The Grammarphobia Blog

Name calling

Q: I was listening to a podcast that included comments about the former National Review columnist John Derbyshire. One person pronounced the surname DAH-bi-shuh (like the English county) but two others pronounced it DAR-bee-shir. Any comment?

A: The pronunciation of a personal name is up to the person who wears it. John Derbyshire, the former National Review columnist, could pronounce his name “Dosher” and be within his rights.

The correct way to say a person’s name is—within reason—the way he says it himself. So if someone named Jones pronounces it “Johns,” then “Johns” it is (in speech, anyway).

(The Monty Python boys went a bit overboard, though, in pronouncing the name “Luxury Yacht” as Throatwobbler Mangrove.)

There’s no rule that a personal name must be pronounced like a similarly spelled geographic term.

However, John Derbyshire, an American citizen who was born in Britain, does pronounce his last name like the county in England. And when pronounced in modern British speech, with its characteristic dropping of r’s, it sounds like “Dobbyshuh.”

In a column on Taki’s Magazine, Derbyshire renders the pronunciation of his name this way: DAH-bi-shuh.

But let’s not be silly. You can’t expect American commentators to speak with British accents. That would be taking Mr. Derbyshire’s personal preference too far.

Americans pronounce their r’s, so an American would naturally say DER-bee-shur or DAR-bee-shur or DAR-bee-shir or DER-bee-shir. Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged, lists all those pronunciations.

And as a historical note, we might add that the r’s in words like “Derbyshire” were not always dropped in British speech.

Before the American Revolution, the British pronounced their r’s pretty much the way Americans do today, as we’ve written on our blog in 2008 and in 2012.

So in pronouncing the r’s in Derbyshire, Americans are simply retaining a feature of earlier British speech.

If you’d like to read more about pronouncing names, we touched on the subject in a posting in 2009 about the pronunciation of foreign words. And we wrote a blog item in 2007 about the pronunciation of names ending in “stein.”

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