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.

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