approximation) miss subtle nuances in pronunciation. Even English, a language that does use the Roman alphabet, is known for being a spelling disaster. Naturally, English is one of the only languages that has a spelling bee!

Enter: Phonetic Spelling

If spelling is the bully and we are the victim, NameShouts is the cool kid who stands up for us and saves the day.

We understand how important correct name pronunciation is to reduce teasing in the classroom. It can also help you land your dream job in an international company, close an important deal with foreign customers, and of course, be a courteous individual who is respectful to the identities of others.

Each name on our database has an audio recording of its pronunciation and “phonetic respelling.

The latter is the spelling of a name that is representative of the pronunciation.

For example, the phonetic respelling of Irish Mairead and Seamus is respectively “muh-reyd” and “shey-mus”. Pretty helpful when a name’s pronunciation doesn’t resemble its spelling much, right?

We planned to use our phonetic respelling as a simplified aid to the recording process. However, after speaking with hundreds of our customers, we learned users enjoyed the simplicity of the phonetic respelling and used it even more than the recordings!

This was our time to take it up a notch.

Getting by with a little help... from the IPA

We wanted to build a simple, intuitive tool made accessible to users who cannot use audio, are hard-of-hearing, or just need quick guidance. To do so, we sought guidance from the speech sound bible: the one and only IPA.  

The International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) makes up all the phonemes (speech sounds, i.e. what humans are capable of producing) that exist in the world’s languages.

For example, the phoneme [i] represents the ee sound (as in happy and cookie) and [ʃ] the sh sound (as in posh and chef). Each language uses a subset of phonemes, and not all languages use the same subset.

Linguists, lexicographers, speech-language pathologists, and other related professionals make use of the IPA to easily talk about speech sounds, rather than using language-specific pronunciation rules.

At NameShouts, we use the IPA in the creation of phonetic respellings for each name in our database.

These are standardized and built according to the spelling rules of each language.

For example, if you are staying at Walter's Airbnb for your next trip to Germany, our respelling guide advises you to call him “val-tah." If it's Alejandra’s in Mexico, our respelling guide suggests you call her “ah-leh-han-drah”.

From "Respelling" to Phonetic (IPA-based) Spelling

So far, we have standardized and language-specific respelling guides for English, French, Spanish, Arabic, and Hindi — and this is just the start! Unfortunately, this only solves one issue.

For one, English is still inconsistent in its pronunciation.

It’s ironic that English, the lingua franca and most commonly learned second language, has the most inconsistent pronunciation patterns!

As famously noted by playwright George Bernard Shaw, fish could be spelled as “ghoti”: gh is pronounced as it is in rough (making an “f” sound), o as it sounds in women (making an “ih” sound) and ti as it is in nation (making a “sh” sound). Keep this in mind the next time you order some ghoti and tchoghs. (Try and decipher the latter. Look at the end for the answer).

Second, when we phonetically respell names from languages that don't use the Roman alphabet, we may lose information about a name's pronunciation that exists in the language's script.

On the bright side, our respellings within those languages (e.g., Hebrew, Mandarin, Russian) remain consistent.  

For example, the Hebrew letter “ח” (the sound in the exclamation “ugh!”) doesn’t have an exact counterpart in the Roman alphabet. We chose to respell it as kh, but outside of NameShouts, the is no consensus - ch and h is also used. Because of this, we prepped a guide on Hebrew names helping people get more familiar with our system.

Last is the difficulty in creating these “respelling symbols”.

While it’s easy that [p] = “p” and [ʒ] = “j”, how do we create two respelling symbols for the “th” in Catherine vs. Heather? These are two different sounds, yet we run into a problem of creating a phonetic spelling that can distinguish them.

After surveying native-speakers on these issues, we found that there is little consensus on how to respell names.

Shown below, this was the case even for common names like Sarah, Margaret, and Lauren! It's impressive enough that there are two pages of respelling for Margaret and Lauren; imagine what would have happened with Rihanna if she hadn't set the record straight!

Phonetic Spelling for Lauren
Phonetic Spelling for Margaret
Phonetic Spelling for Sarah

To prioritize simplicity over precision, we have phonetic spelling symbols corresponding to multiple different sounds. Since our users are mainly anglophone, we make the phonetic respelling intuitive for an English-speaker.

Onward and Upward

To sum it all up, pronouncing somebody’s name correctly is more than just accurately moving your lips and tongue. Because names may reflect one’s heritage, familial values, and culture, making an effort is important.

But names are difficult, and most of us are not well-acquainted with many languages and their pronunciation patterns. With the help of a phonetic spelling alongside an audio recording, unique names can feel more familiar.

Although we have recently revamped the phonetic spellings, making them standardized and language-specific, our goal was building something intuitive and simple.

Simplicity over accuracy.

Our goal for the future is including the IPA entry for each name, similar to websites like Dictionary.com and Merriam-Webster. We’re pulling a Hannah Montana and giving you the best of both worlds: phonetic re-spellings for the user who prioritizes simplicity, and IPA for users who prioritize accuracy. That way, we can be the most precise pronunciation tool around.

ANSWER: chips can be spelled as “tchoghs”: tch as in match (making the “ch” sound), o as in women (making the “ih” sound), gh and is hiccough (making the “p” sound), and s as in sandwich (there is no puzzle here).

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