Many languages are written using Latin letters, but often these seemingly familiar letters aren't pronounced in the way that we are used to.

For example, an English speaker might read the name Siobhán as siob-hen, pronounce Jorge like George, and Erdogan with a "g" as in "green", while the correct pronunciations are [ʃəv'aːn] she-vaan), [xoɾxe] chorche (with the "x" pronounced like the "ch" in Scottish loch), and [ɛrdoˈan], respectively.

Now probably you all now how to pronounce these names, because you know the Irish singer, the Spanish name is common in the US, and you have heard the Turkish president's name on the news. But there are other Latin-written languages and other names that you aren't familiar with, and you likely would pronounce them wrong.

And children, who often have been exposed less to people and names from foreign cultures than adults, might have even more difficulties reading foreign names, especially if the orthography would be unpronouncable in their mother tongue (such as the Polish name Kowalczyk for an English speaker).

So when you write a Middle Grade book, for children between, say, 8 and 12, and your book features a central character (whose name is mentioned often in the book) from a culture that uses the Latin alphabet, but (some of) the letters are pronounced differently from the way they are spoken in the language that you write in, what is the common approach?

  1. Use only names that exist both in the foreign and the readers' language.

    For example, a person from Germany can be called Peter in an English book.

    What I dislike about this solution is that such a name does not signify the person's foreign origin, while a foreign(-looking) name clearly conveys that fact. If you use an "international" name like Peter, you'll have to remind your readers through other means that the character is a foreigner, such as repeating the fact every now and then.

  2. Use only names that are pronounced (almost) the same in the foreign and the readers' language but are uncommon in the latter.

    For example the Polish name Piotr is pronounced almost the same in Polish as it would be in English.

    This would avoild the pronunciation problem and convey the foreignness of the character.

  3. Use "unpronouncable" names. Maybe provide a guide to the pronunciation of foreign names.

    This is the only way to evoke a sense of exoticism through the names, but might be difficult for many children to deal with and diminish their reading pleasure.

What is the common practice in MG books? Are there MG books with unpronouncable names? (Please give examples!) Or are they completely avoided?

I'm not looking for your personal opinion on the matter, but want to know how this is done in non-self-published fiction. Is there a sort of "rule" for this?

I'm mostly interested in how this affects central characters, that is, characters whose names appear frequently in the book.


Short answer: definitely, absolutely, wholeheartedly 3.

Long answer: Sir Terry Pratchett wrote somewhere that since he was reading a lot as a child, when he was little there were many words he knew only in writing, but had never heard spoken. For example, it was years before he learnt that "ogres" were not pronounced "ogreees". Having a large vocabulary that he couldn't pronounce correctly didn't harm him in any way, nor diminish his joy of reading, but instead excited his imagination. Pratchett then proceeded not writing down to children when he himself wrote for a younger audience. Exciting kids' imaginations is something you're trying to do, right? Then go for it.

Why does it matter that a child wouldn't pronounce a name correctly? So they'll pronounce it incorrectly - it would still sound foreign, look foreign on the page, and evoke the sense of "exoticism" that you're looking for. Furthermore, a child wouldn't know that they're not pronouncing the name correctly. So how could it impede their reading enjoyment? Being 8-12, I was reading Hector Malot (at 6), Jules Verne (at 8) Alexandre Dumas (at 10), and Victor Hugo (at 12). I did not learn until around age 12 that the stress in all the French names is supposed to go on the last syllable. It did not affect my reading pleasure in the slightest.

A pronunciation guide would be helpful. Not being a native English speaker myself, I do not know to this day how one is supposed to pronounce many Irish names. I resort to googling their pronunciation, when I'm not lazy. Tolkien is one example I can think of who gave a detailed pronunciation guide.


Found another example of hard-to-pronounce names in children literature for you: In Diana Wynne Jones's Dalemark Quartet, there are names like "Cenblith", "Mayelbridwen" and "Ynynen".

  • Thank you, Galastel. The Dalemark Quartet is listed as "12 and up" on Amazon, so may not be aimed towards my age group, and Tolkien's only childrens book, The Hobbit, has no pronunciation guide (and no unpronouncable names, as far as I recall; the most difficult ones are probably Roäc and Golfimbul, both not major characters). – user29032 Mar 24 '18 at 9:52
  • Also, you may not have been an average child, if you read Hector Malot at 6. Maybe your experience is not really that representative... – user29032 Mar 24 '18 at 9:53
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    @Cloudchaser I don't know if I was an average child, that's true. I can only compare myself to my brother and to my friends, who were much like me as children, but there's a heavy selection bias there. I do remember I annoyed the school librarian by standing on tiptoe on a chair to reach the books I wanted to read. – Galastel Mar 24 '18 at 11:09
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    @Cloudchaser with Tolkien, I was thinking of the LotR, but he also has Rovernadom, which is very much a children's book, and it has names like "Artaxerxes" and "Psamathos", as well as place names like "Gwynfa". – Galastel Mar 24 '18 at 11:15
  • Great answer, but I was confused by your short answer at first glance. I read your affirmative response as an answer to the title question - is it better to avoid difficult to pronounce names? Your long answer makes it clear that it's otherwise. – Nuclear Wang Apr 3 '18 at 14:47

I'm also going to agree with the third suggestion. The idea of a pronunciation guide is a good one, and you could do as others have done and make it part of the dialogue (for example "My name's Shawn, but it's spelled s-e-a-n"). Susan Cooper did something similar with Welsh names in "The Grey King".

I know that this example might be aimed at the upper end of the age range you've suggested, but many children read books aimed at people above their age, and learning new words is part of the adventure. The counterpoint to this is that what many children really hate is people making things too simple for them Because They're Only Young.

As Galastel mentions, it really doesn't matter if people get it wrong. For years I pronounced the name "Honoria" is if it was a disease two very close friends might share, and I've heard that there might be some quite popular books around with a character named "Hermione", which also has potential to be a tricky one. But I still get a small thrill of discovery when I encounter a name I've not heard (or read) before - it's one of the reasons to keep reading.

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    Nice. Thanks for the example from Cooper's Grey King. I just searched the preview on Amazon and she does exactly what you describe. – user29032 Mar 24 '18 at 12:23
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    Just want to add that there is a scene where Hermione breaks her name down "Her-my-oh-knee" "Her-my-o-ninny" "close enough" (sic?) when teaching another character to pronounce it. I personally find it much more helpful when characters use small familiar words rather than the official pronunciation [] or "g as in George" if possible. Also may be useful to have some characters pronounce things wrong--Pratchett will do this occasionally--another way for readers to catch on that 'Sean' isn't 'Seen' – mkbk Mar 25 '18 at 16:07

I grew up in the 70's in Britain reading C.S. Lewis, Ray Bradbury, Susan Cooper, Alan Garner, J.R.R. Tolkien, John Christopher, along with Enid Blyton, Elizabeth Beresford, Joan Akien, Arthur Conan Doyle, Road Dahl, Rudyard Kipling, James Herriot, Mary Norton and so on.

I started reading quite late, but caught up very quickly, and as a voracious reader who scaled up from having huge trouble learning to read to reading Tolkien's LoTR at 7 - and for me, I'd say 3 is not only acceptable, but best practise.

This encourages young readers, evokes the exotic element you desire, seeds the readers' interests in new-to-them sets of basal phonemes, aiding them in learning other languages should they desire, and seeds a level of comfort and interest in other cultures as well.

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