Note: Symbols in [brackets] represent IPA characters. Learn more here.

Say My Name, Say My Name: Pronouncing Giannis Antetokounmpo

As a league full of players from all around the world and with varying backgrounds, the NBA is, among other things a rich linguistic petri dish. Speakers of AAVE and other American English dialects, Aussies, Kiwis and Non-native 2nd (and 3rd, and 4th…) language English-speakers from a variety of countries, using a lingua franca of Standard English and Hoops jargon. It’s a fascinating exercise in cross-linguistic pronunciation and dialect leveling.

Given the international background of many of the players, one of the most constant reminders of the leagues linguistic diversity is the variety of exotic names that have become household names. But among the Frank Ntilikinas, Zydrunas Ilgauskases and Nemanja Bjelicas, one name stands apart. One name strikes fear in the heart of announcers. The Alphabet Man himself: Giannis Antetokounmpo.

G as in Gyro

We immediately encounter an issue in pronouncing the very first letter in Giannis Antetokounmpo. Many European languages feature multiple pronunciations for the letter <g>. So called hard and soft pronunciations. We can see this illustrated in English with the words “rag” and “rage”. Typically, this is because they were originally pronounced the same in all contexts, but the sound changed or “softened” due to certain surrounding sound. In the case of Giannis’ extremely Greek first name, the letter is softened by the sound that comes after.

However, the Greek “soft” G (represented as [ʝ] in IPA) is not quite the same as the English “soft” G (represented as [dʒ]). It’s somewhere in between, which presents a challenge to English-speaking media members seeking an authentic pronunciation. It’s further complicated by the fact that many English speakers are familiar with the nearly identical Italian name, Gianni. As a matter of fact, both Gianni and Giannis are the equivalent of “Johnny” (being nicknames of Giovanni and Ioannes respectively, both of which are equivalent to “John”). Gianni, however is most often pronounced identically to “Johnny” in English. This difference in pronunciation is no doubt a cause for confusion.

When Letters Lie

Now to the main event. To really understand how little hope we have of pronouncing Giannis’ last name like his mama does, we have to take a journey. That journey starts in Nigeria, Giannis’ parents’ country of origin. Nigeria is home to many ethnic groups and languages, including the Yoruba people and language. Giannis’ Yoruba father Charles passed on the name “Adetokunbo”, which according to one reputable source, means “the crown has returned from overseas”. “Adetokunbo” transliterated into Greek becomes “Antetokounmpo”. Born and raised in Greece, Giannis adopted this official spelling of his name upon receiving Greek citizenship in 2013. The reason for this transliteration is that Greek lacks a separate character for the [d] sound. So, it is represented with the letter combination <nt>.

That may seem weird and random, but it’s a common strategy. In fact, in English we have a similar situation. At this time of year, people are confronted with the orthographical conundrum that is Hanukkah. Or is it Chanukah? Ḥanukah? The sound at the beginning of that word is a sound [χ] that exist in Hebrew (among other languages), but that English lacks (mostly). We can either write it with an <h>, which is the sound that we find to be the closest or we use <ch>, which is meant to represent the original sound. Hardly a perfect solution, since typically <ch> represents and entirely different sound in English. We find a similar situation with the first syllable of “Antetokounmpo”. Greek also lacks a character that represents the [b] sound. The digraph <mp> is used to represent that sound in foreign names and words. That takes care of the last syllable.

The last pitfall is the fact that in American English, when the letter <t> appears between 2 vowels (in certain contexts), we pronounce it as a tap-consonant [ɾ], while most other languages, including Greek and Yoruba it always represents the sound [t].

It’s All Greek to Me

So, there you have it. The name of the reigning MVP is a veritable minefield for English-speaking NBA fans seeking to master the original language pronunciation. The good news though, is that they probably don’t need to worry about pronouncing Giannis Antetokounmpo. Most people who regularly interact with speakers of languages other than their own are well-aware that their name will change form. Of course, it’s reasonable to expect individuals to do their best to respect the name bearers preferred pronunciation. But Giannis seems like an easy-going guy. So, we can relax. For now.

To learn more about the Greek spelling system, click here. Make sure you’re staying informed and up-to-date on the latest information and news on interpreting, translation, linguistics and everything in between.