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Don't Guess How To Pronounce
Unfamiliar Words - Ask Or Research
By Andy Bowyer
Voice Actor

When narrating any voice over presentation, being able to say the words is important.
Being able to say words with meaningful impact is more important.
But you might as well kiss a strong performance and meaningful impact good-bye if the words you’re saying are pronounced incorrectly.
If you’re an audiobook narrator, especially if you’re an audiobook narrator who works as a solo act - meaning that you’re not only providing the narration, but the direction, production, and engineering - it is solely up to you to do the homework required to know how to say the words that you may be unfamiliar with.
Wrapping your mouth around unfamiliar words these days is (seemingly) easier than ever.
There are a plethora of resources available to you for just such a thing.
Take, for example the name "Sepulveda.” I ran across this locale recently during an audiobook recording session.
I didn’t flag it in the pre-read because I thought it was intuitive enough. "Thought” being the operative word. Thought, meaning "inside my head.”
But when it came time for my brain and my mouth to work in concert, I ran into a snag.
My brain said, "say it like ‘seh-PULL-vah-dah.’ After all, many of us say "Nevada” as ‘Neh-vah-dah’, right?” And yet, I was told many years ago by a client that it’s actually said "Neh-VAD-ah” (where the "vad” part sounds like "bad”.)
But even that didn’t resonate during the session.
The word appeared two more times, and for those subsequent pronunciations, I decided it sounded better to say it "seh-puhl-VAY-dah.”
Yeah. That’s it. Sure!

Confident (ish) as I was, the idea that Sepulveda is a real place, and in our business regionalisms matter (for example, I live in an area where the name "Pulaski” is not pronounced as most do–”Pull-Lass-Key”–but as "Pew-Lass-Key”), I realized that in order for the narration - as a whole - to be more authentic and believable, I needed a bit of confirmation.
Sepulvada is in the San Fernando Valley. I live in the New River Valley.
By my best estimations, geographically speaking, the distance between the two equates a BOAT LOAD of miles.
So what’s a boy (or girl) to do?

Sure, the easy answer is "Ask the client. DUH.”
But as many can attest, sometimes that can be a slow and time consuming process.
After all, your emergency does not necessarily equate a priority on the part of someone else.
It is, in my experience, best to be proactive in these cases.
My advice: LOOK IT UP.
But where? Dictionary phonetics can be confusing - as "wrote” as they are.
But hearing is believing.
Got a problem name? Got a problem term? Not sure how to really say something in the right context?
Believe it or not, YouTube can be your BEST FRIEND.
A few simple searches on YouTube taught me that "Sepulveda” is actually pronounced "Seh-puhl-ved-uh.”
Two videos confirmed this. The first, a press conference concerning the recent "Carmageddon” phenom faced by LA commuters, the second a "Tiny Toons Adventures” short called "Sepulveda Boulevard."
Did I watch either of these vids in their entirety? No. Just long enough to confirm that the word was consistently pronounced a certain way.
And that was enough. Performance saved!
…but I could be tempted to go back and check out "Sepulveda Boulevard” when time permits …

Andy Bowyer is a nose-to-the-grindstone voice actor who has been cheerfully "saying words" for a diverse clientele for over 20 years. He also participates as a member of the SaVoa Advisory Board, and plays a mean game of backgammon.

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Comments (6)
Linda Naylor
9/14/2011 at 12:29 AM
Not being computer literate, I always call the University in my town. We have over 50 thousand students. I have recorded in 23 different languages so far, and I have always used a student that is actually from the country, who speaks the language, writes in the language and is always willing to tutor me. It is the highlight of my VO world when I am challenged with unfamiliar languages. My tutors work with me until I am proficient in their language. That includes dialects of Tribal Africa, Native American, and several of the Arabic dialects.

The computer is "cool" but it can never replace "native" speakers.
Peter Katt
9/13/2011 at 1:02 PM
I do the weekly "Sciences" program on the Gatewave Radio service for the blind and visually impaired, and it takes me nearly as long to do the research on pronunciations as it does to do the actual reading.

One trick I use especially for proper and place names is to search on It's quite likely they've reported on them at some point and will have posted the audio. I also look up acronyms to see if they're pronounced as a word, or with each letter separately, or some other way (NIDA: NY-duh; AAAS: triple-A ess).

I also search names on YouTube and sometimes find a video of someone being interviewed, or better yet introducing themselves (that's the "gold standard"). For third-party videos, be careful to judge whether whoever made the video is in a position to pronounce it correctly themselves!

There's also the Voice of America pronunciation guide at which has names of many foreign places and leaders.

For local place names, one option is to phone a local government office and ask. (I grew up near Pulaski, NY -- where it's pronounced "pull-ASK-eye". Since it's smack dab in the middle of the Lake Ontario lake effect snow belt, I expect new Weather Channel reporters are warned about it in their training.)
Laura Branch Mireles
9/13/2011 at 12:29 PM
You are SO right about YouTube. I've used it on more than one occasion. One trick I also use for city/street/landmark names, etc. is to call: the Chamber of Commerce, that city's local library, City Hall or even the business in question and just speak to a receptionist regarding a localized pronunciation. (Because you never know how specific things can be around the country!)
Johnny George
9/13/2011 at 11:06 AM
Great. Another avenue to track down pronunciations. I couldn't live without Merriam-Webster, HowYaSay and others online that have saved my butt on many projects.

Thanks Andy!
BP Smyth
9/13/2011 at 8:34 AM
Thanks for the great article, Andy. Correct pronunciation is extermely important in VO. One is speaking to so many different "regions" of the country. And, what may be "dictionary correct" is not necessarily regionally correct. I first ask the client. If they don't know, then I'll go to online dictionaries that have an audio for the pronunciation. Oh well, such is VO life.
9/13/2011 at 1:10 AM
Great advice! There are even pronunciation dictionaries on the web that you can click to hear a word or name spoken via mp3.

I just started doing Voice Over work again ... so I decided to read the newspaper for the blind (volunteer) on a radio station ... and was shocked to discover the name "Boehner" is NOT pronounced "Boner"! It's Bay-ner. Really? My co-reader pointed out my mistake after the show! Arrrrggghh! I asked the producer how he would pronounce the name (spelled for him only, of course) & he would have pronounced it the same as I had! I then became very curious & Googled it. Apparently I am NOT alone with this particular mispronunciation! However, if it was a script from a client .. .I would have done my research!

We have to read articles on the fly and I think it is extremely helpful as a V/O artist!
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