Pronouncing Nietzsche

A reader sent a pretty good question to my inbox:

This will sound really really stupid but do you know how ‘Nietzsche’ is supposed to be pronounced? I mean the way he would have pronounced it himself. I always feel like I’m saying it wrong.

There is nothing stupid about asking something you genuinely don’t know the answer to, and I personally have little regard for individuals who make it a habit to put down anyone eager to correct their confusion on a particular issue. Now that I got that out of the way, dear reader, let me address the question.

The most often mistake I hear is “NEE-chee” (with an ending that rhymes with “see” or “fee”), and it’s probably the way most native English speakers have been thought to say it; this includes both academic professors and the average layperson. I suppose the reason why this mispronunciation is so widespread amongst Anglophones is because the pronunciation of the man’s name is of no real consequence when it comes to analyzing his philosophy–except to those who happen to have a particular fixation on these sort of issues. That last bit was not meant to be judgmental, just an observation on my part. And I can actually see how such fixations can be a healthy sign of a person’s intellectual curiosity, as long as you don’t start thinking of other people as your intellectual inferiors over something as trivial as the fact that they mispronounce a name whose linguistic origins they don’t happen to speak. 

The other mistake is to simply pronounce the name as “Nitch” (with the false assumption that the “e” is silent); this one’s rarer, but I’ve heard it said once or twice in college so it’s worth mentioning.

The confusion people seem to have is how the heck you’re suppose to say the ending of the philosopher’s name. This site gives a decent rendition of the standard German pronunciation (with audio included), and I encourage readers to follow the link to hear it for themselves. In the linked site, the pronunciation is transcribed as something close to “NEE-cheh”, but this can be confusing to some English speakers because the closing “h” syllable is relatively soft; coming across as a quick exhaling sound, so it sounds kind of like you’re saying it under your breath (as you’ll hear on the audio recording on the link provided). This can be made even more confusing by the fact that depending on which German speaker you ask, the pronunciation you hear can either come across sounding like “NEE-ché” (ending “é” used as it is in French, but with a guttural stress; which brings it very close to the “NEE-cheh” pronunciation shown in the link).

For all the years I’ve been fluent in German (i.e. since early childhood), and all the time I spent talking to native Germans (also since early childhood), I have always used the former pronunciation (the guttural “é” sound at the end), but one needs to keep in mind that I learned to speak German in Hannover, Lower Saxony, which is often cited to be as close to an accent-neutral region as German can get (sort of the German equivalent of what Americans would call a “Midwestern accent” in their country). However, in college (here, in the U.S.) I ran into several professor who also spoke fluent German, and they vehemently insisted that it’s supposes to be “NEE-cha”. Rather than pointlessly argue over it, I’ll just let people know about the supposed discrepancy, even though I almost never encountered it myself while communicating with German speakers.

In closing, this is a common question English speaking have when looking the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche, and it’s always difficult to transcribe linguistic sounds from one language to another. I think the linked site’s phonetic transcription of “NEE-cheh” is a good compromise between the two (allegedly) disputing accounts of the German pronunciation of “Nietzsche”. Just keep in mind that the closing “h” is more of an ending breath, than it is a proper syllable. 

Or you can simply keep on pronouncing it as you always have, because how you say the name of any writer or philosopher shouldn’t have any bearing on how well you understand and analyze his/her ideas.

The Bum and the Professor: A Hypothetical Conversation

Bum:  “Spare some change?”

Professor:  “No.”

Bum:  “Not even a quarter, or a nickel?  No change at all?”

Professor:  “Sorry. If I had some, you can rest assured that I’d give it to you, but I just don’t have any.”

Bum:  “Why can I ‘rest assured’ of that? I don’t know you.”

Professor:  “True, but I know you, more or less. I have spent decades lecturing and writing on the plight of the underprivileged. So I understand your hardship enough to know that if I honestly had any money to spare, I wouldn’t hesitate to give it to you at once.”

Bum:  “All these decades you’ve spent lecturing and writing about someone like me, did no one ever pay you?”

Professor:  “Of course they did.”

Bum:  “And yet, you haven’t got a quarter or nickel to spare with the guy that earned you a paycheck?”

Professor:  “I resent that remark. I’ll have you know that I have given a large sum of money over the years to various charities to help people in need.”

Bum:  “Good for you. That still doesn’t put either a quarter or a nickel in my hand, right now.”

Professor:  “You’re judging me for not being able to give you money, right now? A bit self-righteous for a man who spends his days begging for a portion of other peoples money, don’t you think?”

Bum:  “No judgment here, honestly. I’m just following your train of thought, which I admit can seem pretty ‘self-righteous’. Probably about as self-righteous as being told that someone knows me, just because they’ve written something about poor folks here and there.”

Professor:  “I see. Well, allow me to clarify: While I don’t know you personally, I do understand, because of my extensive research and studies on the subject, the hardship that comes along with residing within the parameters of today’s socioeconomic hegemony.”

Bum:  “Parameters of what?”

Professor:  “Socioeconomic hegemony.  It’s a phrase I coined in one of my papers. Roughly it means that the conditions of a person’s environment are so dominating that they are naturally setup to be disadvantageous to the underprivileged in said environment. You understand?”

