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The organisers of a conference have informed the session chairs what is expected from them. On the list of duties listed is for chairs to familiarise themselves in advance with the pronunciation of the speakers' names.

In practice, how do I do this? Speakers come from all the countries in the world. It's not practical to contact the speakers in advance. Is there any way to try this systematically?

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    If you Google search their first name and surname separately, maybe someone "famous" (in the popular media sense) has the same first name or surname. You can then figure out how to say it properly. However, I realize this isn't practical to do for more than one or two speakers! – Moriarty Jun 1 '15 at 10:10
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    Have you considered asking them? – Scott Seidman Jun 1 '15 at 12:27
  • @ScottSeidman Not sure how to do that in practice. One way is as jakebeal suggests. E-mail is not very useful for this purpose. There is no speaker's breakfast or so. – gerrit Jun 1 '15 at 14:45
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    If you enforce the break time between speakers, then you should be able to talk to the next speaker before you announce him/her. – GEdgar Jun 1 '15 at 15:41
  • There's not really any time scheduled for that, there's 15 minutes scheduled per talk, 12 minutes for the presentation and 3 minutes for discussion, so having a break after each talk doesn't really work. I will try @jakebeal's suggestion. – gerrit Jun 1 '15 at 16:23
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When I am chairing a session, I always check a few minutes beforehand to ensure that all of the speakers are there. That's also a good time to check on pronunciation of names. Just say something like:

Can you please say your name for me? I'd like to pronounce it right when I introduce you.

Then it will be fresh in your mind, there'll be a decent chance of getting it right, and the speaker will know that you cared to consult them and try, even if you do end up screwing it up.

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    I agree with what you say, but I wouldn't have phrased my question in that way. How I say my name is not necessarily how I would want the chair to introduce me, and it's the latter that's at stake here. Also, it's not clear to me what is meant by pronouncing a name "right" or "correctly". I've made this point before as well. – Sverre Jun 1 '15 at 17:46
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    @Sverre I don't know about you but the correct pronunciation of my name is the way that I pronounce it. That's what it means for it to be my name. – David Richerby Jun 1 '15 at 23:33
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    @Sverre, for what it's worth, if I'd been asked this question, I would have understood from context that "right" in this case means "the way you'd like me to pronounce it when I introduce you." Of course, not everyone understands things in the same way, and the alternate phrasings you suggest in the linked comment are perfectly comprehensible to me as well. – Vectornaut Jun 2 '15 at 6:07
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    @DavidRicherby, "the way that I pronounce it" can be a subtle thing. A famous example (though I don't have a reliable source for it) comes from the mathematician Shiing-Shen Chern, who pronounced his name differently in English and Mandarin (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/…). However, although I may be misreading you, I agree that "the way that I pronounce it when someone asks me how to pronounce it" is the correct pronunciation of my name. – Vectornaut Jun 2 '15 at 6:19
  • @Vectornaut I certainly agree with that (and that's how I usually choose to understand the question as well when I'm asked about this - and I am asked this all the time), but here we are giving advice to session chairs about what they should ask the speakers, so I'd say it's better to suggest a well phrased question rather than a question that the speaker subsequently needs to reinterpret as he sees fit. – Sverre Jun 2 '15 at 11:14
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One possibility is to have a chat with the speakers over breakfast, if this is served at the conference place for all the participants. For example, a well-known conference in my field organizes the so-called speakers' breakfasts to allow a first contact between chairmen and speakers.

A second possibility is to check a few pronunciation guides on the internet (e.g. Inogolo): though not exhaustive (both in breadth and depth, because different pronunciations of the same name might not be adressed), they can sure be of help.

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    It often happens that two people spell their names the same way but pronounce them differently. Sometimes Inogolo handles this -- for example, it gives both pronunciations of 'Ralph' -- but sometimes not -- for example, it gives only the anglophone pronunciation of 'Charles' and only the non-Englished pronunciation of 'Laurent'. So if you have a specific person whose name you need to pronounce, it's better not to rely on a generic pronunciation guide if you can avoid it. – ruakh Jun 1 '15 at 6:47
  • @ruakh: I've made an edit to take into account your remark. – Massimo Ortolano Jun 1 '15 at 6:59
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    Hmm, none of the conferences I have attended have such a breakfast. – gerrit Jun 1 '15 at 14:46
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When a name comes from a non-English language, there's always the question whether the pronunciation has been anglicized or not. In such cases, I see no sound alternative to asking the speaker directly. For example, some of my siblings have anglicized the pronunciation of our common name "Blass" more than I have. I experienced another example a few years ago, when I chaired a session and had to introduce three or four speakers with non-English names. I knew that I had to check about the pronunciations, but I thought I had a clever idea: All the speakers had been either students or postdocs of a certain professor, whom I knew. So I just asked this professor about all the names. He said they all used the anglicized pronunciation. That struck me as unlikely on statistical grounds, so I stopped being clever and asked the speakers themselves. It turned out that all of them preferred the original non-anglicized pronunciations. (So much for my cleverness and my statistical intuition.)

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    Remember it's not just non-English names. Ralph Fiennes, the actor, is "rafe" – CGCampbell Jun 1 '15 at 18:41
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    Although there are a lot of German/Dutch/etc. names in the US, which makes the issue quite visible there, that's not really specific to the English languages in any way. For example, in the East of France many people have Germanic surnames and pronunciation varies a lot from family to family (some people prefer the ‘German‘ pronunciation, some people pronounce their name as a naïve French speaker would and others use some idiosyncratic pronunciation that's unrelated to how I would read their name in either French or German). – Relaxed Jun 2 '15 at 9:24

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