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  • Writer's pictureDevon Noel Lee

Does Your Family History Need a Pronunciation Guide?

Do you know how to say the name Ithamar? What about the name Øinas?

More importantly, will your readers know how to say these names?

Will You Make Your Ancestor Wince?

I hated the first day of school with a name like Devon Noel Geiszler. Growing up, I would hear,

"Mr. Dee-Von Nol Geez-lure, please raise your hand."

[Oh, My Heck! Can I die now?]

"Ms. Smith, my name is Miss Dev-in No-well Guys-ler.

Every time I hear my name misspoke, I wonder if I would prefer the name my mother originally wanted - Cynnamyn Rayn - rather than the name I have.

Would a weird but correctly pronounced name be better than hearing my name butchered repeatedly?

If you wince when you hear your name misspoken, imagine what happens when we fail to pronounce the names of our ancestors.

Are we making them cringe in their graves?

Unbeknown to me, I had incorrectly said my Canadian great-grandfather's name, Ithamer Comfort. I thought you said EYE-tha-mer instead of ith-a-Mer (where the 'ith' rhymes the word with. Sorry, great-grandpa!

How can we prevent irritating our ancestors when writing family histories about them?

Options for a Few Unfamiliar Words

If we have a hand full of unfamiliar terms in our family stories, we have two primary options for informing our read about how to say the words.

Footnotes for pronunciation prompts in family story.


Whenever you see a note at the end of a page that references part of your story with small letters or numbers in the body of the text, you see footnotes in action.

Notice the small number in the text above (called a superscript) with an associated note at the bottom of a page. This reference to how to pronounce Øinas does not disrupt the reading flow.

If you are writing for a general audience, these footnotes work best if you place your genealogy citations at the end of a chapter or book.

  • If your reader knows how to pronounce this Norwegian word, they will skip the reference.

  • If they do not, a quick look at the bottom of the page will provide the pronunciation so they can continue happily reading.

When writing stories for an academic audience, then you can include your pronunciation references in the mix of your citations at the bottom of a page.

In-text assistance

Actually, a more correct term is parenthetical references, but I like simplified terminology.

The term you use is not as relevant as what you are doing for your readers.

As you are writing about an ancestor, whenever you include a name or place that might be unfamiliar, insert a pronunciation within parentheses (). Do this the first time the name or place appears in your story.

There might be times you will want to insert the pronunciation a second time in a lengthier book, but we can discuss that in the comments section if you wish.

Here’s an example of how this technique is executed well. It comes from a writing workshop participant and is used with his permission:

Honoré Philippe Bailly (pronounced ON-or-ray feel-EEP BY-yee) was born on June 20th, 1779, in Varennes, Province de Québec, British North America…

Yesterday I was helping my youngest son pronounce words as he read about Great Zimbabwe and the Mutapa Empire. We frequently saw in-text pronunciation references link this one. Your readers, particularly young ones, will be familiar with this technique.

Which should you use?

As with every writing decision in the editing phase (not the drafting phase), the techniques you use depend on two things:

  • Your audience.

  • Your personal preferences

Do not determine your audience until AFTER you have completed the first draft. Once you have a general idea of your material and which audience will benefit from your story, you can decide which will work best.

I will note that I tend to mark up my drafts with footnotes and comments, something I explained in this blog post. Once I determine my audience, and I enter the formatting phase of the writing process, then I make sure I consistently use one pronunciation technique or the other.

Here are a few tips that may help guide your decision:

  • Young readers are familiar with in-text pronunciations, thanks to their school textbooks.

  • Older, general audience members do not like their text interrupted if they know how to pronounce something. Therefore, superscripts are better.

  • Academic readers will appreciate either version, so use either your personal preference or whatever guidelines you receive from the organization that may publish your story.

A Guide for Multiple Words

What happens if your story has more than a handful of names and places that might be unfamiliar to your audience?

If you read Princess of the Sword by Lynn Kurland, you would struggle with names like these:

  • Gair of Ceangail

  • Neroche

  • Mhorghain Tòrr Dòrainn

  • Adhémar

  • Sarait

  • Sgur of Ainneneamh

  • Beinn òrain

  • Mochriadhemiach.

While I enjoyed this novel with my teens, we struggled to enjoy it fully because we didn’t know how to pronounce these fantasy names. I looked for a pronunciation guide, and there was none.

However, for Game of Thrones fans, entire Wikis are dedicated to helping you know how to say the various unfamiliar person and place names.

In the article, Does Your Story Need a Pronunciation Guide, Fred Rayworth suggests creating a pronunciation guide when:

"there are enough words sprinkled throughout the book that the reader is going to stumble over them... This list, if extensive enough to require a list, is either a list of made up, obscure or foreign words that the average reader may or may not want to learn how to pronounce."

Since we're writing family history, a pronunciation guide would include obscure or foreign words that a reader might not be familiar with.

For instance, if you are writing a book in English but your ancestors are from a non-English speaking country, you will likely need a pronunciation guide. One of my workshop students had this list of Norwegian names.

When Svenning Terjesen Øinas was born on May 28, 1844, in Åmli, Aust-Agder, Norway, his father, Terje Anderson, was 38, his mother, Helje Olsdatter, was 36 and his brother, Anders was 8 years-old. Åmli is a neighbor parish to Vegårshei. His parents were tenant farmers who lived at the farm Øinas.

When I attempted to learn how to pronounce many of these words, only a handful of websites had one or two of the names on this list.

Get Help

The best source for knowing how to say family names is to talk to your family members. In my case, I spoke with the granddaughter of Ithamar Comfort. She heard me mispronounce the name and told me how the family said it. Having met her grandfather, she knew better than I how Itahamar’s name was said.

If you do not have ancestors to speak with, reach out to native speakers. Finding them can be challenging. Start with these two options.

  • Seek out persons in your community through Facebook groups and offline social groups to see if anyone speaks the language.

  • Seek out native speakers in genealogy communities or societies both online and off.

  • Contact your local library for suggestions on what community resources are available for learning a language.

Thanks to viewers like you, I reached out and found help from Ann-Karin. She kindly made a video for me to hear the spoken words. Thank you so much!

If you want to learn how to write phonetically, try these resources:

Please, Consider Adding Pronunciations

By adding pronunciations to your book, you will:

  • Help your reader find how to say the names and places that can not be easily found online or in a reference book.

  • Help a hearing impaired person understand the sounds they should say.

  • Make your story more enjoyable because your reader stumbles less on unfamiliar words.

↪️ Do you want to write a family history book?

Grab your copy of this FREE Writing Guide:

laptop and writing notes with title Free Guide: 5 Steps to Quickly Write Family Histories

Words to Include in a Pronunciation Guide

For a pronunciation guide, include the names of people and places. You do not have to include every first or last name combination. List each surname, given or middle name once. I would recommend dividing place names and person names into separate reference lists.

Place the guide either at the front of the book or in your appendix section. I prefer the guide at the beginning, right after a Table of Contents. That way, I know it was there and not hope that an author included it.

Fred Rayworth also said, "the majority of people like to breeze through a story. When they read, they read for pleasure and entertainment. It’s not like they’re picking up a college textbook. If they have to use a pronunciation guide to read something, it’s more work than pleasure."

With a family history story, your reader will likely want to read for pleasure. However, they are willing to stop and look up how to pronounce their ancestor's name if they stumble into an unfamiliar word.

Make it super easy for them to connect with their past, and your readers will thank you. Granted, it will be unconsciously done, but that's the beauty of writing family histories. We strive for conscience gratitude.

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