Bum:  “I understand what you said. I don’t understand what good it does to have it said.”

Professor:  “Identifying and defining a problem is the first step to having it resolved.”

Bum:  “When did you first write this?”

Professor:  “About 30 years ago.”

Bum:  “How long until it starts to ‘resolve’ the problem?”

Professor:  “It doesn’t work that way.”

Bum:  “Why not?”

Professor:  “Because social theories aren’t meant to fix people’s problems just by the power of the pen.  People have different perspectives, and one social theory can yield an innumerable sub-theories on how to implement reforms. Not to mention, there is always nuance to consider.”

Bum:  “So some other guy can come up with a different ‘social theory’ about the exact same problem your social theory talks about, and his would be just as good as yours.”

Professor:  “I think you’re getting confused, remember we’re talking about hypothetical thought experiments here.”

Bum:  “So they’re imaginary.”

Professor:  “No, they are normative descriptors of reality.”

Bum:  “How do you know they’re describing reality, if they haven’t been tried out yet?  That is what hypothetical means, right?”

Professor:  “It’s more abstract than that.”

Bum:  “I bet. But I still don’t see the point of coming up with all of these social theories, if they can’t actually resolve the problems they’re addressing. Seems to me like a man might as well be doing nothing and still get the same results.”

Professor:  “I told you, social theories recognize a problem and allow for the future assembly of working models to be implemented by society.”

Bum:  “Hypothetically.”

Professor:  “Yes, hypothetically.”

Bum:  “See that building over there? 30 years ago I was part of the crew assembling the foundation of dozens of buildings just like it, all over town. Most of them are still around. People can use them, live in them. They can like them or hate them. But they can’t ignore them. If they decide to get rid of them, they have to put some physical effort into removing them from the spot we put them on. You understand what I’m driving at?”

Professor:  “Not really, no.”

Bum:  “Before we put down the foundation, when we were barely carving out the dimensions on the ground, the buildings were what you would call hypothetical. Now, 30 years later, I guess someone a little better with words than me, would say that these buildings are ‘descriptors of reality’, at least in the little, tiny spot of reality where they stand. You couldn’t describe the area where these buildings are without mentioning the buildings themselves.”

Professor:  “Okay, I get what you’re driving at, but you’re wrong. This is completely different from my academic discipline; you’re simply not comparing like with like.”

Bum:  “Yeah, probably. All I know is that 30 years ago, we identifies a problem: no building in this spot. Now, 30 years later, problem is resolved: building is there, whether someone likes it or not. 30 years ago, you identified a problem; now, 30 years later, you’re identifying of the problem all those years ago hasn’t done squat to resolve whatever problem it is you felt needed to be identified in the first place–because if it had I wouldn’t be sitting here like this, would I? So, let me ask you, are you sure your social theories are actually describing reality, or are you just defining reality to your liking, and cramming your social theories into it so you can have something to lecture people on?”

Professor:  “My theory is sound, but to understand it properly would take many years of study.  Hence, this conversation is inconsequential. Here’s your quarter, and have a nice day.”

Bum:  “Much appreciated, good sir. You have yourself a good one, too.”

Lev Grossman’s The Magicians Trilogy

Years back, I had originally given up on Lev Grossman’s The Magicians trilogy halfway through Book Two because the main character, Quentin Coldwater, is such an insufferable, self-absorbed piece of shit that the thought of being trapped in his head for another book and a half seemed unbearable at the time. But the Covid quarantine got me to revisit the trilogy from the start again, and while my first impression of Quentin remains unchanged for that first half of the trilogy, the character’s development by the end of Book Two does actually soften me to his flaws and failures, to the point that I found myself fully emphasizing with him by Book Three as the hero of the story the narrative seemed so eager to convince me that he is not. Perhaps it was a clever ploy of reverse psychology, or subverting expectations on the part of the author, but whatever it was, it worked perfectly in the grand scheme of the narrative as a whole.

Throughout the books, we see Quentin be a lousy friend (practically dropping all his past contacts once he gets to Brakebills), a dishonest boyfriend, and a bit of a glory-hog whose concerns lie less with the safety of those around him, then fulfilling his own interest in coming out on top of the adventure he thinks he needs so he can escape the monotony of his life. But it’s in the aftermath of having experienced all of this (roughly at the closing of Book Two) that we get to see a shift in his perspective. Which retroactively makes a lot of sense, on account that he would need to experience the consequences of his hubris before being able to set out on a genuine journey of growth and finally learn from his mistakes. As a character, it wouldn’t make sense for him to have either the knowledge or experience to understand how to deal with the situations around him maturely, nor would it have been realistic or relatable. In fact, I’m pretty sure that had Book One started out with a character that was mature, reserved, amicable, and fully resourceful right from the start, I probably would have complained that such a trope is too boring and lacked any real character depth to bother with (being a nitpicky critic comes so easy to us in the audience, doesn’t it?)

Some worthwhile reads payoff eventually is the lesson here, and deserve to be carried through to the end. And having gotten to the end of The Magicians trilogy, I see why the author wrote Quentin as such a little shit at the beginning of the story, and why it was even necessary to do so, regardless of how much it irked me at the time of reading on the first go at it.